Manuel fixates on the flames that flicker fifty shades of orange. I watch him, wondering what he is looking for. From my vantage point ten feet away, I see a hearty fire crackling comfortingly, like those in the wood stove that warmed my childhood home. Manuel’s fire is more than heat—it is fuel for roasting coffee beans. After 23 years working as a roaster, he is fluent in flame, able to interpret the fire’s behavior and tame its unpredictable nature.
He checks the temperature gauge, and then feeds a freshly cleaved Alder Wood log from a bundle he has just stacked nearby. Like a mechanic, he is dressed in worn navy coveralls, his nickname, “Manny”, woven with thread into a patch above his chest. Though, instead of a 1991 Ford Mustang, Manuel is tinkering with a 1949 Balestra.
This heirloom coffee roaster is parked in Caffe D’arte’s roasting plant in Seattle. The company’s founder, Mauro Cipolla, brought it across the Atlantic after an apprenticeship with a 4th generation master roaster in Naples. In 1985, the same year that Starbucks began pulling shots with La Marzocco machines, Italian-born Cipolla set up shop in the caffeinated capitol. Now one of Seattle’s premier roasters, Caffe D’arte is one of the few in the U.S. who still employ the old world method of wood-fired roasting. Yes, the heat source that deliciously blisters our pizzas and chars our pork chops also works its igneous magic on coffee beans.
Wood roasting is a romantic, hands-on affair. It is the analog version of a gas-powered roaster—the vinyl, instead of an mp3, in your cup. Chef and flame-cooking cognoscente Francis Mallman equates cooking over fire to making love because of “all of its different temperatures and possibilities.” Intuitive and complex, roasting coffee with wood celebrates the craftsmanship behind each brûléed bean.
Fire’s fickle ways can be challenging for a coffee business, which relies on consistency. A roaster must have extensive experience to create uniform batches with this temperamental process. At Caffe D’arte, 23-year veteran Manuel has logged 19 years with the Balestra. Fire’s instability requires him to be ultra-attentive—he cannot walk away once the fire is lit.
To perform the delicate dance of wood roasting, Manuel bounces back and forth between the temperature gauge and the firebox, adding more wood when necessary. Instead of traditional Oak, Caffe D’arte uses reclaimed Alder, a tree indigenous to the Pacific Northwest. Also used in the region’s famous smoked salmon, the locally sourced Alder wood burns hot without too much smoke. With the resounding thwack of an axe, Manuel precisely cuts each piece to order to ensure perfect airflow throughout the roaster.
The natural moisture of the wood delays the drying phase of the roast, decelerating the entire roasting process. Roasting slowly and at lower temperatures develops the sugars of the beans without over-roasting them. “Although it takes a little more time, the difference in quality is worth it,” explains Caffe D’arte’s general manager Joe Mancuso, his words stoking Mallman’s amorous analogy.
Manuel choreographs the flames to lick, not burn, the coffee beans. To control the amount of smoke that drifts into the roasting drum, he carefully adjusts the airflow by moving the firebox doors. He monitors the process with a checker, a dipstick-like tool that safely extracts the beans, taking note of the their color, how quickly the color is changing, and their smell.
Once they are ready, Manuel releases a shower of steaming, chestnut-brown beans into a spinning drum. Like Rice Krispies when cold milk hits the bowl, the beans crackle loudly. This sound, known as the “second crack,”, audibly announces the beans have hit the roasting level Caffe D’arte desires. The first crack occurs in the machine as the beans emit moisture and their sugars begin to break down. The second crack takes place outside, signifying the beans’ oil has surfaced, their aromatic compounds are released, and the sugars have deliciously caramelized.
Matt Bolinder, founder of Maine wood-roaster Speckled Ax, characterizes roasting as a process that “unlocks what’s in the bean” rather than does something to it. The Maillard Reaction, the chemical reaction that gives browned foods their delectable flavor, contributes to coffee’s color, aroma, and taste. Just as rib eye is most mouthwatering when cooked on a grill, a wood-roaster brings out coffee’s best self.
The misconception about wood-roasted coffee is that it tastes smoky. Unlike a brisket that is smoked for most of the day, coffee’s roasting process happens in minutes, not hours, so there isn’t enough time for the smoke to infuse the beans. When I first sipped Caffe D’arte’s wood-roasted coffee, I tasted a hint of wood with a wallop of flavor. To put it in industry terms, Mancuso describes it as “tons of body and character, with great aroma, very low acidity, and just a hint of Alder wood with a touch of smoke.”
Coffee roasting returns to its roots with wood, paying homage to the hundreds of years that local timber was the fuel of choice. The few roasters who still use wood are passionate artisans, opting for tradition and style over modern convenience. Their work embodies the soul of fire itself: its warmth and the way in which we are drawn into its incandescent glow. It might be easier to turn up the thermostat, but a crackling fire provides way more pleasure.