Food & Drink

Coffee roaster savors his work

With "buy local" a popular consumer mantra, a change seems to be occurring. There's renewed interest in commonwealth-produced cuisine and the arts.

When it comes to food, some products are obvious, such as our own Limestone Bibb lettuce, and of course, bourbon. Others, however, occupy more specific niches.

One such niche is coffee, and for that, the Bluegrass's own artisan is Mark Newberry, coffee roaster extraordinaire proprietor of the new CaffeMarco in downtown Paris. His product is fair trade, organic, handcrafted and utterly delicious. It is hard to believe that, with such high quality, he has been at this career for only a short time.

A Cincinnati native, Newberry spent 35 years in California, most of them in San Francisco, and a majority of those in publishing. In the early 1990s, that trajectory changed.

"I moved to a town in an agricultural valley two hours north of San Francisco," he says. "Since wine grapes were the cash crop in Mendocino — second only to pot — I applied my marketing skills from the publishing biz and started selling fine wines, eventually opening a wine brokerage that specialized in small family wineries in Mendocino, gaining placements for them in restaurants and at retailers."

But that was not to last. The area became urban because of an exodus from Los Angeles of folks seeking quieter and less expensive lifestyles. Newberry's trajectory changed again, this time landing him in Lexington,

"I always enjoyed the Keeneland meets and the lovely countryside in Central Kentucky, so the call to the Bluegrass was answered," he says.

There was no job to go to, but Newberry figured it would all work out. He did odd jobs for a while. One of the jobs was roasting coffee for a short time with a large commercial outfit.

Whenever he was asked what he missed most about the Bay Area, he found himself answering, "The bread and the coffee."

About that time, a friend introduced him to a coffee roaster in Cincinnati, who demonstrated that you could focus on quality and manage to stay in business. And just like that, Newberry understood his true avocation.

"I wanted to create flavorful coffee the way that he did and sell it strictly fresh to a limited area," he said. "That was the plan: staying small by selling to select accounts in the Lexington area only, roasting small batches, being in the stores each week so I could inventory the shelves and know what was going on — all the things the big guys cannot do.

"Plus, I am not a baker."

So he set up shop in Clark County five years ago, and CaffeMarco was born.

Since then, his delivery service and positive word of mouth have made him a household name among local java junkies. So has his regular presence since 2006 at the Saturday Lexington Farmers Market.

The reality

In the same way that distinctive wine depends on the grapes, good coffee starts with good beans. The flavors reflect the soil and climate of their origin. Selection is the most labor-intensive aspect of the business. Buying bulk can introduce mediocrity, so like any artisan, Newberry works closely with his purveyors, painstakingly sifting through sacks of beans from Guatemala, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, Kenya, Sumatra and, of course, Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee.

Once the beans are chosen, handling is crucial. They can be roasted light, medium or dark.

"The light and medium roasts are more floral, have better acidity and allow you to actually taste the beans more," Newberry says, his wine background showing through. "That is why I generally do 100 percent single-origin coffee beans in light roasts, and create blends for the dark and medium roasts. A darker roast is richer and more mouth-filling but expresses roasted flavors rather than characteristics of origin."

Not only does Newberry combine the different roasts, he blends the beans, creating coffees of greater complexity. He also produces a decaf and, although not a fan of flavored coffees, he has created one for Good Foods Co-Op that has, as he describes it, "a reticent dose of vanilla."

Three or four times a week, Newberry's day starts early, between 5 and 6 a.m. The roasting work is usually done by noon, allowing for marketing and distribution.

The roasting process begins by pouring the raw beans into the top of the roaster, a machine the size of a wood-burning stove, with chutes, exhaust vents, doors, windows, pans and a digital thermometer with bright-red numbers that guarantees precision. Temperatures climb to 460 degrees.

Newberry uses the thermometer in Jeffersonian fashion: painstakingly keeping a diary and monitoring every stage so that replication of a pleasing result will be easy. But his Primo roaster gives other clues to how things are going. As the beans churn, they "talk" in sounds called "cracks." The first and second cracks are pops that the beans make as they heat up. There also are visual signs: the window on the front of the roaster allows him to see the beans' color change from tawny green to deep sepia. This period determines whether the result will be light, medium or dark.

When the moment is right, Newberry opens a small door in the front of the machine, and the beans tumble into a round cooling pan with two rotating wire brushes, amidst an unimaginably fragrant cloud of coffee-scented steam.

At his former location at Combs Ferry Road and Ky. 418, an open window and an exhaust vent in the ceiling would carry these luscious aromas to the pretty farmland's residents and passersby.

"My neighbors said I made the neighborhood smell really good," Newberry says.

After the beans have cooled off a bit, they are moved to buckets for their final cooling and are then packaged.

New home, new phase

It always has been Newberry's plan to maximize access to his coffee while remaining small. His Clark County location had been good to him, but it was remote.

Recently, it became clear that it was time to find CaffeMarco a more "pedestrian-friendly" home.

He moved into an 18-foot wide storefront at 729 Main Street in Paris. The hours of operation are being worked out — so much depends on demand and shopping patterns — as are any extras, say, possible weekend jam sessions featuring jazz and blues. All that is certain now is that some wonderful photography by Lee Thomas will grace the wall above a 19th-century mantel and that the Primo roaster will be treating Paris to those heady aromas that formerly graced the countryside near Winchester.

Stay tuned.

As has been true of Newberry all along, he will let his decisions depend part on instinct, part on circumstances, and always on a commitment to quality.