This past Saturday, we took a tour of Intelligentsia Coffee‘s roasting facility in the West Loop, which just might be one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets. There are few tours that engage all five of your senses, and it was a really enjoyable and informative experience — viewing the huge, colorful cast iron roasters, touching the green coffee beans, watching the beans turn from green to brown during the roasting process, hearing the crackle and tumble of the beans in the roasting drum, smelling the rich, warm aroma of the roasting, and tasting the finished product.
The tour started with the guide and the roaster talking about the history of coffee, how coffee is produced, coffee growing regions around the world, and general flavor profiles one can expect from different regions. They’d conveniently brewed three single-region coffees so we could taste the differences ourselves: chocolaty, fruity organic La Perla de Oaxaca from Mexico, lemony-floral Yirgacheffe from Ethiopia, and earthy, winy Abongabong from Sumatra. (There was also a fourth, El Diablo dark roast, which is a blend of a couple different regions.)
Because many people were interested, our tour guide spent quite a bit of time discussing Intelligentsia’s direct trade sourcing model. It’s similar to fair trade in that both espouse sustainable agriculture and socially responsible practices, but direct trade goes above and beyond by building relationships with farmers and producers and buying directly from them instead of through exporters and brokers, and paying at least 25% above the fair trade prices. Intelligentsia created this model in order to find the best coffee available; our guide informed us that although coffee may be fair trade certified, it doesn’t necessarily meet their taste standards. Additionally, outstanding coffee producers may not have the time or money to become fair trade certified even if they do meet the criteria, but it’s the relationship building that allows Intelligentsia to trust their growers’ quality and ethical practices.
(There’s a lot more to direct trade I won’t get into, but you can visit Intelligentsia’s Direct Trade Coffee website for more. And there’s a really great NYT article about direct trade coffee, featuring Intelligentsia, here.)
After that, the roaster roasted up a batch of coffee in a 90-kilo capacity, 50+ year old German roaster. I won’t go into detail — see the Intelligentsia website for that — and let the pictures speak for themselves.
Bags of green coffee beans are poured into the hopper…
transported from the hopper (black box and tube) into a roaster via one of the colored tubes…
and roasted in the big drum.
side of drum detail
roaster control panel
Temperature and roasting time are closely regulated and depend upon the variety of bean and type of roast being produced. This batch will take just over 14 minutes to complete.
The beans have turned a golden yellow approximately eight minutes into the roast.
After roasting is completed, the beans cascade into a holding area and are stirred for several minutes to cool them.
The finished product. At the end of the tour, everyone received a half pound of freshly roasted coffee!
Intelligentsia Roasting Works tours (1850 W. Fulton) are offered on the first Saturday of every month. $7 admission includes a half pound bag of coffee, so the tour pretty much pays for itself. For more info, click here.