On Tuesday nights, we roast coffee. Well, usually it’s my boyfriend and a motley crew of kindergarten teachers, firefighters, science nerds, and the occasional fiddle player, out roasting beans at the end of the normal workday. But tonight I got my first turn at “pedaling the roast,” or operating a bike-powered coffee roaster, which produces enough java to keep a couple hundred subscribers and co-op customers wired every week.
Let me backpedal a little (let’s see how many awful puns I can squeeze into this blog.) Imagine a stationary bike hooked up to something that looks like the drum of a washing machine with a propane burner blasting away beneath it. This is the roaster Alex Roth designed, engineered and has tinkered with over the past five years. It’s not especially pretty, it is, after all, pretty much set on fire on a weekly basis, but it does have a nice comfortable saddle and the chain is kept well lubricated. The contraption is operated outdoors, and the sun sets and the commuter trains engine past as you pedal the drum. Depending on the roast, you pump your legs at a leisurely pace for about twenty minutes until the “first crack,” when the beans start to sound like a campfire, fizzing and bursting in the heat. Perhaps you’ve even smelled it, out on a Tuesday evening walking around downtown, something akin to chocolate and burnt toast.
Up until recently, I didn’t know anything about coffee. I didn’t like drinking it either, but I was a grad student so I choked it down with lashings of cream and sugar to be cool like the other grad students. I was a tea drinker, and I thought I would be for life. Growing up, if anyone got up off the sofa they would immediately be asked to put on the kettle, and the reward for traversing the kitchen, and flipping the switch on the electric Kenmore, would be a steaming hot cup of tea when the time came. Heaven.
About a year ago, my engineer housemate told me about this awesome coffee delivery service, where freshly roasted coffee was delivered to your door by some crazy guy on a bicycle. I thought it seemed like another bizarre hippy Davis thing, and forgot all about it until I needed to get a present for a hipster vegan friend from San Francisco. The hipster loved the gift, and I was invited around to sample the coffee. He gave me the jar to open, and I was somewhat startled by the gasp of carbon dioxide that was released when I untwisted the lid. This was not usually what happened when I pulled the bag of Pete’s out of the back of the freezer in the student lounge. The smell filled the room entirely, and it was warm and rich and oddly alive.
So now I know a few things about coffee, and one of those things is enough to make an evangelist out of me. The vast majority of people drink coffee that was roasted months and months before it reached their cup, and considering that coffee, once roasted, stays fresh for just one week, well you might as well toss that stale mug of sludge you’re drinking into the bin where it belongs.
I’m also developing a theory about why Pepper Peddler coffee is so uniquely, head -and-shoulders-above-the-competition good (an opinion I have voiced since long before I knew Alex as anything other than crazy-hippy-coffee-bicycle-dude.) It’s like when you move into a new flat, or you’re on holidays in a rented home somewhere, and you decide to make cookie batter even though you don’t have a fancy beater. You grab a fork and beat the ingredients together until your good arm tires, and then you take over with your other arm, and something magical happens in that irregular, human rhythm, and the cookies end up being the most delicious things you’ve ever tasted and all your friends say so too.
I thought about the hand-beaten cookies tonight when my legs started to ache towards the end of the roast. I had tried my best to keep the cycle going smoothly and consistently, but there were points when I had pedalled faster--when the coffee had started to smoke and smell--and of course points when I had pedalled much slower, distracted by friends arriving, or thirst, or with plugging my ears when the amtrak blared past. I suspect those little irregularities go into making the beans uniquely tasty, whereas the average industrial roaster churns out something much more homogeneous--and homogeneity is the death of the palate.
I just got a text from Alex and his gang saying they’re having a post-roast toast at Woodstocks. I’m going to log this and see can I get down in time to have a slice. I bet if you sign up for a coffee subscription at www.thepepperpeddler.com, and mention this blog, Alex will give you 25% off your first delivery. Whatever you do, put drinking freshly roasted coffee on your bucket list. You will be converted.