Live Roasting at Artis -- Is It Worth It?
Back in December, when Artis Coffee Roasters opened up shop in Berkeley across the street from a very loved and very old coffee franchise, offering not seasonally flavored lattés and toasty roasts but rather a buffet of raw, green coffee, I thought, could this fly? We might like building our own pizzas, but most of us know more about what cheese we like than what African microzones grow coffee we'll dig. Putting roasting into the hands of the people might be a tall order. This weekend, I aimed to find out.
Molly Gore Coffee popping around in the Java Master, a hot air roaster.
Artis is a beautiful space. Airy, bright, painted with highly Instagrammable wall art and typeface. Sleek coffee tech fills the shelves, and high windows pour daylight onto the scene. In the middle of it all is a spread of seven bins, regionally labeled, filled with varying shades of green coffee. Behind them, at the back of the bar, sit a few long glass tubes, where beans bounce around on hot air, like Jiffy Pop, somewhere on their way from green to brown. They call it "live roasting," or roasting beans to order in the time it takes to eat a muffin. Close up, it looks like an automated circus. Happily, it's a lot more interesting than that.
The great majority of coffee drinkers have never seen raw coffee before. We've never been trained to recognize what we like in a green bean (there's no telling taste by looks, for the most part), but no matter, Artis is making this easy. To begin, they've pulled together an online quiz to start gearing folks towards coffee they'll love. Are you into burnt smores, red wine, and raspberries? The flavor quiz will nudge you towards the floral, fruity African coffees at a medium roast. Like straight marshmallows, white wine, and Pilsner? Steer towards higher-acid Latin American coffees. It's a broad place to start, but everyone needs an entry point, and I dare say this is the best one I've seen around. If multiple choice doesn't suit you, approach the staff, trained to identify reliable candidates based on your taste.
When I arrived, there was already one coffee I knew I loved on deck, from the Aricha washing station in the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia whose coffee is famous for the unmistakeable smack of blueberries. Indeed, the last one I had, from Mr. Espresso, felt like dropping my face into a warm pan of caramelized blueberry pie. Based on my illicit love for the Aricha, the staff pointed me towards another Ethiopian, from the Guji area of Sidamo. I ordered a cup brewed on the Blossom One brewer. Milder but darker than I expected, rounded out by soft citrus. I liked it, but I missed the pie. And so, I put in my name for a cup of Aricha, and a pound of each coffee to be roasted at the café's suggested parameters for comparison at home. In hindsight, I would've waited to taste all the coffees roasted at the café's determined optimum before ordering my own beans. I came away with a cup that was again, toastier than I'm personally tuned to love, but with the ever reliable blueberries tumbling in at the end of every sip. On my next visit, I'll buy the green Aricha again, roasted lighter, maybe. Shorter time? Less heat? For laymen and craftspeople both, it's a playground.
And here lies the great thing about Artis: It has managed to step into a traditionally esoteric enterprise, and seemingly dissolve the bigotry around the right way to do coffee. Sure, the café paints its own suggested roasting parameters on each bin, but you're welcome to switch it up and experiment. You're empowered to take more of the process into your own hands, but in a guided fashion if you choose. If that means bastardizing the coffee, so be it. If you want to learn the third wave game, you'll find plenty of help along the way.