By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
Back in the car to meet three who are coaxing the roast in Maine.
Certain things must be done at the cabin in the morning.
First, we open the blinds to see what the day’s light is like on the lake. If we’re up early enough, the sky might be pink or edged with amber. Or maybe the air is thick with fog and the sky is heavy and washed out. Whatever the weather’s bringing, straight away we always want a pot of water heating on the stove for coffee. The grinder whirs and the kettle whistles. These are good sounds, signaling the start of the day. And once the coffee’s brewed, we pour it into a tall thermos to keep it hot for a few hours. We want to make the Maine morning last.
On one of those lingering coffee days, I call a man from Pownal who’s known for fire-roasting beans from Peru, Brazil, Ethiopia, and other far-flung places. They sell his coffee in copper-colored bags at Whole Foods in Portland. His name is Matt Bolinder, and he tells me his roaster is fueled by kiln-dried Maine maple, red oak, and ash. He’ll be roasting again on Wednesday if I want to check it out. Yes, I reply, I want to see, smell, and taste the wood-roasted brews, but that’s a few days away. Bolinder and I discuss other roasting operations around the state. There’s a lot going on. I want to sample some of Maine’s best coffees and see how the exotic beans—actually, they are the pits of coffee cherries from points equatorial—are roasted in small batches for Maine markets. Coffee speeds you up, of course, but it can also give an excuse to slow down, to sit and talk with someone. With caffeine-fueled curiosity, I choose a couple more roasteries and make a plan with photographer Peter Frank Edwards to find them.
GOOD MORNING, DEER ISLE
It’s a little past 8 a.m. on a bright Monday morning, which is an ideal time to drive down the Blue Hill Peninsula on Route 175. As we pass the Northern Bay Market, three burly men are walking from the porch with foam cups of what must be coffee. I see steam rising, a clear indication. The peninsula is waking up, and I’m ready to get to Deer Isle—to cross the high-arching, two-lane, green suspension bridge over Eggemoggin Reach and then dip down to the snaking causeway that traverses the saltwater-soaked mud flats.
In Deer Isle proper, upstairs in the town’s white-painted former high school, is the one-room headquarters of 44 North Coffee, which was founded last fall. This is where two women, Megan Wood and Melissa Raftery, roast the beans they sell to a growing list of vendors, including Lily’s Cafe in Stonington, the Blue Hill Co-op, the Cave in Brooklin, and the Friday farmers market on the island. The light flooding in through the room’s tall windows illuminates burlap sacks of beans, vintage coffee pots, and oversized chalkboards filled with descriptions of the coffees. It’s a chilly morning, and I don’t turn down a cup when it is offered: an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe served in mugs made by Deer Isle potters. Now we’re talking. Wood, who is wearing vintage blue jeans and a silver fish belt buckle, says she took art classes in this room as a child, and she points to the ceiling, where a few gobs of colored clay are still stuck. Raftery, confident and calm, has turned on the roaster, which the two partners purchased in New Jersey, loaded onto a truck, and drove to Deer Isle. She explains that the roaster needs to reach over 300 degrees before they can begin roasting in six-pound batches. Wood is already brewing more coffee, and I watch the cola-black coffee drip into an elegant glass carafe. It smells rich and wonderful. I ask about the exhaust fan that blows heat and steam out a window. “A different smell than the clam flats,” Wood replies. Conversation and coffee flow as we sample a couple of other coffees they roast: one from Uganda and a Peruvian decaf. Wood was raised on the island, and after earning a degree in foreign policy, she returned for a season of winter lobstering out of Stonington on the Carole Ann. She tells me that she and her husband, Farrell Ruppert, live with their African-breed dog Jua in an old farmhouse that overlooks Greenlaw Cove. It sounds beautiful—and it is. I know, because before long we all end up driving over to Shore Acres and walking down to the shallow tidal pools where the women say the swimming is good in summer.
Originally from Ohio, Raftery recently turned thirty, but she says she’s only now realizing just how much coffee has been a part of her life. Before moving to Little Deer Isle and starting the business with Wood, Raftery worked as a barista, a river guide at the Forks in western Maine, and on a coffee farm in Kona, Hawaii, where she hand-picked and processed ripe coffee cherries. She knows what coffee shrubs look like and how much labor goes into growing and harvesting the beans. We toy with the idea of trying one more cup of coffee, but it’s lunchtime and we’re hungry. Ruppert, a metalsmith and artist, just returned from the barn, where he has spent the morning finishing the construction of an impressive chicken coop, and Wood is about to slice some bread for sandwiches. We need to say our farewells and continue on down to Stonington, where we plan to meet a friend in one of the sunny booths at the Harbor View. When we arrive, the servers there are pouring a dark brew, but I'm ready for a caffeine break and order plain water and one of the daily plate specials.
BUON GIORNO, ELLSWORTH
The next morning, as usual, we brew up some coffee in the cabin. While sipping the second most traded commodity in the world (oil is the first), my mind sharpens. A little later, we drive up to Ellsworth, the town everyone drives through—and often stops in—on the way to Acadia National Park. Friends from Castine first told me about Rooster Brother and its coffee years ago. “You can’t miss the massive mansard when you drive into town,” they said. No kidding. Rooster Brother is housed in a mammoth Victorian building that rises beside the Union River on Main Street just before it splits between U.S. Route 1, Route 3, and Route 172.
We park beside the rushing river and walk through the basement door to where the roasting takes place. Roasting coffee aromas fill the space—smells of toast, molasses, raisins, mocha. Under the low ceilings, we find wine, prosciutto, imported cheese, and a long, gleaming La Marzocco Linea espresso machine. Am I in Italy or Maine? (What a happy question!) George Elias, who opened this “store for cooks” in 1987, greets us, and soon we’re talking of his frequent trips to explore Italy’s food, wine, and coffee. He has photographs from a recent stay in Lucca on his computer, and when the shop’s master roaster, Gene Pellerano, makes an espresso macchiato for me (“lustro,” with foamed milk mixed in), it’s served with a shot glass of San Pellegrino mineral water on the side. Bravissimo.
Elias says coffee roasting adds “liveliness, heat, and fire” to the store and that it has always been at the heart of Rooster Brother. What you’re doing is taking beans that are still green and driving the moisture out with heat, he says. “There’s something magical about it…like alchemy.” In the circa-1895 Oddfellows Hall basement, Rooster Brother roasts Hawaiian Kona and a Costa Rican coffee from the La Minita Estate. One of the beans, an intriguing Indian Monsooned Malabar, is stored in open warehouses through a monsoon season, allowing them to dry slowly in the salty sea winds. Elias gives us a tour of the upper floors of the massive old building, and then he stops along the way for an espresso. Earlier he had talked of the Malabar coffee’s “bass notes” and “subtle saltiness,” but just then, in the bright afternoon light of a tall window, while pausing after a sip, he says simply, “That’s a hell of a cup of coffee.”
Matt Bolinder, who has been balancing a life split between teaching college English and roasting coffee, doesn’t want to get my hopes up during our phone conversation. “I’m in a warehouse down by the river near the Marden’s complex,” he says. “It’s gritty, not picturesque.” I’m imagining metal, cement, and drafts as we drive to a nearly empty, brick-walled factory building on the banks of the Kennebec River in Waterville. And I’m not far off. I call Bolinder’s mobile, and he lets us in at a loading-dock door. Inside, we walk through cavernous storage rooms in the dim, filtered light, past cabinets and old office chairs. Then Bolinder slides open a metal door to reveal the Matt’s Coffee roasting room. Industrial and spare, the large, L-shaped space has wine-red walls and sacks of coffee stacked on palettes. There’s a wall of windows, and the floor is mostly covered with textured steel plates—remnants of its former use as a welding room. I stamp my feet to ward off the cold.
When I look up, I stare in wonder at the enormous roasting machine. With its red-painted body, chutes, and wheels, the Italy-made Petroncini looks like a locomotive. It’s larger than the roaster in Ellsworth and must be several times the size of the Diedrich machine at 44 North. And there’s also a stack of wood next to it. When Bolinder bought the machine in 2007 and started roasting, he chopped his own wood to fuel the roaster’s stove. He has since turned to buying kiln-dried hardwoods because their heat is more even. He roasts on Wednesdays, and today is Wednesday. It’s roasting time and he’s in the zone.
Bolinder fills the stove with wood and gets it burning—a fitting task for a guy who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the literature of the Maine woods. While the roaster heats, he grinds coffee and makes a shot of espresso for each of us while we wait. It’s a Brazil Diamenta, and I wonder if I’ll taste the wood fire, since this is the only roasting operation we have visited that uses wood. Bolinder explains that wood smoke does pass over the beans and circulate around them, but that the beans aren’t truly smoked. The roasting time is about 13 minutes, he says, which is “not like a pork smokehouse where it would go for hours.” Since I’ve lived much of my life in the South, I appreciate his analogy.
Finally, the big red roaster is hot and ready for the first batch. I like contraptions, and this one is fascinating to watch. A vacuum loader sucks the still-green coffee beans through a tube and into a hopper above the roasting drum. The fire adds heat. And sometime after the beans make their first a round of snaps (like popcorn popping) and just before the second time they do (Bolinder gauges the exact moment by recording temperatures every minute and repeatedly smelling a sample of the roasting beans), the roasted beans drop and spill onto a round, aerated tray with a spinning arm that circulates and cools them. Depending on the desired roast, he sometimes waits for the beans to go through the second round of cracks and snaps before releasing them from the hot drum for cooling. He utilizes the longer process when he’s preparing his darkest roast, Sock Saunders, named for a fictional character in We Took to the Woods, Louise Dickinson Rich’s 1942 account of life in remote Maine. Whatever he’s roasting, the process is noisy and hot, and we are overcome by the rich smell of the roasting, tropical-born beans that have somehow made it to Maine.