Coffee Addict’s Journey Inside the Starbucks Roasting Plant

Apr 8, 2008 11:24am

Producer Charles Herman blogs about his trip to the Starbucks roasting plant near downtown Seattle, Wash. CLICK HERE to learn about Starbucks’ latest efforts to draw in customers. In a nondescript suburb a few miles southeast of downtown Seattle, in an anonymous office park like so many others across the country, lies what could be the very heart of what makes Starbucks the world’s largest coffee chain: its coffee roasting plant. It’s here where tiny, dense green coffee beans arrive and are roasted at triple digit temperatures for five to eight minutes to become the deep mocha brown color we caffeine addicts know to be coffee beans. With more than 50 million customers a week visiting one of the company’s more than 15,000 stores in 44 countries.  Just imagine how many beans Starbucks has to roast each year to meet the demand. Now it is disclosure time.  I am a coffee addict. Perhaps due to my upbringing in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have always been addicted to and in search of a good cup of coffee.  In college, I spent each semester practically sequestered in cafe, rather than in the library: studying, socializing and drinking far too many cups of coffee. A tour of the roasting plant, the air filled with the aroma of coffee, was one of those opportunities that remind me how this job can take you to places only imagined. Our guide, Dave Seymour, explained how the roasting operates.  His title is Distribution Specialist, but that doesn’t even begin to suggest his true claim-to-fame at Starbucks.  He is employee #4.  He started at 8 a.m. over 25 years ago.  CEO Howard Schultz, the man largely responsible for making Starbucks a national phenomenon, started the same day.  Only he arrived at 9:30 a.m. Dave told us that this 320,000 square foot facility in Kent, Washington opened in 1993 and runs 24 hours a day and is only one of four roasting plants that Starbucks currently operates.  There’s one in Carson Valley, Nevada; another in York, Pennsylvania for the East Coast; and one in Amsterdam. At this roasting plant, there are stacks and stacks and then more stacks of beans in bulging, beige burlap sacks that weigh upwards of 150 pounds each.  The bags proudly declare their origins: "Cafe; de Costa Rica La Postara" or "Genuine Antigua from Guatemala." They are decorated with colorful artwork: a woman with a branch of the coffee plant and a bowl of beans, a misty mountain behind her.  But these stacks are minuscule compared to the 48 million pounds of beans stored at nearby warehouse, waiting to be roasted.  The roasting process starts when the green beans are stacked on top each other in front of a metal grate in the floor.  A worker uses a knife to rip open the edge of the burlap sack, allowing the beans to pour out into the grate.  From there they are sucked into a washer where the beans are isolated from any foreign material like corn or wood or burlap.  Finally, a magnet pulls out any metals.  The beans are then weighed, sorted and stored, and readied for roasting.  In a nearby control room, computer screens filled with complex diagrams of the plant control the six roasters that can hold up to 600 pounds of beans each at one time. As the beans get hotter and hotter, they "pop."  One pop and they double in size, slowly going from green to brown.  One more pop and the inside of the bean has popped, the flavor of the bean has been unleashed. The beans then tumble out into enormous open circular cooling vats where four spokes attached to a central hub turn and turn, tossing the beans, cooling them in order to stop them from further roasting. The roast is tested and then stored, ready to be bagged, sealed, boxed, stacked and wrapped and then shipped all across the country.  Within three days, on average, the coffee will be on the shelves or brewed in the stores. Evaluating the coffee roast, referred to as "cupping," is an art similar to that of wine tasting.  It requires a developed palate as well as a vocabulary to describe the flavor.  For coffee, the key categories are acidity, body, complexity and flavor. Starbucks tasters work in seven test rooms around the world and taste anywhere from 100 to 200 cups of coffee a day.  That’s 150,000 cups of coffee tasted a year. A series of roasts are laid out, from mild to bold.  The beans are scooped, ground and dumped into a glass cup then filled with boiling water: three to six cups per roast.  After a few moments, the tasters will stir the coffee to "break the crust" that has formed on top and deeply inhale the smell of the coffee.  After skimming the grounds, the tasters do just that: taste.  They dip a spoon into the coffee and loudly slurp the coffee, taste the coffee and then spit it out into spittoons on the floor.  Working quickly, they test every cup on the table.  When I tried I realized how challenging it is to find the right words to describe the flavors. Some coffees tasted of citrus, others of flowers.  One had an intense, almost nutty flavor.  In some cases, it’s not even what you expect coffee to taste like.  But even without drinking the coffee, I could feel an intense caffeine rush. Different coffee blends can easily be made by mixing the coffees with one another.  Two parts Costa Rica, one part Guatemala, one part Ethiopian and voila! A new coffee blend perhaps available for sale one day,  or at least for drinking at home.  It is through this process that Starbucks developed its new Pike Place Roast on sale today.  The new coffee that it will offer in every store every day is sweeter, less acidic and could easily be drunk without coffee or sugar.  Brewed coffee is also, as CEO Schultz pointed out several times during our interview with him, less than $2.  By focusing on the brewed coffee, Starbucks addresses two issues at one time.  It aggressively reclaims its heritage as a coffee roaster and during these tougher economic times, is offering a new coffee option when a $5 venti caramel mocha whip might feel a bit pricey.

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