by Sheri Boggs

When you think about what coffee is, it's amazing that it ever became a drink much less a multi-million dollar industry. Coffee beans are essentially the pit of a small red "cherry," which is roasted, ground and brewed with hot water. While human civilization has a long tradition of making drinks from various leaves and berries of the plant world, you've got to wonder how anyone ever discovered the secret properties of what would seem like an inedible plant seed.

"The way the story goes is that a goatherd noticed that every time his goats ate the red berries from this one particular plant, they'd become all frisky and happy," says Leslie Hutchinson, president of 4 Seasons Coffee. "So the goatherd tried the berries himself and they had the same effect on him as they did on the goats. Eventually someone discovered that when they threw the pits into the fire, the beans became even better."

As we've all had occasion to discover, what's good for 8th-century Eritrean goats is equally good for bleary-eyed cubicle drudges and those needing to subdue the vile clamorings of last night's hangover. From its humble beginnings in Ethiopia, the use of coffee spread across the Arabian peninsula, and by 1475 the world's first coffeehouse had opened in Constantinople.

No Bean Before Its Time -- In the hands of local coffee roasters such as 4 Seasons, the Thomas Hammer Coffee Roasting Company and Craven's Coffee -- whose beans are available commercially as well as in a variety of local restaurants and coffee shops -- roasting is a precise yet intuitive process, taking into consideration everything from the barometric pressure outside the roasting facility to the changing taste preferences of their loyal regulars. In doing so, they practice their craft daily and have helped elevate coffee consciousness in the Inland Northwest to the point that we have our own distinct coffee "personality."

"Roasting coffee is a lot like making wine," says Hutchinson. "You have to take so many factors into consideration at every step along the process. And at the same time, it's an art form."

For most of us, making coffee means either directing high-pressure boiling water through tightly packed grounds or measuring three scoops into the office coffeemaker, but for coffee roasters, the process begins long before the bean ever hits the roaster. At Four Seasons' new roasting facility on East Sprague, Hutchinson explains the importance of their still-under-construction cupping room. Cupping involves boiling water, forming a crust over the beans, lots of sniffing and, of course, sampling the grounds for taste. It's a good way to gauge not only new beans but to check in on the quality of existing stock.

"Cupping is an actual recognized procedure for assessing a bean's merits. You look for things like color and uniformity in the raw green product; you evaluate it for the constituents that the coffee broker is telling you are there," she says. "It's very systematic. You use a special cup, you waft the scent through your nose, you try to hit all four taste areas on your tongue. As you sip it, it's important to let your mind go and just sense what's there. Is it grassy? Is it earthy? Is it floral, or wine-y?"

About a year ago, 4 Seasons outgrew the basement of their downtown facility. Now, big sacks of raw coffee beans -- unroasted, they have a near-eternal shelf life -- enjoy plenty of room and cool temperatures before arriving at the beans' date with destiny -- the roaster.

"Roasting coffee is very hands-on, in an almost craftsman sense," says 4 Seasons roastmaster Eric Branson, working at the helm of a shiny new state-of-the-art roaster. "A roaster is able to interpret the bean for its best potential and understand how to bring that potential forward." As he talks, he pauses to pull out the tryer, which looks like a cross between a scoop and a dipstick. Through a small window, the beans slowly darken as they churn.

"The first thing you're doing is drying the beans out," he says. "There are big drum paddles inside the machine so that you evenly roast the beans." The entire process generally takes 15-17 minutes, during which the beans are poured into the roaster, churned and then let loose into a revolving cooling tray. Connected to the gas-fired roaster is the chaff-collector and an EPA-required afterburner, both of which manage the by-products and off-gasses of a procedure that gets into temperatures of higher than 450 degrees. Branson records the machine's settings, bean weights, the temperatures, the times of the first and second cracking stages (the beans' way of releasing heat and steam) and the drop time into the cooling tray in his roasting log.

"A lot of the job is visual," he explains, running his hand through a still-hot batch of French roast. "We've got the log, but you also watch how the oils begin to form, how the color of the beans get deeper."

A coffee roaster needs to be vigilant not only in terms of how the beans are progressing, but also in the event of a roaster's worst nightmare: a fire.

"One of the workshops at the last SCAA [Specialty Coffee Association of America] conference was all about fires -- 'My Worst Roasting Disaster,'" he says, adding that in addition to the 500 chemical reactions going on during roasting, the machine itself also poses particular fire safety challenges. "The machine produces all this potential fuel; there's chaff, oils, creosote... Everybody has a fire at some point in their roasting career, but usually once you've had one, you make sure you don't ever have another."

Give the People What They Want -- With all of the care and hard work that go into roasting, it's not surprising that coffee roasters are more than a little invested in their product.

"I don't want to overuse the winemaking analogy, but it really fits here as well. The winemaker's work culminates in the moment where you uncork a wine," says Hutchinson. "But for us, it's not over when the beans leave here. There are all these other things to consider; things like bag pressure, storing the beans properly and making sure you're grinding correctly. It's hard to let the beans go sometimes. You want to make sure they're going to be properly taken care of."

A personal relationship with coffee, in fact, is one of the hallmarks of a good roaster.

"A good roaster is able to understand coffee in its green form," says David Riers, roastmaster for Thomas Hammer. "[And he or she] is able to pay close attention to the roasting process, and knows how to make the machine do what you need it to do in order to produce consistent results time after time."

Riers adds that a roaster can be trained with the best equipment and by the best roastmasters, but that there still needs to be an underlying connection between human, beans and machine.

"Being a roaster is an art form. You learn to roast by being trained to do it, but eventually your own personality and skills shine through," he says. "You can use the same beans, say Costa Rican, and the same machine and with two different roasters there will still be subtle differences."

A relationship with one's customers is, of course, just as vital as one's connection to the material and tools of one's work. At 4 Seasons, Hutchinson is finding that local coffee enthusiasts are increasingly asking for such socially, economically and ecologically responsible products as certified organic, shade-grown and fair-trade-certified coffee beans. Currently, 4 Seasons already carries certified organic and shade-grown coffees, and is currently applying for fair-trade certification.

"Coffee is grown in equatorial belt, poverty-stricken countries. It's important to be able to say I agree to pay a premium of x amount to the coffee farmer and know that I'm encouraging social and economic well-being. It's an investment in preserving great coffee," she says. She says there is a big demand right now for Malinal, a coffee from the rainforests of southwestern Mexico.

"The coffee plants really benefit from the shade of the rainforest canopy," she says. "And it's a highly sustainable form of agriculture, which doesn't adversely affect the environment."

In addition to choosing coffee based on its origin, coffee consumers are also looking for a powerful coffee taste.

"Of course, every coffee roaster is going to have a different answer to what people in this region like, but in my humble opinion, it would be a mix of roasts," says Simon Craven, owner of Craven's Coffee. "For a lot of people, I think the preference is for blends with half or three-quarters of a darker roast -- for instance Fraijanes which is a sweet smoky dark Guatemalan, blended with a light or medium roast -- say a Huila Suprema, which is from a remote area of southern Colombia and has a buttery, medium roast flavor."

When asked if there is such a thing as a regional taste profile, most local roasters report that not only do coffee drinkers of the Inland Northwest know what they like, but what they like is also surprisingly sophisticated.

"I think we're very aware of the coffee we drink. Here I think we have what I would call Northwest Espresso-style coffee," says Riers. "It's dark, and it has that distinctly bittersweet taste. But it's not necessarily what they like to drink in other parts of the country. For example, if you went to Ohio you'd find that they like a lighter, nuttier type roast."

Spokanites also aren't as likely to go for such sugary, milky, named-after-candy bar concoctions as one might think. While we have a lot of specialty coffee retailers here, a lot of us buy our coffee drinks for the sublime, unadulterated hit of both coffee flavor and effect.

"The Inland Northwest has a very sophisticated coffee palate compared to all the other places we've visited," says Craven. "There's much more of a specialty coffee awareness. And that's even more so -- and I know this is going to sound controversial -- than Seattle. I think Seattle's been too adversely affected by the corporate coffee culture; it's lost its soul. But here in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Western Montana, specialty coffee continues to grow and people are interested in exploring what all these different coffees have to offer."

In fact, a simple steamy cup of joe is one of the reasons Inland Northwest folks can adopt a lofty tone and walk with our heads held high. "We talk about Spokane's inferiority complex, but this is one area where I think we can feel superior," Craven adds. "We have a real coffee awareness here and it's growing."

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