Coffee Roasting with Sara Lee

Some time ago, we explored home coffee roasting: its tools, the beans, the quality, and the sheer pleasure. But there are some of us who neither have the time nor patience for such endeavors. Oh, they still want "good" coffee but are limited to the coffee's availability. For some, they may be relegated to the grocery or the office. Or maybe their favourite diner whom serves "one mean cuppa joe."

Do you ever wonder where this coffee comes from? Or where it is roasted? Well, recently I had the pleasure of visiting one of the three largest specialty coffee roasters in the United States. But once I say the name, you'll most likely do a double take.

Sara Lee.

Yes. Sara Lee, known for their cakes and pies, and other baked assortments available from your local grocer. Actually, they roast and sell under a name many may be familiar with: Sara Lee Coffee and Tea. And the person responsible for this roasting is Jim Cleaves.

Jim is an oddity of sorts. He has a background in specialty coffee, making him a more-than-suitable person for the job. Located within the warehouse district of Chicago, Jim -- as well as many other individuals -- ensures that coffee is being purchased, stored, roasted, and then packaged and shipped to his customers' demands every day. And that's a good deal of coffee! About 30 million pounds of roasted beans per year leave this facility.

Before the beans can be roasted, Jim (known as the Roast Master) and others partake in quality cuppings. Here, the task is not to find the top three or four stars from a particular country or region. Instead, they have the daunting task of insuring that their product will taste the same each and every time. To do this, they cup (or taste test) samples upon samples of coffee before committing to buying a single sack. When a coffee is chosen -- and often these are the very same coffees your local roaster may purchase and roast to sell -- they are shipped to the Chicago facility and stored. When needed for production, the beans are lifted and released into step 1 of the production process: The Scalper. The scalper is a simple machine whose main task is to sort out foreign material from the bags of beans: stones, rocks, bone, etc.

The beans are then transported and stored in holding containers until they are roasted in the roasters. Sara Lee roasts on smaller drum roasters as well as one very large and very interesting Probat bowl roaster. At each roaster are controls that feed information back to a command central of sorts -- Jim's office. From his desk, he can watch a roast progress, change values, and record and print out logs for all of his production stations. Including the "big boy," (at 750 pounds of roasted beans per batch), the smaller roasters are also overseen. Additional stations within the facility include grinding and packaging. It's the use of this automation and controls technology that allows Sara Lee Coffee and Tea to maintain a fluid operation from raw to packaged product.

At the roasters there are other operators who are trained to trouble-shoot the machine and perfect the roast. Throughout the roasting process, samples are taken, ground, and compared to a desired set colour by the use of an Agtron colouring meter. For the large bowl roaster -- which I had the privilege of actually going into part way to see the behemoth at work -- the operator runs a console, called a Human to Machine Interface, whereby she loads her batches of green coffee into the roaster. This roaster, nearly two-stories tall and as large as a decent apartment, contains a large cast metal bowl. The bowl takes some time to warm up before the beans are loaded from the top. A motorized lid comes down on the bowl and hot air is forced into the spinning mass. The beans creep up the side of the bowl, hit the lid, and then come back down again through the center. The finished product is then moved to various grinding and packaging stations. The final product is boxed and sent out the door on trucks.

Completing the tour was the cupping and Quality Assurance labs. Here, new products are received for evaluation and current products are evaluated for quality. The cupping process for this large roast facility is no different than what would take place at a mill or a brokerage house, or even at your local roastery.

It is evident from our conversation that Jim enjoys his work and enjoys good coffee. And it was a pleasure to see this side of the business. So, the next time you're sitting in your favourite restaurant or hotel, look to see whose coffee they are using. You may just see that it is a Superior cup!

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