- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Aromatic and heady, the smell of freshly brewed coffee envelops customers the moment they enter Misha’s Coffeehouse and Roaster in Old Town Alexandria — so rich, nutty and inviting, the aroma offers a taste of the steaming java even before they order a cup.

In a world otherwise driven by haste, the simple pleasure of savoring a good cup of Joe has become for some an obsession — for others an addiction. There are nearly 18,000 specialty coffee shops around the United States, and more open every day.

One of the newest trends in this fast-growing market is the specialty coffee shop known as a roaster, according to Chris Ferguson, spokesman for the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

Roasters — whose owners often import their own unroasted (green) coffee beans from countries outside the United States and then roast them on site or in local plants — account for nearly 10 percent of all specialty coffee shops.

“In the ‘90s, every city and town was getting their first coffee bars or shops,” Mr. Ferguson says. “Now in the last few years, all of those towns or cities that got their first coffee shop are now getting their first coffee roaster.”

The roaster trend is burgeoning nationwide, but it has been a steady presence in the Washington area since the dawn of the last century. Long before Starbucks was even a thought, the M.E. Swing Co. at Eighth and H streets NW filled the streets of downtown Washington with coffee’s rich aromas. Several local roasters are following in that tradition.

• • •

Why roast?

With nearly 180 million drinkers a day, the market for coffee has been a highly competitive one since the early 1990s. Starbucks, the nation’s largest coffeehouse proprietor, has more than 6,000 locations nationwide and, according to its press office, opens four new stores every day.

Starbucks’ fierce growth strategy has forced smaller, more local specialty coffee shops to find a way to differentiate themselves from the international company. Roasting is one of those ways.

Roasting offers individual roasters the chance to create their own unique taste and have something to call their own. Each roaster in the Washington area was trained differently. Chances are, if they were all given the same green coffee beans, each roaster’s beans would come out of the roaster tasting different. It is that aspect that makes coffee roasting so unusual.

Roasting also allows the roasters to set themselves apart from each other by creating special blends and tweaking their roasting process.

“Some people don’t realize the craft of coffee roasting,” Mr. Ferguson says. “Coffee roasters have a passion for coffee, no different than a winemaker has for wine or a brewer for beer.”

It is an underappreciated craft, says Martin Mayorga, president of Mayorga Coffee Imports, which has six shops in Maryland and the District and a roasting plant in Rockville.

“For so many people, it is so easy to overlook coffee, because coffee is a drink of convenience,” he says. “If people knew the amount of work that goes into making coffee, I think they would have a greater appreciation for it. I hope that I see the day when coffee becomes a destination and people take time out of their day to sit down and really enjoy a cup.”

That’s where business comes in, yet for entrepreneurs like the owner of Misha’s Coffeehouse and Roaster in Alexandria, it’s much more than that.

“I always say that some people are in the coffee business to make money. I am in the coffee business just so I can make more coffee,” says Misha Anthony, who focuses his energy on his sole shop and is known around the shop as simply “Misha.”

Beyond the craft and the business, local roasters roast coffee because of its freshness. Coffee bought in grocery stores or in other markets can sometimes be months old by the time it is ground and brought home.

Local roasters bag and brew batch after batch of fresh-roasted coffee every day. To provide the freshest coffee possible, Mayorga Coffee Imports runs its roaster six days a week at its Rockville plant. Misha’s roasts on average four to five days a week at its Old Town location.

Another area roaster, Quartermaine Coffee Roasters, with one shop in Bethesda and a plant in Rockville, provides a “roast date” on the side of each bag to show the customer when the beans were processed.

• • •

The nation’s capital was introduced to fresh roasted coffee in 1916 by M.E. Swing.

Known as “the grandaddy of Washington coffee roasters,” the father-and-son team of M.E. and his son Edward imported beans from Africa, Latin America and the Far East, just as many roasters in the area do today.

The company gained a reputation for its roasting and blending techniques and, after outgrowing its original home, moved to several locations in the downtown area, including the Mesco Coffee Building — short for M.E. Swing Coffee Co. — at 1013 E St. NW, where the historic facade still stands.

After nearly 80 years of roasting coffee on site in the District, the Swing Co. moved its roasting operation to an industrial park in Alexandria in 1994. District regulations regarding excessive smoke and odor, both byproducts of roasting, do not allow for roasting on site without the use of an afterburner, a device that diminishes emissions from the roaster.

Swing’s aroma hasn’t completely vanished from downtown Washington. The company maintains a retail store across from the Old Executive Office Building at 17th and G streets NW. The shop is a museum of sorts for the Swing Co., complete with vintage mahogany fixtures plus many of the original scales and coffee bins used in the Mesco facility nearly a century ago.

• • •

Today, Washington’s true-blue roasters try to keep that same homey approach. Misha’s Coffeehouse and Roaster is a perfect example.

With its bohemian style and warm decor, the shop rekindles the family appeal of an earlier era; it’s the coffeehouse equivalent of a mom-and-pop diner serving gourmet comfort food.

Misha’s, which opened in 1991, has been rated consistently among the best coffee shops in the area by several local publications. Located right off King Street, Misha’s takes its charm from its historic setting and suggests that small size and solo location are no bar to popularity.

“We’re more of an old-school roaster,” says Andrea Ordanella, a manager and, along with the owner, one of the roasters at Misha’s. “Our main focus is the coffee. We’re not looking to open other shops. We just want to put out the best product we can.”

Stop in for a cup of coffee to start the day, and you’ll find an intimate, cozy setting within the three-room shop. One square room houses 10 tables. Another contains the counter, and the third showcases a large communal table along with the 25-pound roaster.

Large glass jars filled with assorted blends and exotic varietals (including New Guinea Purosa, Kenya AA, Caravan and the best-selling Route 66, a secret house recipe) beckon from the counter.

• • •

Quartermaine Coffee Roasters came from the heart of coffee-roasting country, Seattle. Started by the three original founders of Starbucks — Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker and Zev Siegl — Quartermaine opened in the Washington area in 1991 as a wholesale roaster selling to restaurants and retail markets.

In 1993, the company opened its first coffee shop in Cleveland Park; by 1997, there were six Quartermaine coffee shops in Maryland and the District.

However, the market was trending toward food service as well as coffee — and Roger Scheumann, Quartermaine’s president, wanted to stay focused on the brew, not salads and sandwiches. The company closed five of its shops in 2001 and channeled its efforts into its Bethesda shop and the Rockville facility, along with its wholesale, Internet and mail-order sales.

The Quartermaine coffee shop in Bethesda reflects Mr. Scheumann’s focus on the brew. With just a few chairs and several tables, the shop is nothing out of the ordinary — but decor is not the reason people come back several days a week. The reason is the coffee.

Although Quartermaine doesn’t roast on site in Bethesda, it guarantees freshness with the roast dates on its bags. Quartermaine also makes all of its specialty roasts available over the Internet and offers free door-to-door shipping with a 2-pound order.

• • •

One of the newest entries into the coffee-roasting arena is Mayorga’s Coffee Imports, headquartered in Rockville. It was founded in 1995 by Martin Mayorga, whose path into the coffee-roasting business was much different from that of other coffee roasters around town.

Born in Guatemala and raised in Nicaragua, Mr. Mayorga grew up around coffee. His uncle was a green-coffee importer, and he learned the art of roasting from coffee bean farmers in Central and Latin America.

Mr. Mayorga began Mayorga’s by importing green coffee. That led him to the roasting and retail business. One of his main goals is to educate the public about coffee and its origins. This is also one of the reasons why he went into the retail market.

Mayorga’s has two shops in Rockville and one each in Bethesda, Germantown, Silver Spring and the District, along with a central roasting plant in Rockville.

“For me, the shops are as much about education as they are the product. I think it is vital that people learn about the cultures and the areas where they grow coffee, for they can grow to have a respect for it,” Mr. Mayorga says.

Mr. Mayorga wants customers to see the process from beginning to end, so he opens the plant in Rockville to customers on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Customers can tour the plant and see a batch of beans roasted and bagged. They can ask questions of the coffee professionals there. If a customer can’t make it to the plant, Mayorga’s also roasts on site at the Mayorga Coffee Factory location in Silver Spring.

That expansive coffee shop also offers a small lesson in coffee culture. The walls are decorated with photos, maps and murals dedicated to coffee. Customers who bring along a laptop can take a seat in one of the comfy leather chairs or couches and do some Internet searches. The wi-fi is free.

So, from light roasts to dark roasts and small back-room roasters to large wholesale producers, the Washington area has much to offer every coffee drinker, from the connoisseur to those who want nothing more than two sugars and some cream.

From ‘first crack’ to the taste test

What is coffee roasting? Coffee roasting begins with green coffee beans. Each cherry from a coffee tree contains two beans. Two main types of beans are used in roasting today, arabica and robusta. A third type, liberica, is used by some roasters but is less popular because of low flavor characteristics, according to the International Coffee Organization.

Arabica is usually referred to as gourmet coffee. With just half as much caffeine content as robusta, arabica beans are known to produce greater flavors and are more aromatic. Arabica beans usually are grown under shade at high elevations in Latin and Central America and in Africa.

Robusta is a cheaper and lower grade of coffee. It’s grown in the same areas as arabica beans, but at lower elevations. It contains more caffeine than the arabica. The robusta beans do not produce the amount of flavor the arabica beans do.

After processing on a coffee farm — which includes picking (by hand, in many cases), milling and drying — the green coffee beans arrive at the roaster in large burlap sacks. At this point, the beans usually have a moisture content of 11 to 15 percent.

A coffee bean has small packets of oil and water inside its shell. Roasting is the process used to heat those inner elements. Once the moisture inside the bean begins to boil, the oil and water are expelled from the bean. How much of each is released determines the flavor of the coffee.

The roasting process begins by weighing out the load and heating the roaster to the desired temperature for the roast. Most roasters heat the internal drum temperature to a range of 425 to 475 degrees.

Next, the green coffee is dropped into the cylinder, where it spins constantly. Some drums contain perforations that admit the hot air, while others are more like a circular heated pan.

Coffee beans continue to take heat until they reach an internal temperature of 212 degrees or higher. At this point, the beans begin to let off steam and change color.

As the beans continue to heat, usually to 250 degrees or higher, their thin outer layer begins to dry, and “first crack” — a crack in the seam in the middle of the bean — occurs. First crack makes a noise much like popcorn popping as steam is released through the seam. It’s at this point that the outer shell begins to fall off the bean.

The beans continue to darken, and the roaster has to check the beans constantly. All of the roasters in this area use a small circular tube to take small amounts of beans from the roast.

The next step depends on the type of roast the person doing the roasting is trying to make. The more oil released, the fuller and darker the roast and the flavor. For a darker roast, the roaster continues roasting the beans to “second crack.” This is the point where the beans have reached a temperature higher than 400 degrees and begin to break down. All of the oils begin to be released, and the color gets darker and darker.

If the coffee is not cooled quickly, it will continue to heat and in some cases ruin the batch. That is why roasters have a circular pan at the bottom, where a cooling fan blows on the beans as soon as they are taken from the roasting. The coffee is then bagged before it is ground and brewed.

Roasting can take eight to 15 minutes, depending on the equipment used and the type of coffee produced. To deal with smoke and odor that is emitted during roasting, several roasters, including Misha’s, use an afterburner. The afterburner attaches to the exhaust portion of the roaster and burns away the smoke and other substances that may be released.

Throughout the process, the person watching the roast must use all of his or her senses. When checking the batch, he or she smells the beans, looks at the color, listens for first and second crack, and then feels the beans as they cool. The final test is a tasting, also called cupping, in which the roaster brews small amounts of coffee and sips it, testing for the coffee’s quality and taste.

Walk in and smell the coffee

Yearning for freshly roasted java? Stop in at one of these shops, some of which roast on premises. For an aroma-laced lesson in roasting, drop in on a local roasting plant that encourages visitors.

Mayorga Coffee

• The Mayorga plant and warehouse: 15151-D Southlawn Lane, Rockville. Noon-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Watch coffee beans being roasted and bagged. Call ahead for special events. 301/315-8093 or www.mayorgaimports.com.

• 8040 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 6 a.m.-11 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 6 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. Coffee roasted on premises. Roasting hours posted at the shop. 301/562-9090.

• At Germantown: 12615 E. Wisteria Drive, Germantown. 6 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily. 301/591-3874.

• At King Farm: 801 Pleasant Drive, Rockville. 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday. 301/990-8722.

• At Rosedale Park: 8201 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. Opening soon.

• At Shady Grove Hospital: 9901 Medical Center, Rockville. 6 a.m.-2 a.m. daily.

• At Sibley Hospital: 5255 Loughboro Road NW. 6 a.m.-midnight Monday-Friday, 6 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. 202/243-5252.

Misha’s Coffee

• Misha’s Coffee Roaster and Coffeehouse: 102 S. Patrick St., Alexandria. 6:30 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. 703/548-4089. See also www.alexan driacitywebsite.com; click on Food and Drink, then see Misha’s under Coffee Shops.

Quartermaine Coffee

• Quartermaine roasting plant: 4972 Wyaconda Road, Rockville. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. For tour appointments, call 301/230-4600, Ext. 110, or e-mail [email protected] quartermaine.com. 301/230-4600 or www.quartermaine .com.

• Quartermaine Bethesda: 4817 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda. 6 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 301/718-2853.

Rappahannock Coffee

• Cafe: 2406 Columbia Pike, Arlington. 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and Saturday; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday. Live music 7:30-9:45 p.m. some Fridays. Call for schedule. 703/271-0007 or www. kyycoffeeinc.com.

M.E. Swing Coffee

• Plant: 612-D S. Pickett St., Alexandria. 800/485-4019, 703/370-5050 or www. swingscoffee.com.

• Shop and cafe: 1702 G St. NW. 202/628-7601.

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