Seattle coffee culture starts with roaster

By ALLISON LINN / Associated Press

The battle for the best cup of coffee in Seattle is waged long before liquid hits cup, in cavernous rooms where coffee beans are piled high and noisy equipment churns out each company’s unique coffee roast.

Many of Seattle’s local roasters insist their small scale, decades-old roasting machines and intense attention to detail allows them to make a better cup of coffee than industry giant and hometown competitor Starbucks Corp.

Seattle’s Caffe Vita roasts about 3,000 pounds of coffee a day, mostly in 80-pound batches, using circa 1939 equipment. In a cavernous, loud room behind one of the company’s shops, the roasters say they judge whether a batch is done by listening, watching and smelling the coffee as it swirls around a big vat.

“It’s full senses,” says Andrew Daday, Caffe Vita’s lead roaster.

Several times a week, Zoka Coffee owner Jeff Babcock heads down to the roasting plant located below his corporate offices to slurp spoonfuls of fresh coffee with the small group of roasters, who “cup” — or taste — the coffee twice a day to ensure quality .

“It’s fine art,” he says of the roasting and tasting process.

By contrast, Starbucks’ 350,000-square foot roasting, packaging and warehouse plant in suburban Kent churns out up to 1.5 million pounds of coffee per week, using high-tech computer controls to monitor roasting equipment that can handle 400- to 600-pound batches of beans. The coffee there is subjected to periodic quality checks as well.

All three companies insist that they are roasting in small enough batches to guarantee quality.

“We’re still a specialty coffee producer,” says Gregg Clark, director of Starbucks’ plant operations.