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What Makes Coffee Local?

For a product that can’t be commercially grown here, coffee is a growing industry in the Green Mountain State. Coffee roasters are proliferating and we wondered why, and what, makes coffee ‘local.’ 

We started our search in a pristine facility in Middlebury, where the smell of coffee roasting is almost overwhelming. Vermont Coffee Company is one of more than ten outfits roasting coffee in Vermont today.  It has built a devoted following at the moment is expanding it’s Middlebury plant.

Bags and bins of beans from Mexico and Peru are piled high as four roasters produce about 3,000 pounds per day, much of it is sold here in Vermont, but the batch being roasted today is shipping to New York City. 

Though the beans come from the tropics company founder Paul Ralston says the thing that makes this a Vermont product is the roasting and the blending. “Vermont Coffee is about the artisan work that we do here in Vermont. We transform it here. We add the value here,” Ralston says.

Down a rutted road in Burlington’s South End, Joe Consentino is doing his magic with a breakfast blend at Black River Roasters, using a single roasting machine in a building that’s little more than a converted garage. Much of the coffee roasted here is sold in New Jersey, but it’s also served in some of Burlington’s top restaurants.

Joe roasts about 1,000 pounds per week, mostly by himself, except for a possible assist from a Levitt Olde English Bulldog named Seven. An electric guitar and amp sit off to one side, which Joe uses to pass the time, along with a nearby drum kit. He says roasting is a painstaking process: “To get a final product it’s amazing how many things have to go right,” Consentino explains.

But even the best blend of perfectly roasted beans can still get ruined on the way to your cup. That’s where yet another Vermont artisan comes in – the barista. At Maglianero, one of Vermont’s latest, high-end coffee shops doing brisk business in Burlington, Manager Corey Goldsmith is currently using beans from a Waterbury roaster, Vermont Artisan, but he personally prefers a New York blend. Goldsmith believes that “there are some roasters here (in Vermont) who do an excellent job but I wouldn’t be surprised if you see more roasters from New York finding their ways up here. Lots of local roasters do a good job, but if the cafes all used the same roast, it wouldn’t be as exciting.”

But Vermont Coffee Company chief  Paul Ralston rejects that view. “The idea that you have to reach outside Vermont for your coffee somehow I don’t understand that at all. We have so much variety,” Ralston insists.

Vermont also has some enthusiastic coffee consumers. In the bulk aisle of Burlington’s City Market folks fill bag after bag of coffee beans. Store Manager Lynn Ellen Schimoler says they sell as much as 60 pounds per day, bulk and pre-packaged, most of it local, and that’s not counting coffee that’s on sale.  And most of the customers we spoke with said they buy whatever is on sale. Several admitted they didn’t know what kind of coffee they’d just bagged, not where the beans came from or even who the roasted it.   

The guys who do know what’s in the bag are working in a luxe, waterfront facility in Burlington’s South End called Coffee Enterprises. It’s a coffee company that does not make coffee (though they do provide coffee extracts to Ben and Jerry’s, among many other major companies). This outfit specialized in testing coffee - a very scientific-looking process that involves lab coats, timers, clipboards and some very funny sounds:  sniffing, slurping and spitting.  One tester was overheard describing a ben as having watermelon flavors, another saying a blend is “very sweet, has a nice fruitiness, the acidity and body were balanced.”

The company is run by Dan Cox, who formerly helped build Green Mountain Coffee Roasters into the giant it is today, partly by trading on Vermont’s image. Cox says speciality coffee came in the heels of specialty foods.  “That whole emerging foods industry that started with Green Mountain Coffee, Ben and Jerry’s, Cabot Cheese, Rhino Foods, Lake Champlain Chocolates, Magic Hat Brewery we’re all in the same class together.  We all grew up together,” Cox explains. 

While he says Vermont has many fine roasters, Cox says it doesn’t really matter where coffee is roasted. “I don’t like to harp on the Vermont mystique that we do things better up here. I don’t know if that’s true.  It’s hand crafted? It’s all hand-crafted. All coffee is hand-picked. Give me a break. Mountain grown?  It’s all Mountain grown. Cut it out,” Cox says.

So the Vermont mystique may only go so far. In fact, the espresso served at Burlington’s beloved Muddy Waters, comes from New York. 

Maglianaro manager Corey Goldsmith says local doesn’t always mean ‘better.’ “What really matters is what comes out in the cup.  And as long as what you get it good then you’re all set.  Keep doing it,” he smiles. 

So as strange as it may seem that a bean grown in Guatemala could be considered a Vermont product, lots of local roasters are making it work.  And the all the experts we spoke with agree - they do make a very good cuppa joe.

Claudia Marshall is a veteran journalist, radio and TV host, musician and music lover. She's lived in LA, New York and Portland, OR, and her hometown is Motown, but she loves the quote about Vermont: "I wasn't born here, but I got back here just as fast as I could."
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