Behind the Curtain

What it is

For most of our customers, the Roasting Works might as well be Oz. People ask us questions about our coffee all the time whose answers involve references to “the works” or “the roasters” which, for our guests at the Broadway store, is often the final word; as if our responses have encoded within the message that one cannot ask questions about a place one will never understand. I’ll admit that even when I started out at Broadway I imagined this “works” to be, certainly, some kind of labyrinthine place whose fantastic and secretive beings toiled around the clock to celestial sounds…

…but of course this is fantasy. Just kidding. Just kidding, it is fantasy. In fact, after a tornado drops your house down the road, and after you kill the Wicked Witch, and after you muster the courage to pull back the curtain, you too would see that our Roasting Works is not much different from our coffeebars in spirit: a modest space overflowing with dedication and love for crafting coffee. Visually, it’s a modern Camelot of burlap bean sacs, scattered brewing laboratories, and a lot of studious palates. Imagine the smell of caramelizing Brazil beans hanging heavy like a rain forest air. Imagine the sound of heavy metal surfing out the exhaust vents into the crisp autumn expanse of Chicago. It’s a power source for those of us working in the cafes–we visit and we leave with a renewed sense of purpose and awe. Mike recently moved apartments yet couldn’t leave the neighborhood for fear his “powers” would diminish with distance from the Roasting Works. He really did use the word “powers”.

This post generates from a recent visit to the Roasting Works, during which Jason, Talya and I reserved time with the roasters themselves to taste a few of our newer offerings. (Actually this all happened three months ago, but unlike the coffee this little vignette won’t  lose flavor over time, so it matters not when I tell it, only that I do). That afternoon turned out to be an even greater treat because roasters Chris, Jason, and Curtis not only set the table with samples of our latest offerings, but had also lovingly set up a blind comparison between the roast profiles of our coffees from the LA Works and their own of the same beans.

Jason and Talya at the roasters' cupping table.

Jason and Talya at the roasters' cupping table.

Cupping

Cupping is a traditional method of evaluating the sensory perception of a coffee. It quickly became an industry standard among the storied “coffee men” of the late 19th century after San Francisco’s Hills brothers began using the method to choose coffees for mass production in their own Hills Brothers coffee label, one of the original American juggernauts of coffee’s First Wave. This method, one of steeping small doses of ground roasted coffee in individual cups or glasses, goes on roughly five times daily in different locations at the Works.

In a cupping the different samples are coded anonymously and then placed on a circular spinning table, where they’re rotated for cuppers’ convenience. There is a definite empiricism to all this–systematic steps of smelling and steeping and smelling again and then slurping, and considering numerical scores all the while–but then, as in all matters of taste, empiricism begets affection. What we like is more important than what scores high; like art that might not technically impress but still gets you, so much that you can’t forget.  Thus descriptions on our clipboards range from the literal to the sentimental, and every impression counts equally, whether its “apple skins” or “velvety” or “Christmas!” Turn, bend, slurp, jot, repeat. Until the whole table is covered in coffee-saliva and the cups have cooled.

Samples on the cupping table, coded and ready to grind.

Coffee samples, coded and ready to be ground.

Cupping with the roasters is, given the typically frantic pace of cupping in general, almost relaxing. Unlike Jesse and Sarah upstairs in Quality Control, the roasters aren’t responsible for sipping their way through storms of coffee samples, sometimes hundreds from a single production region, to choose which to buy. Rather, they work with the bulk imports already purchased by the company, roasting them to the right profile–one at which the coffee’s natural complexity is best expressed.

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Roasters Josh and Chris in the luster of the early afternoon.

During this visit we cupped samples of our Guatemala single-origin espresso from Finca (”property”, i.e. farm or plantation) La Maravilla, and the Honduras Finca La Tina, among others. The Chicago roasts prevailed slightly in some cups, definitively in others, and also lost a round or two to our LA roasters.

(There was also a surprise cup on the table–a decaf dark roast not available at our coffeebars–planted as a prank, which the roasters all decided to mark highly to see if they could persuade us via their expert status that it was delicious. “Oreo ice cream!” They said, enthusiastically. “Molten chocolate!” They got quizzical glances. J, T and I had written “ash”, “burned”, and “ew”.)

We had a great time. And overall, the main lesson of our visit was academic: precision in coffee roasting–as in preparing–is elusive, but endlessly sought. A few seconds more of heat can break and re-bond sugars or lipids in a bean, changing the body or flavor of a cup entirely. Given how fragile a thing coffee is, we at the retail stores couldn’t be prouder of the careful selection and roasting processes that are ongoing at the Roasting Works.  There is and will be plenty of posts on this blog about brewing, but like a nature photographer, we can’t take all the credit for our shots–we only select and interpret a landscape laid before us by a greater process. I’m sure the roasters would say the same thing about the growers, who might say the same thing about the Earth, or the Creator.

ADDENDUM: I limit the thick descriptions of the roasters’ work because they rightly have their own blog, which they pack exhaustively with progress reports, parental love of their “little ones” and a little roaster-friendly vernacular. And please forgive that pun about “shots”. It wasn’t intentional.

8 Responses to “Behind the Curtain”


  1. 1 Roasters

    Nice post, though you mislabeled the picture of the roasters pouring. That is Josh and Chris, not Kurtis and Jason.

    Thanks for putting this up.

  2. 2 oops

    Done. Boy, I am one terrible person with names.

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