This marks the first in a series of articles introducing you to the faces and brains behind the best coffee companies and roasters who source, roast, and deliver great coffee to the masses.
“I’m not passionate about coffee.” These words flow out from a grin that Todd Carmichael always seems to have, both honest and a little devious; this grin reflects his child-like enthusiasm for everything, as well as his awareness that most of what he says will shock the hell out of you.
“Passion dies out. Coffee is who I am. I am dedicated to coffee.” And that dedication has paid off for the son of a farmer from Spokane, Washington. One thing I quickly learned from spending time with Todd at his Philadelphia roasting plant was that his ideas, no matter how wild or aspirational they may sound, will likely materialize before your eyes — just give it a few weeks, months, tops. His ideas bounce off the walls as much as he does; it’s hard to keep up. Once the idea is sparked, he is relentless in its’ execution. One of his many ideas that proved successful: his and partner (frenchman) JP Iberti’s successful roastery La Colombe Torrefaction, which they built with bare hands, setting up shop in downtown Philadelphia in ’93.
That dedication also led him across Antarctica, the first American to trek from the coast to the South Pole, solo and unaided. He has visited nearly half the world’s countries, including Ethiopia, where he adopted his three daughters. He most recently traveled to Haiti, where he rented a truck and trudged up the mountains, following the terrain alone to a coffee plantation he didn’t know was there, but intuitively knew he’d find — the Blue Forest plantation. Since then he’s been the first American to export large amounts of Haitian coffee to the US in nearly thirty years. I met with a Haitian farmer from Blue Forest in New York names Robinson, his first time ever outside of Haiti. Never in his wildest imagination would he have thought he’d wind up in New York City, meeting many of the greatest chefs of our time, all who served his coffee in their restaurants, the coffee he and others labored over for years. This is just a day in the life with Todd.
In the mid ’90s, La Colombe was the first of its’ kind — a sophisticated coffee roaster that elevated coffee to a more unique experience, one where different flavors and notes were brought out with great roasting and concern for origin. They called it “culinary coffee.” Todd and JP opened up their first cafe near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and immediately built up accounts with restaurants in Philadelphia and New York City.
Founded on a certain ethic (both Todd and JP come from farming families) their focus was, and always has been, the farmers. “Early on we decided that whatever became of coffee, whatever pressures were on us, we would first and foremost do right by the farmers,” Todd told me, “to us that meant – and means – sticking with our source farms through thick and thin, lukewarm cuppings and the like, frost, rot, disease or bumper crop…we were in it with them.” La Colombe has a certain trademark roast. “I tend towards smoky flavors in food, and I like the same to come out in my coffee,” Carmichael told me. He and JP roast dark, enough to make it smoky while maintaining the complex flavors of the bean.
But in coffee circles, no roast is without controversy. La Colombe may have brought us culinary coffee, but a few years later a new movement emerged, later deemed the “Third Wave.” Duane Sorenson from Stumptown became the new face of coffee, founding Stumptown Coffee in Portland in ’99. He roasted a bit lighter, believing that anything too deep would mask the complex depth of each bean. Chicago’s Intelligentsia, North Carolina’s Counter Culture were already on the scene (both founded in ’95), and were grouped with this new movement. La Colombe, with an interest in deeper roasting, slowly became the new Starbucks to the Third Wave.
So Todd, a writer himself, took to Esquire in 2010 to create some dialogue on the matter. Not one to soften a blow, he published a guide, “7 Steps to Avoid the Horrible Hipster Coffee Trend” and later broke the news that “Stumptown Sold Out,” referring to Sorenson’s controversial transaction with a private equity fund. “It was never against Third Wave, per se. It was more about extreme hipsterism,” Carmichael explained. What followed suit was a barrage of intense hate directed at Todd and his coffee, circulating the blogosphere.
Recent events made my trip to Philadelphia to meet Todd all the more exciting — with this controversy circulating, I was curious about him. Surely, a man who immerses himself in humanitarianism, adventures, and coffee can’t be all that bad. When I arrived at the train station, his assistant Renee was there to transport me to the roastery. She’s equally quick-witted, a friend of Todd’s since his youthful, “wild days;” she’s seen him through it all.
I arrived at the roastery to find a large operation unfolding. The building itself, a converted warehouse, is big, mostly taken over by large machinery. There are desk jobs, too: I met people from branding and sales, as well as roasters and packers. It was a warm, family environment, each person an important cog in the La Colombe machine.
Todd immediately ushered me in, and began the tour — he moves fast, and conversation never ceased. He was kind, funny, animated, and honest; his passion and enthusiasm is evident, if not a bit overwhelming. He could talk at length about his expeditions and adventures, about coffee, music, and Africa. He ca simultaneously provide the perfect sound-byte while remaining, what I found, authentic.
If you aren’t into the smokey flavors of coffee, fair enough. But if you are, making the trip to a local La Colombe cafe is becoming easier, as they’re slowly marking a presence in major US cities. With a new shop in Chicago, and their third NYC location set to open next month, La Colombe is still Philadelphia’s baby, their pride and joy.
Carmichael and Iberti recently set up a bottling plant at their Philly roastery to turn out Pure Black, a cold-brewed coffee. Steeped for 16 hours, then pressed and filtered twice, it’s a rich and strong brew, in a beautifully designed bottle. Also new is their southern blend, the “Lousiane.” It’s smoky, of course, an attempt to create a blend that embodies the rich coffee history of the south: a bit of ‘Nawlins for one’s morning cup.
Below, some photos of Todd and JP, as well as a few from my trip to Philly to tour the roastery.