The process of transforming raw green seeds from Guatemala or Haiti, Ethiopia or Indonesia, into the chocolate-colored (milk and dark) bean that ends up in our cups, mugs, and Zojirushis is at once a work of chemistry and craft, instinct and inspiration, sourcing and selection - and maybe a bit of alchemy. Coffee beans have been culled and roasted since the mid-15th century (credit a gang of Sufis in Yemen). Wood-fired, gas, or electric, homebuilt models or 240-kilo machines that run $60,000 and up - the variations are endless, and endlessly argued over among coffee snobs.
But one thing is clear right now: Philadelphia can boast a community of roasters turning out some of the best single-origin beans and blends around the country. Sure, Stumptown (Portland and Brooklyn) has the hipster sheen, Counter Culture (North Carolina), Intelligentsia (Chicago, New York, L.A.), and Blue Bottle (San Francisco and Brooklyn) have their ardent followers. But with the exception of Philadelphia's La Colombe, whose classic and reserve blends can be found in cafes and restaurants across North America, the profile of our indigenous roasters is less pronounced, less hyped. But no less worthy.
"Most people in the coffee world in Philly feel like Philly doesn't get the credit it deserves," says Aaron Peazzoni, a partner at One Village Coffee, roasting out of Souderton. "Awesome things are happening in the coffee world right in front of us, but most people still think of Seattle or Portland or New York."
It would be impossible to highlight all of the artisan roasters working among us. Old City Coffee, founded 26 years ago on Church Street, is still going strong. Morning Star Coffee, in West Chester, started cooking beans in '94, and now serves top-notch brews to hotels and restaurants throughout the area. Valley Green Coffee, a new micro-roaster on the scene out of Wyncote, is creating, ahem, buzz. And True North, a Seattle roaster used by the two most-excellent High Point Cafes in Mount Airy, is about to go bicoastal, opening a second roastery in Philly.
So here's an admittedly subjective list of a baker's half-dozen of Philadelphia roasters, running the gamut from micro-micro practitioners to - to borrow a term from the movie biz - the mini-majors of the roasting world.
Blue Water Coffee
No phone listing, no website, and only a few places to buy the beans or sip the coffee, Blue Water is the work of Will MacFarlane. A second-generation roaster (his parents founded New Harmony Coffee), he manages to stay off the grid and still get his organic, Fair Trade beans to the Weavers Way food co-ops in West Oak Lane, Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill, and onto the menus (and shelves) at Ants Pants Cafe and Cafe Estelle. "He would just trash me if I gave out his number," says Weavers Way's Martha Fuller. Recommended: Blue Water Smoky Café, a dark, rich, sublime blend.
Burlap and Bean
Founded in the fall of 2006 by two brothers and their wives - Brent and Tara Endicott, and Benson and Christi Endicott - the roastery operates out of the spouses' cafe in Newtown Square. "All the coffee is organic and Fair Trade certified," says Christi. "We bring in coffee from about 12 different countries and do single-origins and signature blends." A second cafe operates at Delaware County Community College, and the beans are sold in Whole Food markets, available by mail order, and brewed and poured at West Philly's Green Line Cafes and the White Dogs in University City and Wayne. The Heritage and Black and Tan roasts are among its most popular. Recommended: Peru La Florida, a clean, bracing French roast. burlapandbean.com
Chestnut Hill Coffee Company
The spacious, sunlit cafe at the top of Germantown Avenue opened in 2005, and John Hornall, an award-winning barista from Seattle, began roasting beans on the second floor the following year. The Marathon Grills all serve Chestnut Hill's coffee, as do the Beauty Shop Cafe and other small establishments across the city. You can buy the beans at Di Bruno's markets, too. Hornall uses three different Central American beans and an Indonesian bean for his medium-bodied House Blend. As for his espresso, "it's a five-bean blend," he reports. "And I can tell you, but I'd have to shoot you." Recommended: Chestnut Hill Espresso Blend. chestnuthillcoffee.com
Founded in 1986 by Thomas Noller, a Reading physician, Fonseca beans were initially sold as a way to raise money to build a hospital in Nicaragua. To this day, Noller, who still keeps his family practice, uses the funds from his line of organic, Fair Trade coffees for humanitarian causes, most recently in Haiti. The Fonseca roastery, in a Norristown industrial building, averages about 500 pounds of coffee a week, selling by mail order, and to Metropolitan Bakery, the Rocket Cat Cafe and other spots around town. "A small roaster can only function by bringing the upper end of what's available into the niche market," Noller says, and he seems to be functioning fine. His personal favorite is the Tanzanian Peaberry. The Organic Mexican, a full-flavored medium dark roast, is the most popular. Recommended: Metropolitan Blend. www.fonsecacoffee.com
Garces Trading Co. and Rojo's Roastery
A marriage made in coffee heaven between Philadelphia chef Jose Garces and Lambertville, N.J., artisan roaster David Waldman, the GTC and Rojo's beans are roasted on a super-rare Probat UG 15, a vintage cast-iron model that Blue Bottle and Stumptown also deploy up there in Brooklyn (you can see Waldman at work on his if you visit the Rojo's Cafe on the north end of Union Street in the Jersey river town). Waldman, who opened Rojo's in 2006, prides himself on his direct-purchase relationships with growers, and he's as serious about his coffee as topflight microbrewers and vintners are about their beer and wine. "We are not preoccupied with buying beans that are certified Fair Trade or certified organic for the sake of having certified beans," says Waldman. "We're more interested in having beans purchased from the right person who's doing the right thing in terms of sustainability, and socioeconomically." The Garces Trading Co. Reserva is a three-bean blend "that Chef Garces and I worked on for several months, to complement his food style and his desire to have a nice, lively, full-bodied, flavorful bean." Rojo's house blend, Midwives Moonshine, is a little darker, less sweet. Recommended: GTC Reserva. www.garcestradingcompany.com and www.rojosroastery.com
La Colombe Torrefaction
Jean-Philippe Iberti and Todd Carmichael learned the biz in Seattle, and then picked Philadelphia to open their own cafe and roastery in 1993. The troop of customers has been out the door on 19th Street by Rittenhouse Square ever since. If you've dined at Lacroix, Pub & Kitchen, or scores of other Philly spots and you ordered coffee or espresso, you've had La Colombe. So, too, if you've gone to the cafés at MOMA in New York, to Cipriani in L.A., to haute haunts in Las Vegas and San Francisco. Marc Vetri pours La Colombe in his restaurants, too. From its bustling roastery in Port Richmond, La Colombe makes four classic blends (Corsica, Nizza, Phocea, and Decaf) and three reserves (Monaco, Savoia, and Afrique). Iberti and Carmichael take their relationships with growers seriously, and are intensely conscientious about environmental and sustainability issues, too. Recommended: Savoia, a nod to traditional Italian roasts. lacolombe.com
One Village Coffee
A small-batch craft roaster with a big reputation, One Village is based in Souderton, where they turn out a half-dozen signature blends, seasonal blends, and single-origins for area coffee shops. Founded in 2007 by partners Rob Altieri, Woody Decasere, Steve Hackman, and Aaron Peazzoni, One Village originally worked with fledgling farmers in Nigeria, and still maintains a relationship with growers there. One Village can be found in Whole Foods markets throughout the mid-Atlantic, and at Morning Glory and Good Karma cafes. Peazzoni says the Artists Blend and Espresso Nordico are popular. Recommended: Smart Blend, a medium roast take on the ancient and enduring Moka-Java. www.onevillagecoffee.com
Steven Rea is an Inquirer movie critic. He also drinks a lot of coffee. Contact him at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies.