Updated: Aug 12
This article first appeared in the April/May 2023 issue of eat. drink. MISSISSIPPI.
By Susan Marquez, images courtesy of Joe Worthem, Oxford
Lesley Walkington likes coffee as much as anyone else who wakes up to a hot, steaming cup of the dark brew. But when her brother came to visit one Christmas and made a pour-over coffee, Walkington says that took her appreciation of coffee to a whole new level. So much so that she started her own coffee roasting company, Velvet Ditch Coffee Roasters.
A native of Jackson, Walkington spent much of her childhood traveling to Oxford, the childhood home of her father. After college she spent many years in public relations in Nashville (Southern Baptist Convention and Warner Brothers Records) and in San Diego, where she went to school to get her master’s. While there, she met her husband. Six months after her daughter Ruby was born, her mother passed away. “She was going to move to California to make sure Ruby learned the Southern ways,” says Walkington. “Because my husband was in tech and able to work remotely, we took a leap of faith and moved to Oxford. The Lord brought us here, and we couldn’t be happier.”
Walkington is an adjunct professor at Ole Miss, but during the pandemic lockdown she began experimenting with coffee. They sought out locally roasted coffee at farmer’s markets. “Nothing compared to the coffee my brother had brought from California, and the cost of having it shipped was often more expensive than the coffee itself. I decided to go to coffee school, with the idea that I could roast coffee for my husband and me, and perhaps sell some to neighbors and friends.”
She attended the aptly named Boot Camp Coffee in 2019, started by coffee expert William Boot. “It really is the best place in the country to learn all about coffee,” she says. “I learned under Marcus Young, the most well-known coffee guy in the country. When I am working on a new roast, I always send him a sample to critique.” Walkington earned her Specialty Coffee Association certification. Then COVID hit, and during that time she thought about launching her own coffee roasting business.
The process for roasting coffee is much more involved than one might imagine. “I work with importers to get beans from farmers all over the world,” says Walkington. “I work with companies that are ethical, people I know and trust. They source the coffee and send me samples that I can roast.” Cupping the coffee is an important part of the process. “I am looking for mouth feel, color, aroma, flavor, acidity and after taste.”
Commodity coffees sold in supermarkets are different from specialty coffees. “We use a different bean altogether,” she explains. “Like grapes for wine, coffee is affected by everything around the tree – soil, temperature, sun, rain – all give the coffee its own unique flavor.” The coffee is graded. “We use only beans that are 84 points or higher. Kenyan beans, at 100 points, are grown at the highest elevation in the world. There are so many different coffees from different origins and regions.”
Once Walkington put her toe in the world of coffee, she fell in love with it. “Did you know that coffee is a fruit? It is in the cherry family.” Being part of a worldwide community in the coffee industry has been fun. “I love being in a business where people share their knowledge so willingly, and they want to see each other succeed.”
When she decided to go larger than roasting beans for her own family, Walkington knew she wanted her company to be based in Oxford. “I’ve always loved it here,” she says, and named the coffee Velvet Ditch, a nickname for Oxford. She is a planner by nature, and she took two semesters off from teaching to spend time doing her research and setting up the business. She did a soft launch on September 1, 2022.
“My goal was to be in two stores by the end of the year,” Walkington says. Velvet Ditch coffee can now be found in four locations in Oxford, including Oxford Gourmet and Gifts, Sugar Magnolia, Oxford Creamery, and Chicory Market. “We also take orders online and ship nationwide.”
Drinking coffee is a treat. “It makes me feel warm and cozy,” she finishes. “It brings people together around the table. It builds community. We want people to spend quality time with other people, while drinking a quality cup of coffee. When people take that first sip of Velvet Ditch coffee, I want them to say ‘wow.’”