Last week I was lucky enough to go on a tour at the Peet’s Coffee & Tea Roastery (their roasting and packaging facility in Alameda). As someone who drinks Peet’s Italian Roast every morning, I was excited to see how this home-grown Bay Area company handled and roasted their coffee beans and so jumped at the chance to get a peek inside.
The outing was born out of a local school fundraising effort. Every year our school district has a party and auction to raise money for programs that the State of California’s ever-depleted funds no longer cover. Unlike when I was a kid, our school budgets are now dependent on parent fundraising efforts to afford teacher’s aide salaries, music and art supplies, library funds and so many other worthwhile programs. My neighbor and friend, Shawn Conway, who is the Chief Supply Chain Officer at Peet’s Coffee & Tea, donated a private tour of the roasting plant for the silent auction. After some pretty heavy bidding for this item, my friend Betsy’s brother Tom won out and I was then invited to attend. Lucky me!
So last Friday, six of us gathered at Peet’s Coffee & Tea’s Roastery in Alameda for our behind-the-scenes look at coffee roasting. Peet’s main business offices remain in Emeryville, where they’ve been for years, but in 2007 they opened this new roasting and packaging plant specially designed for their small-batch, roast-to-order business model. Most of the building is taken up by enormous stacks of green coffee beans in burlap bags, packaging machinery and the roasting floor itself, although there is also a beautiful test barista kitchen and some offices. The warehouse, as you may imagine, is heavily perfumed with the glorious smell of roasting coffee beans. With a lovely view of the bay, it seemed like a pretty great place to spend your day.
Shawn and his colleague Maurice “Mo” Sardella gave us a genuinely informative and entertaining tour. I learned a great deal about coffee beans, from where they are grown and how they’re bought, to what Peet’s does to ready them for your morning cup of coffee.
Here are some fun facts that I discovered:
Peet’s Roast-to-Order Business
I had no idea that Peet’s has a roast-to-order business model. What does roast-to-order mean? Basically, the warehouse starts and ends each day with clean shelves. They never store roasted coffee in their warehouse. There are eight, highly-trained roasters who start their day at 2:30 a.m. Like bakers, they need to begin their shifts in the wee hours of the morning so they can roast enough pre-ordered beans to be trucked or shipped out later that same day. Each batch is shipped within two hours of roasting, allowing the company to provide freshly-roasted beans to customers. The decision to not store roasted beans — and therefore not hold any actual inventory — isn’t the most efficient or cost-effective way to run a supply chain business, but Peet’s feels it ensures the quality of their product.
I also learned that Peet’s has a thriving Internet direct-sales business. Did you know you could order Peet’s to be delivered to your house? I didn’t. According to Shawn, Peet’s air mails coffee and tea orders to people all over the world, including soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, on a daily basis. I wish I would have known about this when my twins were infants.
And then there’s the tea. Although our tour was mostly focused on coffee, we also were able to see that the warehouse has a special section (far from the coffee roasters so the smells do not permeate the fragile tea leaves) dedicated to the handling, blending and packaging of tea. This section wasn’t part of our main tour, but I did see that each tin is hand-packed and quality checked, and these are also shipped out daily.
The Roasting Process
Up close and personal, the roasting process is pretty amazing. The back of the warehouse is full of beans from all over the world — sacks from Guatemala, Kona, Sumatra, Kenya, and every other coffee-growing location are piled high. I felt very small standing under these mountains of coffee and had the feeling it wouldn’t be the best place to be standing in an earthquake.
I asked if roasters specialize in working with a specific bean, but was told that after years of apprenticing and training, each roaster becomes an expert at handling various types of beans for all different blends and single-origin coffees. I also learned that like making chocolate or cheese, roasting coffee is an artisan craft. When we watched one roaster handling a batch of Guatemala, he continually pulled a sample from the heated drum. These guys (and yes, they are all “guys”) use smell, sight and sound to discern if a batch is ready. They continually lean over their samples to smell the beans, listen for popping (apparently a certain number of pops means a great deal) and look to analyze the color and sheen of the beans. When we were watching one roaster, Shawn pointed out that the computer showed that his batches were all within 4 seconds of each other, but what was amazing was that the roaster was not actually looking at that computer at all. He was just naturally able to make consistent batches using his senses.
Here’s a clip of the beans coming out of the roaster.
The Life of a Bean
Like cherries and peaches, coffee beans are a type of fruit, and so their freshness degrades over time. The deterioration process starts after roasting, which is why Peet’s ships their beans the day they are roasted.
The stages of the life of a Peet’s bean — from sitting green in a burlap sack to getting poured into a coffee cup — has some crucial steps:
- Peet’s roasting facility has 1/2 million pounds of green coffee at any given time. These beans are cleaned, weighed and sent to one of 48 silos where they wait to be roasted.
- Beans are then roasted in small batches (the size of which is confidential). Each batch is attended to by a roaster before it gets sucked into a Willy Wonka-type tube (think Augustus Gloop) and is then poured into an enclosed cart.
- After roasting, each batch of beans is tasted and evaluated to ensure it meets quality standards. The roasters, who have each undergone a rigorous apprenticeship and training process that lasts years, actually do this themselves. In a special room they blind taste and critique each other’s work, tossing out a batch if it doesn’t taste right. The beans are then bagged and shipped out within 1-2 hours of roasting.
- For the first 2-3 days after the roasting process, the beans are volatile, expelling gasses as they settle. They must therefore be treated with care.
- Coffee beans that are shipped to Internet-order customers, offices and grocery stores are stored in bags that have little valves embedded in them. These are one-way valves that expel built-up gasses, but do not allow oxygen in (as oxygen initiates the decaying process and so is the enemy).
- Whole beans shipped to stores are kept in air-tight bags to maintain freshness until ready for use.
- Most beans sold in Peet’s stores have been roasted within 10 days of use.
- 5-10 days after roasting seems to be the sweet spot for coffee beans as the unstable gaseous stage is over and the flavors have more balance and nuance.
Peet’s purchases beans from all over the world and procures them through various means. Here are a few examples for how they do this:
Relationships with farms — Peet’s deals directly with many coffee farms and plantations. Their relationship with one farm in Guatemala was started over 40 years ago by Alfred Peet and is still going strong. In Nicaragua, they trained a group of local women to farm their own small plots of land and then helped organize them into a cooperative — called Las Hermanas — where they could sell their crops together for more money than they could individually.
TechnoServe — Peet’s also works directly with TechnoServe, an international non-profit development organization committed to building businesses in developing countries to benefit the rural poor. Through this organization, Peet’s works to educate and train small farmers so they are able to grow high-quality coffee beans while also working together to help build stronger community infrastructures. This partnership formed the basis for initiatives in Tanzania and, more recently, Rwanda. Through TechnoServe, small farmers are able to earn more, share knowledge, and contribute a portion of profits to build schools and provide health care. Peet’s seems very proud of their work with TechnoServe because it enables them to help drive rural economic development in traditionally impoverished areas.
Auctions — Some countries have created a government-run auction system where higher quality coffee garners higher prices. Peet’s Kenya Auction Lot is purchased through this type of auction system and the beans are then sold as a single-origin coffee.
Beans at Home
How to keep your own beans fresh after purchase:
- Buy only as much as you will use in one week.
- Purchase whole beans and grind at home. Even if you have a cheap $20 grinder (like me), your coffee will taste fresher if you grind just before you use.
- Don’t freeze or refrigerate your beans as they can soak up moisture and odors (and the last thing you want is coffee that smells like onions). Just set them in a cool and dry place (like your pantry).
- Keep your beans in the bag they came in and wrap the bag up tightly after each use so you expose the beans to as little air as possible.
I learned a lot about coffee last Friday and have a new respect for the coffee-growing and roasting processes. I am also less interested in sticking with my tried and true Italian roast. I will always love it, but after hearing about the world of coffee out there — from how and where beans are grown to the care the roasters take preparing them — I think I may just buy a new type next week.