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Artisans of the roast

The best microroasters are treating their coffees like fine wines, sourcing great single-origin beans and fashioning estate blends.

October 25, 2006|Amy Scattergood | Times Staff Writer

A great cup of coffee starts with great beans. As recently as 10 years ago, finding good whole bean coffee usually meant seeking out the little gourmet shops that imported it, finding a Peet's or Illy store -- or having an Italian (or Guatemalan) grandmother who could send a burlap bag of the stuff to you. But lately, a new breed of small, independent microroasters have set up shop in and around the city, and they're paying a kind of attention to coffee that we haven't seen before.

They're sourcing their own beans at "origin," finding local growers (in some cases, they are the local growers), making estate blends, often championing sustainable farming methods and roasting in small batches that highlight the intrinsic flavors -- the "terroir" of the coffee beans -- instead of over-roasting them into charcoal oblivion.

Much of the coffee is Fair Trade and organic -- but not as much as you might think. Instead of relying on expensive certification from third-party middlemen (albeit well-meaning middlemen), many independent roasters believe in buying directly from the sources, often paying higher market prices for the beans than the chains, letting the quality speak for itself and trusting that a long-term relationship with the growers will in effect practice what Fair Trade preaches.

Here in Los Angeles, a number of microroasters are jumping into the fray -- or the quality gap often left in the wake of the behemoth chains that pioneered what's called the "second wave" of coffee. (The first wave happened after World War II, with the advent of canned coffee; the third wave is what's happening right now.) The best of them (listed below alphabetically) are bringing attention to detail and devotion to the process that shows where it counts -- in the cup.

Antigua Traditional Roasters. Antigua co-owner Yancey Quinones comes from a family that has been growing coffee in Guatemala for more than 150 years, but his commitment to community is as much about his East L.A. neighborhood as it is about his family's farm. He roasts his family's coffee -- grown on 4,000 acres at an elevation of about 5,000 feet -- as well as other beans he sources at origin, in a Primo roaster lodged in the back of his cozy, art-filled neighborhood coffee shop. Quinones' path to becoming a microroaster includes a degree in economics and a healthy dose of activism. He works with the Youth Opportunity Movement program and Barrio Action when he's not sourcing and roasting coffee -- or practicing latte art. 4836 Huntington Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 539-2233.

City Bean Coffee. At City Bean in Culver City, co-owner Sol Salzer roasts all of his beans on a 1926 Probat roaster that he had rebuilt with state-of-the-art technology -- it's a machine he loves and considers the key to the kind of coffee he creates -- he's as focused on the fine points of roasting as on the selection of the beans. Open since 1991, City Bean has small retail shops in Century City and downtown, but the bulk of its business is conducted online. "One year Pinots are great and Cabs are just OK," says Salzer. "It works that way with coffee too. Certain years I get a Sumatra that I can't get enough of; the next year it falls flat." This year he's excited about Ethiopian coffee. He has a beautiful Ethiopian Yergacheffe and has just sourced a Harrar he really likes. And from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, he has an extraordinary Fazenda Vista Allegre (on the menu at the wine bar Bin 8945) with notes of caramel and tobacco and a depth of flavor it gets from drying on the tree for three months. 5801 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City. (323) 965-5000.

The Coffee Cellar. This little roaster operates out of a downtown eatery, Mama's Tamales, using a single-batch roaster nestled in a back room, between a delivery alley and a busy kitchen. Angel Orozco runs the small business himself, using a 7-pound Primo roaster to roast beans he sells at the Silver Lake farmers market and online, in addition to supplying Erewhon Natural Foods Market in Hollywood. He makes a mean cup of espresso behind the counter too. After getting a masters in Urban Planning from UCLA and working with organic farmers in Guatemala, Orozco started roasting at home as a hobby -- and then realized there was a need for marketing organic coffee. About 80% of the beans he uses are Fair Trade, organic and shade-grown, as it's a "niche market" that Orozco feels strongly about supporting -- at least until his business is big enough for him to buy directly from the farmers. "I got started working with sustainable agriculture," he says. Though most of his beans are from Latin America, he has Ethiopian and Sumatra coffees that he really likes right now. His current favorite is an El Salvadoran -- though normally, he prefers his espresso blend. 2124 W. 7th St., Los Angeles. (213) 305-4484.

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