“Here they come!!!”
I can barely hear a word of the guide’s exclamation as thousands upon thousands of beans of the richest brown color spill out of the roaster exuding the distinct, heavenly smell of the Devil’s Drink—coffee.
Welcome to Caffé River, one of the three large-scale coffee roasters in Arezzo. While its façade is a simple, white office building snuggled between two car dealerships (a Jeep dealership in Italy???), the inside of the factory itself is a caffeinated Willy Wonka Factory; plastic tubes decorate the empty space above us, machinery of all sizes line the walls, and the intense coffee aroma permeates the air and envelopes us in a cloud of warmth…the only thing missing are the Oompa-Loompas.
Whereas Americans indulge in generous amounts of sugar, milk, and other flavorings to their coffee, the Italian culture highlights the bean in its pure and unaltered form—espresso—the “coffee” that is served at any Italian café, bar, or restaurant and produced at this roaster.
At Caffé River, we are taken through the process of producing these little shots of energy from bean to powder, which proves to be much more difficult than it seems. First and foremost, the location of the coffee beans’ origin must be considered. As with grapes for winemaking, the taste of the coffee is predominately determined by the conditions in which the beans are grown. Connections with coffee growers must then be made, which requires significant amounts of trust between the business partners. The growers are expected to produce a consistency in each batch of beans, and the coffee beans are bought months in advance—anything could happen in this period of time that could compromise the entire load of coffee. Once the raw matcha-green beans reach Caffé River, each individual unroasted bean is checked and sifted for defects by a very sophisticated machine. Finally, the ones that pass the test rattle through a tube to another room, where the roasting occurs. The roasting time is another vital determinant to the coffee’s final taste; the drink will lean towards the weak side with undercooked beans, but overcooking them produces a very bitter and acidic sensation. The difference between perfect and rancid coffee is in mere seconds!
When the beans have cooled enough, they again travel through the tubes back to be tested for defects, and only the best of the batch are finally packaged and sold to vendors.
From a visual perspective, Caffé River, with its lack of human workers and automatic machines, seems to be the polar opposite of the organic and earth-friendly Fattoria La Vialla…but a closer look reveals that the two businesses are, in fact, quite similar. Our guide emphasizes the point that the factory is almost entirely run on renewable energy, with the one exception understandably being the energy used for the roasting process. The company prides itself not only in being environmentally conscious, but in being socially active as well. Rather than buy coffee beans from a middleman, who is typically more reliable and yields quicker results, Caffé River instead goes straight to the producers in African villages and other underdeveloped areas to purchase its beans. This is done to ensure that a portion of the company’s proceeds go toward helping the village communities in various ways, including providing clean drinking water and building new schools. So, although the espresso itself is delicious, the altruistic appeal of the company is what impresses and inspires me the most—they’re not simply seeking a monetary profit…each cup of coffee is much more than what meets the eye (and taste buds).
Before and after our tour of the factory, we each receive a cup of one of Caffé River’s espresso blends, and between the two cups there is a noticeable difference. At first, all I can elicit is, well, a coffee taste. It’s the same to me everywhere I go—bitter with a slight tang of sourness. However, learning about the overwhelming amount of time, effort, and detail that is put into providing a consistently perfect cup of espresso has given me a broader mind and palate for the drink. Within every sip is a story and a purpose.
I now order my Italian espresso with the anticipation of savoring more than just a bitter taste…and it only took me crossing an ocean and touring a coffee production company to finally appreciate coffee.