Thursday, November 17, 2011


In an era when the specialty coffee trade is dominated by mega-chains, I've found a place that stands out for its independence, and commitment to a first-rate product.

It's a humble concern, a one-man operation located in the ground floor of a redbrick building at a nondescript downtown corner. Walk in and you'll see a counter, behind which the proprietor is usually operating the roasting machine. Clear plastic bins are stacked on the counter, filled with coffee beans from around the world. Bean varieties and prices are listed on a board suspended from the ceiling behind the counter.

Over against one wall, huge burlap bags of unroasted coffee beans rest on overturned plastic milk crates. There are usually a dozen or more of these big bags. Fastened here and there to the wall are 19th century coffee advertisements, and other coffee culture flotsam.

That’s about it. There is no coffee brewed on the premises, except for what the roaster might make for himself. No espresso machine or Bunn-o-matic. No disaffected, goateed poets sipping cappuccino at sidewalk tables, struggling with their angry verse. Just coffee roasting. And as it happens, the beans I buy at this place (Sumatran dark) make perhaps the best coffee I’ve ever had—really an outstanding brew. Easily as good as anything we ever got in San Francisco, maybe better.

I find myself intrigued by the coffee roasting machine—a large, ancient-looking piece of equipment in operation virtually every time I go into the place. It sparked my fascination; soon I had a vague idea of writing something about this roaster, and what he does.

“Well, I can save you some time,” he said, when I told him what I had in mind. “There’s going to be an article about this place in the newspaper next week. In the food section. You should find out everything you want to know in there.”

“That will help, I replied, and I’ll be sure to check it out. But I’m interested in observing.”

The roaster looked at me for a moment before stepping back to his roasting machine, a large contraption with a big bowl on its front in which the beans are roasted. An arm turns within the bowl to stir the beans.

The machine seemed to belch as he turned its knobs and levers; steam or smoke wafted up to the ceiling. It was quite pungent, an aroma rather like burned rubber, not at all like the smell of perking coffee but not entirely unpleasant.

He turned back to me. “You mean, like, fiction?”

I didn’t know what I had in mind, but I replied, “Yeah.”

“I used to do some writing myself, and I understand you gotta do research. But I don’t think I’d want to be anyone’s subject matter...”

I pressed him a little but his answer did not change. He’d be willing to answer questions from time to time—“Like now, when it’s slow. I’m always willing to chat for a while.” But me sitting in for an afternoon was out of the question.

The roaster stepped back to the roasting machine and fiddled with it again; it emitted another puff of smoke or steam. He turned on a vent as the burnt-rubber smell filled the room, then moved to the front door and opened it to air the place out. He wasn’t holding it for me, but I took it as my cue to leave.

A week later the article about coffee appeared on schedule in the newspaper. The roaster came off as a bit of a flake, with this comment about roasting: “I listen to the beans and do what the beans want.” He was a self-taught roaster, having started in college out of curiosity. He would cook beans in a cast iron skillet and his skills developed from there. He acknowledged that coffee roasting is far from an exact science. “The real true, deep secrets in coffee come in blending. You’re never going to get any roaster to tell you what they do in blending.”

It struck me then: he had thought I was a roasting upstart trying to steal the secrets of his trade!


It didn’t really matter, although before long I wanted to get some raw coffee beans and try cooking them in a cast iron skillet.

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