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Feature Fri Nov 05 2010
Coffee roaster Michael McSherry ushers me through his Wicker Park apartment, across the backyard and through the side door of a dim garage. Soaring classical music blares from a plastic radio. David Meyers, McSherry's comrade in DIY roasting, smiles and watches over two flame-filled grills under a shower of what looks like ashy confetti. The two share McSherry's ramshackle garage space -- which reminds me either of an old-timey blacksmith's shop or a cheerful, deliciously coffee-scented hell.
When I first learned about DIY roasting, I instantly wanted to try it, even though I couldn't articulate the appeal: Why huddle over jerry-rigged propane grills in cold, smoky garages? Why not just go to the supermarket or a big local roaster like Intelligentsia or Metropolis? My friend Rich Park, co-owner of the Ch'Ava cafe in Uptown, pinpointed the allure of the craft: "They're hackers," he said. "They're the MacGyvers of coffee." Micro-roasting means constantly improvising, creating new machinery where there's none on the market or none for your budget. It means drinking lots and lots of test coffee and fine-tuning your ear to hear how beans are faring on machines without high-tech sensors.
As fellow roaster Jesse Diaz of Star Lounge Coffee Bar says, "All we have is our passion and our palate."
Want to join the ranks of Chicago's coffee hackers? Here's how to get started.
1) Be cool with heat.
Micro-roasters vary in scale and skill but they all use heat. It's possible to roast green coffee beans on a stovetop cast-iron skillet, though billowing smoke may spook the neighbors. The roasters I spoke with either used modified grills or, in the case of Star Lounge and Lakeview-based Asado Coffee Company, run cafes that also house small gas-fired drum roasting operations.
For McSherry, a few minor fires were all part of the learning curve. He roasts on a propane grill with a rotisserie spit outfitted with a steel mesh canister that hold the beans and rotates over the flame. Beans can fall from the canister if it's not closed properly, and if beans are left in the grill too long, beware of meltdown. McSherry quickly learned not to leave the grill unattended: "Probably two fires I've had were just 'cause I was getting a snack or something."
To avoid over-roasting, mind the crack. Beans start green, When heated they start to crackle, or crack, at specific intervals that alert the savvy roaster to the state of the bean as they turn more and more brown. There's a fine line between French roast and a piece of charcoal. Once roasted, beans need to be cooled and have the chaff removed somehow. For garage roasters, this can be a basic tabletop fan like the one covering Meyers with flecks of chaff.
McSherry lifts a plastic bucket. "I keep this water here, just in case of emergencies."
But since those initial fires, he hasn't needed it. Meyers looks over and says with a friendly laugh, "Is that what that's for? I always wondered."
2) Make friends.
McSherry and Meyers joined forces to form the Chicago Coffee Confederation, a loose alliance of three like-minded indie roasters. The third member, AREA magazine founder Daniel Tucker, roasts in an alley near his Logan Square apartment.
Tucker says: "Everyone on my block is obsessed with my roasting. I keep the garage door rolled up. I get hilarious questions, like are 'you roasting popcorn?' I understand their confusion because they're like, 'what the hell is he doing?'"
Case in point -- when I visit Meyers and McSherry roasting, an elderly man in a cap and overcoat shuffles up to the garage door and pokes his head in. Meyers chats with him for a while. When the man shuffles off again, Meyers muses, "We should start serving coffee out here."
3) Don't quit your day job. Or, quit your day job.
Micro-roasting is a social, connected craft that won't necessarily generate big bucks. Chicago Coffee Confederation members sell one pound for about $13 or $10 for three or more, including delivery. McSherry and Tucker delivery by bike, Meyers sometimes drives. Each bag is labeled with the region it's from and the date roasted.
They mostly sell to friends and acquaintances, aware that they're operating without business licenses, and all rely on other gigs and trades. McSherry, for example, runs a house-painting business and plays in several local bands. Tucker usually roasts one day per month to subsidize his writing projects. He delivers about thirty pounds a month via bike.
Still it's possible to spin roasting into a full-time gig. Meyers is working with the Latino Union to spearhead Cafe Chicago, a project that will ultimately allow immigrant workers to own and run a small roasting operation and a cafe. The group got a $20,000 grant last week, enough seed money for a jump start.
Asado founder Kevin Ashtari decided to open a full-blown company after roasting for years on his backyard grill, though even now he believes in staying relatively micro. "We're sticking with small batch roasting," he says. "That's the level of attention to detail that these kind of cups require."
Star Lounge has a cafe and about 25 wholesale accounts for its Dark Matter label and continues to grow.
4) Craft what you need. Embrace the Systeme D.
When I asked McSherry if he could roast without access to electricity, his first thought was: "I guess you could get an exercise bike that could power a roaster and blow off the chaff with the fan on the front. I could rig something like that up."
Diaz at Star Lounge wants to craft new collaborations. He's mulling long-term plans to form a buyer's cooperative that will make it easier for small coffee roasters to stay in the black and avoid misleading, marketing-driven labeling of beans.
Rich Park at Ch'Ava says: "That's the coffee community. In cooking we call that the Systeme D. It's like, for chefs, if you run out of onions, you use shallots. Throw in a little of this and a little of that. Improvise. Modify. Get yourself out of trouble."
Wikipedia tells me that in France the Systeme D is shorthand for thinking fast and getting things done outside traditional means: "The verb se débrouiller means 'to untangle.' The verb se démerder means 'to get yourself out of shit'. ... It has the connotation of getting around the system, managing to accomplish, or breaking the rules."
This may be the best way to describe the thread that unites the roasters I met -- in many senses. They're improvising their way towards their own vision of a better future - alone, but together. Diaz is fiercely interested in starting a coffee farm in Mexico that's truly fair for workers and says that all information should be free -- he says he'll teach roasting to anyone who walks through the door of Star Lounge. Meyers wants to "reconfigure work" and find new paths for collective enterprise through ventures like Cafe Chicago.
Meyers hopes that someday there will be a roaster on every block, loosely confederated and highly caffeinated.
He says: "Ultimately anything you do in a confederation is going to come easier.... Even Michael and I working together makes it all feel less 'lone wolf'. It changes your face, makes you much more relaxed. That's why I love hanging out with Jesse [Diaz]. He doesn't have that competitive thing at all... It's all happening not with corporate funding or governmental support, not with an intellectual elite telling people what to do. It's regular people coming up with ideas. " Try finding that on a supermarket shelf.
Lindsay Muscato is a GB staffer, writer and editor in Chicago. Special thanks to the folks of Ch'Ava Café for the caffeinated conversation and basic coffee wisdom.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.