Coffee Cup
"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2002 - All rights reserved

Coffee Cup
Chapter 43
Visiting a Commercial Roaster
2001 - Feather River Canyon News
from an article that originally ran in the April edition of the "Feather River Canyon News," reproduced here with permission of the Editor

      We have followed the coffee bean's journey from tropical plant to bag. Once it is processed, dried, and bagged at it's home location and taken to a port, it is sold to a coffee broker who then deals with the distribution. The green coffee can end up anywhere, but for the vast majority of coffee in the world there is only one destination- the coffee roaster. The coffee roaster can take many forms including:

* A home roaster who roasts a pound or two each month for personal use
* A coffee shop that has a small roaster in back who roasts for the shop's use and possibly for sale to the customers.
* A small commercial roaster who buys his coffee in large burlap sacks and roasts around thirty to fifty pounds at a time and supplies the needs of the local community.
* A huge corporate roaster that purchases by the ton and roasts many hundreds of pounds of coffee at a time.

      I wanted to see what it was like at the commercial roaster's end of that chain, so I contacted Dick Coughlin, the proprietor of "That's A Latte" in Oroville and he told me that his roaster, located right in Oroville, would be a great place to go to get information. A couple of phone calls later and we were off to the roaster's!

      From the outside, the Franciscan Coffee Company is about as unimposing as a business might be. Compared to the large commercial roasters (Like Folger's, MJB, and the like) this small roaster operates out of a shop in an industrial complex. It really doesn't matter- all you need to roast coffee is a coffee roaster, some containers, some green coffee to roast, a roastmaster who knows the difference between coffee and charcoal, and customers to buy your product. Sounds easy, doesn't it?

      I began my visit by sitting down with Rene Jennett, the owner of the Franciscan Coffee Company. This is a man with a long and interesting history in the coffee business. Rene began just after WWII, looking for work liie so many other returning vets. He started in the automobile business, changing tires. Going to school full time while working along the way, after graduation he got a job at the VW agency in San Francisco. The sales manager there, asked him, "Can you sell cars?"

      "Sure, I can do anything," answered Rene, who had never sold anything beyond Colliers Magazine. He needed a job. The sales manager hired him, and handed him a phone book and said, "Here's your prospect lead list." Rene was given a VW bus, a vehicle difficult to sell in the 50's, and was told to go door to door and sell the busses. Rene stumbled across Blue Ribbon Coffee Company. They and Farmer Brother's Coffee controlled the Northern California coffee business at the time. Rene sold them two of the vans for service vehicles. In 1958 he met Jack Thompson and Henry Asolo there. He refers to Henry as the best coffee man he had ever met in the coffee business.

      Henry offered him a job, and Rene said he would think about it. A week or so later, Rene went back and said he would take the job, but was told that the job was no longer available. For weeks, Rene returned to Blue Ribbon asking about work. He eventually went to work at Blue Ribbon, despite his college degree, he literally started at the bottom, sweeping floors, with the goal of working his way up.

      One day one of the salesmen didn't show up, so Rene was told to ride with one of the regular outside sales people. He rode the route for a week learning the route, delivering coffee, and meeting the customers. About a month later Bill had to go on vacation so Rene started delivering coffee on his own. In just five years after starting at Blue Ribbon he held the number five spot in the company. By that point he was adding about sixty accounts to the company each year.

      About the time that he was going to get a piece of the business, Blue Ribbon was sold to the Superior Coffee and Tea company. They offered him a top rung job, but he wasn't interested. He had invested sixteen years in Blue Ribbon and was not interested in starting with a new company that way.

      In around 1978, Rene knew about two coffee companies in the Bay Area- one with a great plant but no customers to speak of, and another with lots of customers but a terrible plant. The company with the customers merged with another company, so he had only one choice. He bought in and not much later the gourmet coffee business took off and they could do nothing wrong. They didn't even have to look for customers- they were coming in the door three, four, and five in a day.

      Rene then bought out the other owner, and built the business, the United Coffee Company, to the point that they were doing $25million a year in business. He was also one of the first to introduce Hawaiian coffee as a gourmet coffee to the mainland, and was the second largest processor of Kona coffee on the islands in the early 80's. They were growing, processing, roasting, grinding, and packaging coffee right on the Islands.

      At that same time a friend of Rene's, an old Navy buddy, was the director of food services for the White House, and had served under four presidents. Rene called him and over a period of three months worked to get an American coffee product in the White House. They installed a full coffee service center in the White House, brewing Kona coffee, the only coffee grown in the United States. That coffee service center is still in use in the White House.

      Weekly, for a period of several months, the original owners from Starbuck's would come down and learn how to roast coffee. Rene tried to tell his partner that he shouldn't be teaching them so much as they would become a competitor. His partner said, "Don't worry. They're way up in Seattle. We'll be able to sell them green coffee once they get started." Well, we all know how that story turned out.

      Rene's company, The United Coffee Company, was one of first major importers of espresso machines in the U.S. importing as many as 300 machines a year. He sold out his part of the business at the end of the 80's and retired.

      In the 90's he ended up roasting coffee for family members that had set up a coffee business. Remember I mentioned that it doesn't take a fancy building to roast good coffee? Rene set up an old gas fired roaster in his driveway and two days a week was roasting coffee and driving it back to San Francisco. He had previously bought an industrial building in the outskirts of Oroville for dry storage and turned his efforts back into coffee roasting for a living.

      Currently he is once again importing San Marco espresso machines, a company he helped set up in Italy many years ago.

      Although he has built his current little company up to the point that they are doing a very good business, Rene was not at all bragging about his company. In his words, "Starbucks spills more coffee than we roast." Even though the Franciscan Coffee Company is quite small, Rene still put a portion of his profits back into the community, helping out a community that has been good to him.
This hot air roaster uses a set of gas burners to heat the drum. The drum spins inside the roaster's body. Hot air is also drawn through the drum by a large, motor driven fan. The cool air is drawn through the cooling tray in the front of the roaster shown in the previous image.

The Roaster's burner assembly
     

Mark carefully monitors the roast through it's progress. The entire roasting process takes about twelve minutes, so there isn't much time between start and stop and a few moments inattention can ruin a lot of coffee. Mark usually roasts about 60 lbs of green coffee at a time which is a little less than the roaster's capacity. He monitors the roast a number of way.

Sampling Here Mark is pulling a small sample of beans from the roaster during an actual roast. He can thus view a sample of beans in their current state of roast to help him decide when to stop the roasting process. There is also a small viewing window (not shown here) to see the roast's progress as well.
At the correct moment he pulls the lever seen on the left side of the roaster and and the drum pours out its contents into the cooling tray. Once in the cooling tray, cool air is drawn through the beans so that they can be quickly cooled. Beans will actually continue to roast if just left to sit in the air when removed from the roaster.

Cooling Tray of Probat
      The big commercial roasting companies are using electrical eyes to monitor coffee roasting, but as Mark discussed, that these are only partially effective, because of all the variables in coffee roasting, such as humidity, bean weight, bean moisture level, air temperature, etc., We took some time discussing why a master roaster is so important in the roasting of coffee. Mark discussed how coffee roasting is an art. That he uses his eyes to view the color of coffee, his nose to sense the smell of the roast, and his ears to listen to the sound of the beans as they "crack" to know when a roast is done to the exact level that he and his customer desires. It is this level of attention that you get from a small roaster that is not available from some of the larger commercial companies.

      This particular roaster can cool one batch and roast another batch simultaneously so even with a single operating roaster this small company can produce a lot of roasted coffee in a day. In a week they produce about 1300 pounds of roasted coffee. They have plans to expand as they have a roaster capable of roasting around 300 pounds at a time awaiting installation.

      The Franciscan Coffee Company does not sell retail at the present time. They specialize in selling coffee to institutions like area hospitals and the jails and to coffee shops and restaurants, so without knowing it, if you have consumed coffee in a shop in this area, you most likely have consumed some of their coffee (hopefully not at the jail!).

      Most of their customer's don't specify a specific roast or blend of specific beans. Mark spends time with the customer asking questions like do they want something more bitter, more sour, sweeter, darker, lighter, etc. Once he gets an idea of what the customer wants, he begins to roast and blend to those ends, then the customer samples the coffee and Mark adjusts the blend until the customer gets what they are looking for. Most of his current customers are buying many pounds (sometimes dozens of pounds) per month, so don't expect a coffee supplier to custom blend your coffee for home use. This takes a lot of time and effort to create something unique to match the customers taste- it's too much work for a pound or two a month.

      Franciscan specializes in custom blending and roasting specialty coffees, but they will also do create some flavored coffees. This is done by roasting the beans as would normally be done then adding flavoring agents to the beans after they are cooled. Beans can't be flavored before or during roasting because the flavoring will coat the roasting drum and cooling tray and is very difficult to remove, thus it will pollute all subsequent roasts. The heat of the roaster will also cause much of the flavoring to burn off, and as some of them are alcohol based, they would also create a fire hazard.

      I asked Mark his opinions as to the best method for the storage of roasted coffee at home. He recommends that you keep roasted beans no longer than about a month. If the beans will be kept that long, it is important to keep the beans in air-tight containers, and that these containers be kept in the fridge.

      So the next time you have a cup specialty coffee in town, ask them where they get their beans. Odds are good that the beans came from the Franciscan Coffee Company.


Coffee Cup
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