Berlin, Md. couple turns hobbies into new coffee, soap businesses – Delmarva Now

The COVID-19 pandemic has left aftereffects that go beyond health and wellness. In the years since the pandemic began, many people turned to hobbies to enrich their lives and destress.
In Berlin, Dr. Mithila Jegathesan and her husband, Jeff Smith, started two small businesses, Iron Skillet Coffee and Beehouse Soaps, out of their home.
The couple and their two children, Miralena and Jun, moved to Berlin eight years ago.
Smith roasts coffee beans in a cast iron pot, while Jegathesan hand makes soap when she isn’t working as a pediatrician at Chesapeake Pediatrics in Berlin.
The couple met in New York City, where they worked together at Rockefeller University. Jegathesan was a research technician, and Smith was the lab manager.
“He asked me out first,” Jegathesan said.
At the lab, Jegathesan was researching molecular biology immunology for cancer immunotherapy trials.
“I used to be the person that would pour, we’d pour these gels, and then we would sequence the DNA, extract the DNA from all these cells, and then spin it down to watch the base pairs. Then we would use radioactivity to label the base pairs, and you would sit there and look at the film and type it all into a computer and that would be the sequence of DNA,” she said.
Now technicians just take a sample, put it into a machine and add a reagent. The machine then spits out the DNA sequence.
“It’s like totally nuts. It’s so different,” she said.
Jegathesan has always had a love for art to go along with her love for science.
“I was always artsy and crafty. I was always painting, drawing and making things,” she said.
Once the family moved to Berlin, she decided take art classes at Urban Nectar in downtown Berlin. It’s since been replaced by Burn Wood Fire Pizza.
“This lady was like, ‘there’s a soap making class. Would you like to do it after work?’ So I signed up for it,” Jegethasan said.
In the class Jegethasan learned the process of mixing lye water with various butters, oils, scents and extracts. She took that knowledge to begin making soap for her family.
Sequencing DNA manually and her research as a scientist made her invested in learning the ins and outs of creating a bar of soap.
“The first time I did it, me and Jeff did it together in the kitchen,” she said.
They used a hot process in which everything is heated to 200 degrees to saponify inside a slow cooker to maintain a constant temperature.
“Jeff and I burned it. It didn’t work out; and then I just kept trying to do it,” Jegethesan said.
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She focused on only using the recipes from the class she took until it met her standard.
“We stopped buying from other places and our whole family would just use that soap. Occasionally I would give it to people at work and I would give it as Christmas gifts and stuff,” she said.
Then during a trip to Washington, D.C., she found a soap-making book inside one of the museum gift shops.
“I read it from cover to cover and it was all the different things you could do,” she said.
Going through the book she worked toward perfecting her learning — from when the batter became a certain density to start adding different colors to using different extracts like charcoal and titanium dioxide and swirling the soap differently.
Learning the scientific process of creating soap combined her love of science with art.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
“Life was so hard. Really hard because we were so busy at the office,” Jegathesan said.
Like many other clinics and hospitals across the country Chesapeake Pediatrics had to change the way they met patients and how they treated people.
“We lost several of our colleagues that worked with us at Columbia during the pandemic. So many people lost their family members that we knew of, and it was a really anxious, horrible time,” Jegathesan said.
The hours were long, the time was stressful. Jegathesan was also helping to make masks for people to wear when she wasn’t treating patients, as masks were in short supply and high demand at the time.
“Every time we’d come home, I would just make so much soap to calm my mind. It was kind of this meditative experience,” she said. “It’s a perfect mix of art and science. It suits me so well and it’s almost like trauma therapy to slow down and manipulate these physical forms.”
She learned new techniques and perfected her soap making while taking her mind off the struggles.
There was so much soap, her husband said they needed to start giving it away.
“I would give it to all my coworkers and all the health care workers. Nurses and doctors, they were all using my soap and they were like, ‘Oh, I love this’,” she said.
By that time Smith had already started his coffee company, Iron Skillet Coffee, so Jegathesan decided she would start her soap company, Beehouse Soap.
“I first decided to start roasting coffee for personal reasons. We used to get fresh roasted coffee from a coffee shop here in town called the Berlin Coffeehouse. When they closed down, I started to buy coffee from the store, and I got it from different local roasters that I could find, but it just wasn’t the same,” Smith said.
Twelve years ago, Smith and Jegathesan were in Ethiopia to adopt their daughter, Miralena.
While they were there, they watched an Ethiopian woman roast coffee in a cast iron pot for a coffee ceremony. In Ethiopia, coffee is not just a commodity, it’s embedded in the culture. Many households roast their coffee beans at home in pots.
The Ethiopian coffee ceremony involves processing the raw beans into coffee that is served in special cups and saucers.
“It is a very elaborate ceremony,” Smith said.
Roasting coffee for Smith began with that coffee ceremony and is how the process began in his mind.
“I wanted to find fresh coffee and so I talked to my wife, and I thought maybe I should try to roast coffee. I mean, we’ve got cast iron pots,” he said.
He bought a small bag of beans from Amazon and cooked his first batch on the kitchen electric stove.
“It produced so much smoke that Mithila was like, ‘you can never, ever do this in the house again,’ ” he said.
Smith took the budding coffee project outside using their old camping stove with a small propane tank.
“I really liked it. So about once a month I would roast some beans for us, and we always had coffee. I didn’t know anything about it. I just enjoyed doing it,” Smith said.
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The first few batches of coffee he roasted were heavily on the dark side. After trial and error, Smith figured out his process to get the type of roast that he wanted.
“There are two types of coffee roasting methods: convection versus conduction,” he said.
Conduction is where the coffee bean itself has a direct touch to the heat source, like cooking directly in a cast iron pot.
Using hot air to the cook the coffee beans is convection roasting.
“To me, it’s like the difference between cooking a steak in an oven where you bake it or cooking a steak over an open flame. You’re going to get a much tastier steak if you cook it over an open flame than by baking it in the oven,” Smith said.
As he was roasting coffee outside one day during the pandemic, he wondered if he could go to the farmers market and sell his roasted coffee beans.
“They were really encouraging,” he said, recalling a conversation on the Berlin Farmers Market. “In my mind, I was always going to be roasting at the market because that was, to me, that was the draw. The roast, and that’s what I like.”
“It feels very personal because I get to do something that I really like that gives me a connection to my daughter’s homeland,” Smith said.
At his first market, he took that old camping stove and little cast iron pot and roasted coffee on site.
“People were coming from everywhere. Of course, it makes a big smoke, and you can smell it. But it was really popular. So I just kept going,” he said.
During spring 2022 Smith built a space in his garage to roast coffee.
“I can go out there and nobody bothers me,” he said.
As a small business owner he focuses on getting the coffee beans he roasts from small farms and cooperatives rather than from a giant corporations.
“I like giving customers variety. Maybe you like the Guatemalan this week but maybe next month you’re going to like the Ethiopian. Maybe the month after that you’re going to like the Tanzanian beans,” he said.
In July, Smith had the largest propane stove he could fit inside his newly built space installed. This allows him to cook larger batches of coffee beans at a time in a much larger 20-pound cast iron pot.
“It’s definitely a passion thing. I truly, truly enjoy roasting coffee. I can’t imagine doing it any other way,” Smith said.

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