The roast that brings in the customers

From 1934 to 1985, the owner of the little red brick building on the side of the railroad tracks at 315 East Water Street pumped gasoline into the cars of Kalamazoo residents. In 1993, a bright blue sign with a rising sun advertised Water Street Coffee Joint, and the new owner of that little red brick building, Mark Smutek, began to pump steaming hot coffee into the residents of Kalamazoo.

Today, he and the baristas of Kalamazoo's best loved coffee shop are pumping coffee at a rate of 2,000 pounds of roasted beans per week, retail and wholesale.

Smutek and his staff of about 50 baristas, cooks and bean roasters fill Kalamazoo cups and mugs in what will soon be three locations. Their second is at 3037 Oakland Drive, which opened in 2003, and the about-to-open third coffee shop, inside the lobby of Borgess Hospital on Gull Road.

Process, precision, mystery and magic — this is the recipe for a good cup of coffee, according to the good people at Water Street Coffee Joint.

Much of that magic begins at a location few Kalamazoo coffee-drinkers realize is there; they just know that the coffee in their cup is a beverage they crave.

"This is where it happens," says Liz Comrie, once barista, now general manager of cafe operations. She stands among rows of blue plastic barrels, each labeled and holding coffee beans of different sizes, colors, flavors, and 140-pound sacks holding more beans are stacked against the walls. Willard Street Roaster at 610 West Willard Street is a two-story, sky-blue building that Smutek opened in 2000 so that his coffee shops could provide freshly roasted coffee unique to Water Street.

This building, too, has a varied history before it became a place steeped in the aroma of fine coffee. Once, it was full of the aroma of fine cigars. It housed the Verdon Cigar Company from 1900 to 1908. Prior to that, the building was a machine shop, from 1885 to 1895. The Bowers Lighter Company had ownership until the 1970s.

What happens at the Willard Street Roaster today: raw, green coffee beans are hand crafted in small batches, fed through a hopper to be sorted and separated from any debris, roasted under closely monitored temperatures, then cooled.

The process of roasting is what gives the coffee its characteristic flavor as the green beans expand and change color, taste, density and aroma. The longer the beans roast, the darker and oilier they become. Lighter roasts exhibit more of the flavors of their origin, while darker roasts take on a flavor from the roasting itself.

"We do a lot of coffee tasting throughout the process," says Comrie. "It's much like wine or beer tasting. Everyone has a different palate, but we evaluate samples with a process called 'cupping,' and we evaluate four aspects of the coffee — aroma, flavor, acidity and body."

Roasting can take place between 370 degrees to 540 degrees Fahrenheit, and the beans may be roasted from three to 30 minutes, depending on desired result. How time and temperature are regulated for flavor is where some of that magic and mystery take place.

"There are so many different ways to prepare and drink coffee," Comrie says. "We not only roast our coffee here, we also train our staff here." In a small back room, coffee machines are set up for the newly initiated baristas.

Think it's easy to make a great cup of coffee? Training here takes one month, includes a written test, and several practice sessions before a new employee is allowed to serve coffee to the Water Street Coffee Joint customer.

"I started as a barista when I was in college earning a degree in exercise science," Comrie recalls. "I thought I had a future in health clubs, but I fell in love with this company. Our employees feel appreciated. We give people room to grow, encourage them to come up with new ideas, and we recognize hard work."

Comrie was promoted to oversee both the Water Street and Oakland Drive locations, and a favorite part of her job is brainstorming in the kitchen for new and delicious creations to go with that great cup of java. The coffee shops serve scones, muffins, desserts, soups, sandwiches, salads, and since last summer, have added on their own homemade bread.

Whether coffee or food, Water Street Coffee Joint emphasizes the locally grown and produced, and organic whenever possible. The Willard Street Roaster is fair-trade certified and a certified organic coffee roaster. Being designated as fair trade means using beans grown by coffee farmers who abide by rules of environmental sustainability, fair wages and cooperative workplaces. The farmers also must show respect for cultural identity and public accountability in their practices.

"We partner with a farmer named Justin Boudeman in Boquete, Panama or our Panamanian coffee," says Comrie, "and in Kenya, we partner with George Mwiti Gichengi of the Mbegu Tamu Coffee Company."

At a local level, Water Street Coffee Joint supports the greater Kalamazoo community by participating in Art Hops, exhibiting local artists in both shops, and also donates 10 cents for every retail bag of coffee and 5 cents for every wholesale pound of coffee sold to local community organizations.

That could be where some of the magic is born, too, since Comrie notes that most of their customers are regulars. "I would guess at least 70 percent of our customers we see at least once a week, and about 30 percent daily. Then, of course, there are those who come in several times a day for a refill!"

What does the general manager pour into her big blue cup? Comrie smiles bright and wide. Her tastes have become much more refined.

"As a barista, I started by drinking something chocolaty. Now I like Panama black, made with a French press, and with my beans kept in the freezer to stay fresh longer. But it really is a matter of personal taste. We invite you to come in for your own perfect cup."

Zinta Aistars is a freelance writer and editor of literary ezine, The Smoking Poet, who lives in Portage, Michigan.

Photos by Erik Holladay

Liz Comrie, General Manager of Cafe Operations at Water Street Coffee Joint.

A lone building in the middle of the block on Willard Street is the location of the micro-roaster, the source of the delicious coffee sold at Water Street Coffee Joint.

Warren Taylor mixes roasted beans into a blend at the Willard Street Roaster.

Raw coffee beans before they enter the roaster.

Two thousand pound of roasted coffee each week goes through the doors of the Willard Street micro-roast.

Seth Chapman pours roasted whole coffee beans into bags to be packaged and shipped.

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