Perks Of The Job

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

January 22, 1995|By ROB KASPER

I took a trip to smell the coffee. It was roasting in three different spots: Coffee from these wholesale roasters shows up under a variety of labels all over Maryland. In addition to being aromatically interesting, my trip also taught me a few things about coffee and the history of the city.

I started sniffing in Towson at the area's newest roaster, the 3-year-old Baltimore Coffee & Tea Co. Tucked behind a Super Fresh grocery on Dulaney Valley Road across from the Towson Town Center, the place was not easy to spot. But it was easy to smell. A chimney pumped the aroma of roasting coffee beans into the parking lot. It was a distinctive aroma, if not as pleasing as the perfume that comes from freshly ground coffee beans.

The French roast beans I was smelling were being roasted at 425 degrees in a French-made roaster. The building that once was a factory outlet for Joseph A. Bank clothes now serves as a "factory outlet" and roasting operation for the coffee company. In the front, customers buy coffee by the pound, while in the back wholesalers ship coffee by the box load.

David Swartz, head roaster at Baltimore Coffee & Tea, talked about his roaster's features the way an auto enthusiast talks about a new sports car. The company uses a "small batch roaster," he said. It cooks 15 to 25 pounds of coffee beans at temperatures ranging from 400 to 435 degrees in about 15 to 20 minutes. The beans are roasted with indirect heat, so the roaster's gas flame never touches the beans. This prevents the burning of the tips of the beans, a condition called "tipping."

To keep up with the demand for their coffee, owners Stanley Constantine, Norman Loverde and John Kerney have been shuttling beans to Baltimore from an affiliated roasting business in Williamsburg, Va. This spring the owners hope to move their Towson operation to a new, roomier location in Timonium with a bigger roaster.

The crew at Eagle Coffee was roasting their House Blend when I showed up. They sell coffee to a variety of gourmet shops and grocery stores all over the United States, among them the local Giant, Eddie's and Mars stores. The family business began in 1921 at 104 W. Lexington St. and later moved to land now occupied by the Hyatt Regency Hotel. It relocated in 1971 to the 1000 block of Hillen St. and gradually took over the entire block. Owner Nicholas Constantinides -- cousin and competitor of Baltimore Coffee's Stanley Constantine -- said he plans to open another roasting operation, this one just for espresso, in White Marsh later this year.

Mr. Constantinides showed me the fine points of his new roaster, a computer-driven machine that roasts 600-pound batches of beans in about 12 minutes. No flame touches the beans, only hot air. Behind the roaring roaster, bags of green coffee beans are stacked to the ceiling. The places of origin listed on the bags read like the answers on a geography quiz: Colombia, El Salvador, Brazil, Hawaii.

Over in the corner are decaffeinated coffee beans from Germany. Before these beans were shipped to Baltimore, they had to pass taste tests conducted by Mr. Constantinides and his brother Arthur. The brothers roasted samples of the beans, brewed cups of coffee and, like wine tasters, sipped and spit the beverage. If the brew passed inspection, more beans were shipped to Hillen Street. If not, samples of other lots were dispatched to the brothers.

Tucked into the 400 block of Grindall St., a narrow South Baltimore passageway that looks down on the city's harbor, is the plant of Pfefferkorn's Coffee. Its coffee can be found anywhere from Ocean City restaurants to the Little George's convenience stores in Carroll County, to the coffee carts on a couple of MARC trains.

The Pfefferkorns, who hail from Austria, began selling coffee in Baltimore in 1900 at 79 Camden St. The business moved to a spot on Calvert Street that is now an IBM parking garage. In 1969, it moved to Grindall Street, where the Pfefferkorn brothers, Samuel, Louis C. and James, ran the business before turning it over to their children, Louis Charles Jr., Mary P. Griffin and Julia Barth.

When I was there the crew had stopped roasting for the day, but the aroma still lingered in the plant. Mrs. Barth showed me the company's roaster, which cooks bean batches of 250 to 500 pounds for 15 to 20 minutes, and its trusty Gump Grinder, which pulverizes the beans. She also showed me the family's ingenious attic storage system. When a wheel on the factory floor is turned, seven different styles of beans -- Store, Colombia, House, No. 1, Decaf, Best and French Roast -- are shot toward the ceiling and stored in seven lofty bins.

"A good coffee roaster can put a batch [of beans on] and still go about his business," she said. "He knows if he checks it and it still smells like a grass sack, it is not done. But if it is crackling like popcorn, things are all right."

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