Words by Michelle L. Goshorn
Photos by Nin Truong
It’s difficult to talk about Seattle without saying something about its place in the gourmet coffee scene. Sure, coffee is all over the world, in fact it’s the second most globally traded commodity after petroleum. However, here in Seattle people have cultivated a whole culture around a single shot of espresso. The increased popularity of espresso has inspired the transition from producing large amounts of coffee to supply the farthest corners of the world, to producing smaller, quality roasts catering to the palettes of coffee aficionados. This evolution in the production of coffee combines contemporary artistry with traditional machinery to create some of the best coffee in the country.
Recently, I had the chance to venture beyond my “macchiato in demitasse” in search of the perfect-cup-of-coffee story. The journey led me to one of Seattle’s most vital coffeehouses, Caffe Vita, where a pre-World War II coffee roaster turns out 3500 pounds of coffee a day. Those in the know refer to the cast iron roasting grandfather as the Probat GG45. From green bean to roasted delight, this German crafted piece of machinery supplies Caffe Vita’s gourmet blends such as Caffe Del Sol, Queen City Blend and Caffe Luna. Each blend is small batch roasted in 80 pound drops, with the utmost attention placed on the needs of the bean.
As you’d expect, the Probat GG45 has a history that befits its image. Steeped in the tradition of Italian coffee roasting, the machine origins can be traced all the way back to Germany where it was owned by a family in a small town right near the Rhine River. The family roasted small batches and distributed locally, but eventually the family business was bought out by a larger company who only wanted their customers. Selling off their equipment, the roaster would make its way to the United States where it would spend nearly 45 years as the back-up roaster for the West Coast’s legendary Caffe Trieste. In those days, the frequency of roaster fires made an additional roaster necessary for continued production. Born out of San Francisco’s North Beach, Caffe Trieste is recognized for bringing Italian style espresso to the West Coast. During its career as a fixture of the burgeoning coffee scene, the GG45 was spectator and contributor to the poetic Beatnik counterculture that took shape.
In 1999, the roaster made Seattle its home inside of Caffe Vita. Exceeding eight feet in height and weighing in at over a ton, the GG45 anchors Italian tradition into each small-batch roast. Each day over 14 million dried green coffee beans enter the drum of the GG45 by means of a bucket elevator. The pre-roasted beans are hoisted 27 feet high to slide down cylinder tubes into the greenhopper (a funnel shaped component at the top of the roaster that holds the beans while the drum warms). The beans are then roasted at varying temperatures and dropped into the cooling tray. The process results in the signature artisans blends that are carried throughout the city and parts of the country.
Not only is the GG45 roaster the backbone of Seattle gourmet coffee, but it also stands as a testament to the city’s determined spirit to seek traditional Italian ways of preparing coffee. Unlike many contemporary coffee roasters which have traded human sensibilities for technology, the GG45 assigns control to the roaster technician. This piece of handcrafted machinery transforms everyday women and men into culinary coffee artisans dependent on their senses to produce desired roasts. The attention to detail and proud craftsmanship establishes Seattle as a mainstay for coffee culture now and into the future.