The art of roasting

Alakef Coffee Roasters in downtown Duluth describes its roasting process to one reporter

By Scott Schmidley

From Green...

Burlap sacks of specialty grade Arabica coffee beans are stacked on palettes in Alakef Coffee Roaster’s Superior Street building. In the corner of their warehouse, a monstrous roasting machine waits silently.“Roy will be just a second or so,” said the young woman who greeted me when I entered. “Want a shot of espresso?”

“Sure,” I said.

She directed me to a break room where we talked over the shrill roar of an espresso machine.

Alakef's Roy Alexander entered shortly after, informing me that I would be observing Ezra Bennett today, a roaster who was currently on break. So I sat on a stool, drank espresso from a Dixie cup and watched a 10-minute coffee farming DVD that Roy set up for me while I waited.

The video said that hand picking is the most common coffee farming strategy in the world, with workers picking around 200 pounds per day. I tried to imagine.

Roy returned to the break room after the movie ended and said it was time to meet Ezra. We left the new wave French press machines and antique kettles of the break room and went to where I could finally meet the roaster.

Ezra Bennett wears a real handle-bar mustache, a muted Alakef T-shirt and a pair of rounded, dark-framed glasses. He lives on the Duluth hillside, several blocks from Alakef, with his wife and kids. For more than seven years he has been roasting coffee here, which makes today’s Peruvian full city roast nothing extraordinary for him.

...To Brown...

He begins at the controls, a series of brightly colored buttons and switches with a gray back panel. It’s the sort of thing a theme park attendant might use to start a roller coaster.

Ezra presses buttons quickly, from memory, to start the machine. He unleashes approximately 131 pounds of green, unroasted beans into the roaster’s drum. Hitting the walls on the machine’s metal interior, it was like a mammoth rainstick had been inverted in the warehouse.

To ensure equal heat dispersion, the super-heated drum begins rotating the beans.

The drum’s cast-iron faceplate is interrupted by a small glass window, allowing me to watch the green coffee beans go around and around, growing darker and darker, while Ezra meticulously checked the trier. The trier is a piece of the roasting machine that removes a small scoop of beans from the batch for the roaster to inspect. Every time the trier is placed back into the drum, it refills with a new handful of about 20 beans.

He checks and rechecks the trier.

When he finds himself with a spare moment in the roasting process, he uses a compressed air hose to clean and remove stray particles from the coffee’s next stage: the cooling tray.

After a final check of the trier, Ezra’s eye tells him the beans are finally at a desired level of darkness. He lifts a latch and spills around 109 pounds of hot roasted coffee beans into the large metallic cooling tray (the batch has lost about 20 pounds of mass to smoke, but interestingly the volume has nearly doubled). The smoke rises and quickly dissipates from the beans as they fall into the tray.

...To Black

By this time, the cooling tray’s three arms are already rotating, shoveling the black coffee beans around in circles.

The beans must keep moving, Ezra says. If they sit still after they roast, they will continue to cook.

As I watch the thousands of nearly identical beans spin clockwise in the cooling tray, I think of the farmers, picking each bean by hand.

While they cool, Ezra scoops new unroasted beans from a burlap bag into a stainless steel intake hopper. These will be the next to enter the roaster.

Once the roasted beans finished cooling, Ezra opens another latch for them to exit into the next hopper. Ezra places a Rubbermaid container beneath the hopper and opens another latch. The roasted beans flow out into the container. He puts a lid on the bucket and rolls it away to the other containers.

These beans will be packaged, distributed and eventually brewed across the nation.

As he wheels the bucket, the rainstick begins again. New green coffee beans stream into the roasting drum and begin to rotate. They turn from green, to brown, to black.

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