'Freshness is everything'
'Freshness is everything' By Jeff Thal, Correspondent
It's just a little bean, extracted from a red cherry that grows only in the tropics, within 15 degrees of the equator, give or take.
But as enthusiasts of fresh roasted coffee will tell you, it's more than just a bean or a drink; it's a lifestyle.
Coffee can help you wake up in the morning, and it has a way of drawing people together for inspired conversation.
Generations of men and women have sought ways of perfecting the brew, and they enthusiastically pass down their secrets to their prot'g's.
What is it about coffee that evokes such passion? Why does this particular elixir prompt those who partake of it -- from Mark Twain to Oliver Wendell Holmes to Pope Leo XII -- to wax poetic?
It has inspired many a song, from Nat King Cole's "You're the Cream in My Coffee" to Bob Marley's "One Cup of Coffee" to Johann Sebastian Bach's "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" (Be still, stop chattering, aka "The Coffee Cantata").
"I think that coffee is a memory," says Susan Lithgoe, proprietor of College Coffee Roasters, a microroaster in Mountville. "I remember that my parents never let me drink coffee when I was a kid, but when they were out and left me with my grandmother, she always fixed me a cup. I still think of that every time I smell a cup of fresh brewed coffee."
Lithgoe is one of several coffee roasters in or within a few miles of Lancaster, and she says that we are extremely fortunate to have so many quality roasters here.
Darrel Burns, co-owner of Gerhart Coffee, says he is amazed that there are this many thriving roasting companies in a city this size.
"There is enough quality talent and resources right here to supply virtually all of the coffee that is consumed in Lancaster County," Burns says.
Local roasters agree: Coffee tastes significantly better when served soon after roasting.
"In fact," Burns says, "fresh beans begin to deteriorate the minute you begin to roast them. ... Every cafe in the county could be selling coffee within two or three days of roasting if they chose to, rather than selling coffee that has been sitting on shelves somewhere for weeks."
Following is a survey of a few of the players in Lancaster County's coffee-roasting scene.
Dennis Tessen sits at the roaster in his small operation at 219 E. Main St., Lititz, talking about the coffee business with a gleam in his eye.
"I really like what we do here," Tessen says. "We've built a business on quality and service. To me, that's the important thing. We could probably grow bigger, but I'd rather know all our customers personally. We're big enough to suit me."
For Tessen, it's all about relationships.
"We started out as a coffee shop here in Lititz, Spill the Beans. My wife, Peggy ... lived in Italy, where the coffees are extraordinary. She developed a passion for coffee there," he says.
"We weren't satisfied with the coffee we could get from our suppliers, so we began roasting our own beans to ensure top quality, freshness and taste. After we started roasting our own, our sales skyrocketed. We put our roaster in the back of the shop, where people could see us work. Eventually, in order to meet the demand of our loyal customers, we sold the shop to devote ourselves full time to roasting. I like it this way."
Tessen roasts to order, which means he roasts the beans only when customers order them, and to their specifications. He is always moving, watching the time, adjusting the temperature and the air flow of the roast in progress, pulling out a small wooden scoop and checking and smelling the beans, running his hands through the beans in the rotating cooling pan below the roaster.
At the same time, his son, Justin, is also in constant motion, pouring the next batch of beans into the roaster, one after the other.
The aroma of roasting coffee is intense and permeates the room.
"I love the smell of this place. It's invigorating. You have to love this business and love the product to make great coffee," Tessen says. "I think everyone who does this has a passion for the product.
"You're not going to get rich being a small roaster, so you have to commit to the product. We're all in this to make the best possible coffee. That's what our customers want.
"Coffee is such a personal product,'' he continues. "It generates emotional responses. I think that's what I like best about the business."
Gerhart Coffee Co., 224 Wohlsen Way, has been roasting coffee beans in the county since 1880.
Owner Darrel Burns says freshness is everything.
"You can have the best coffee in the world," he says. "If it's not fresh, forget it."
Gerhart is a full-service coffee company, providing roasted coffee, in bean and ground form, to restaurants, coffeehouses, hotels, schools and colleges, bagel shops, grocery stores, farmers' markets and gift shops. In addition, Gerhart provides coffee service to businesses, including the coffee, setups and equipment.
"We've been doing this for a very long time," Burns says. "We started out selling roasted coffee in 25-pound cans to grocery stores, who ground the beans and bagged the coffee right on site, often just as their customers were ready to buy their coffee. Grocery stores had grinders right in the aisle -- [many] still do -- but years ago that's how coffee was sold."
Gerhart is a large-enough operation that it can store its beans in a warehouse until they're roasted.
"Beans in their green state will stay fresh anywhere from four to six months, depending on how they are stored," Burns says. "Therefore, we have the ability to buy slightly larger quantities than some of the other local roasters. We have the space to keep a lot of beans."
Burns says consistency is key.
"This is a heritage company," he says. "We've been doing exactly the same thing for 133 years. We're still in business. I know we're doing it right, otherwise we probably wouldn't still be here. It's gratifying to hear, as we did from one customer, that the coffee she is buying is exactly the same recipe, the same flavor, that her grandmother bought 50 years ago."
Square One Coffee, 145 N. Duke St., has been operating in the heart of downtown Lancaster since 2000. The popular cafe and bistro was purchased in 2007 by Joshua and Jessica Steffy, a young married couple who had been running a coffee stand in Bird-in-Hand.
"All of our coffee is roasted on site at the cafe," Jess said. "We're a little different from the other roasters in town in that we will only buy products that are sustainable, and will pay fair-trade price for those products, which we think helps to raise the standard of living for coffee growers all around the world."
Josh and Jess met while training for missionary work and have traveled to Third World countries where coffee is grown.
"We are driven by a passion for coffee and a simple belief that people matter," Jess says. "We are committed to being a part of the success and growth of every coffee farmer with whom we partner."
The Steffys buy their coffee directly from the farmers.
"It's important to us to know the people from whom we get our product," Josh says. "People matter.
"The individual farmers are anxious to develop relationships with the roasters who are buying their products, and we see more and more of the smaller roasters buying their coffees direct, rather than through brokers. It personalizes the industry a little bit more."
The couple recently opened a coffee "laboratory" in town, where they train their baristas and those from other cafes who buy coffee from them. "We do a lot of testing there, too," Jess says. "We're always cupping coffee blends to try to improve our products. We just don't want to stand still. Coffee is an organic product, and we think of ourselves as an organic business."
She continues, "Could we be bigger? Absolutely. And we have a reasonably good wholesale business. But it's the people and the product that make us tick."
In business since 1990, College Coffee Roasters, 115 N. Donnerville Road, Mountville, supplies vendors who sell coffee by the cup or by the pound, says owner Susan Lithgoe.
Most days, Lithgoe can be found at her own coffee shop, George Street Cafe, across from Millersville University on North George Street.
"I really like the atmosphere in a place like this," Lithgoe says from behind the counter at the cafe. "A coffeehouse is a lot like a neighborhood bar. I like that. I like being part of a community this way."
Lancaster County Coffee Roasters, at 747 E. Ross St. in downtown Lancaster, offers up freshly roasted small-batch coffee. It offers two levels of service: full service with equipment, or coffee only.
"Our most popular blends," co-owner Scott Smith says, "are our Lancaster County Signature Blend, Old Amish, Red Rose Espresso and our most popular, Star Barn -- a dark-roast blend similar to French roast coffees. It's often used as an espresso base."
Smith says he is proud to be part of the Lancaster business community.
"We've been at this for more than a decade now, and we feel honored that we've been embraced so well by the local business and public community."
LCCR recently made its debut in the retail, by-the-cup business when it took over a stand at Lancaster Central Market previously operated by Market House Coffee.
Smith, a graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, says he thinks Starbucks, the Seattle-based coffee giant, has ratcheted up the coffee business for everyone.
"They've had a huge impact on the industry by educating consumers -- especially younger ones -- about the wonderful world of coffee," he says. "Now teens are introduced not just to coffee but to espresso-based drinks like lattes and cappuccinos, and that has helped all of us in the business.
Smith claims, "Everyone has their own take on coffee, and those curious enough to try other brands are likely to try us and like the product, because as a local roaster, we provide a 'closer-to-the-roaster' product that is fresher than anything Starbucks can make. And in this business, freshness is everything."n
Local coffee roasters savor flavor.