Saturday, September 24, 2011

PHILADELPHIA, PATODD CARMICHAEL OF LA COLOMBE

“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 probably shock you.

“Passion dies out. Coffee is who I am. I am dedicated to coffee.” 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, maybe months. 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 the execution. One of his many ideas that proved successful: he and partner (and Frenchman) JP Iberti’s successful roastery La Colombe Torrefaction, which they built with bare hands in Philadelphia in 1993.

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 mountains, following the terrain to seek out 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 named Robinson. 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 ethos (both Todd and JP come from farming families) their focus was, and always has been, 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 explained. “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 taste. “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.

La Colombe may have brought us culinary coffee, but a few years later a new movement emerged, later deemed the “Third Wave.” So Todd, a writer himself, took to Esquire in 2010 to create some dialogue on a movement he felt alienated from. Not one to soften a blow, he published a guide, “7 Steps to Avoid the Horrible Hipster Coffee Trend”, and recently 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 Internet.

When I arrived at Philadelphia train station to spend some time with Todd, this current controversy was unraveling. Todd’s assistant, Renee, was waiting to take me to the La Colombe roastery. She’s equally quick-witted, a friend of Todd’s since his youthful, wild days; one could imagine she’s seen him through it all.

I arrived at the compound 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 Ethiopia. He can simultaneously provide the perfect sound-byte while remaining authentic.

In one room, there were vintage espresso machines that Todd collects, repairs, and sometimes, sells. In another, a distillery for whiskey. Coffee was being roasted as well, of course.

La Colombe is rapidly growing due to an endless stream of creativity and quality. They have collaborations with companies and individuals — Leonardo DiCaprio being one of them — to bolster their humanitarian efforts affecting both coffee farmers and climate change. They have new coffee shops popping up in nearly every big city (Chicago, L.A., D.C., more still in New York and Philadelphia).

Carmichael and Iberti recently set up a bottling plant at their Philly roastery to create Pure Black, a cold-brewed coffee. Steeped for 16 hours, then pressed and filtered twice, it’s a rich and strong cold brew drink in a beautifully designed bottle.

Below, some photos of Todd and JP, as well as a few from my trip to Philly to tour the roastery.

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