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Photos: Behind the Scenes at La Colombe Torrefaction

By Danya Henninger
February 26, 2014
Photo by: Danya Henninger

La Colombe’s Todd Carmichael and JP Iberti are the undisputed godfathers of Philadelphia coffee. Over the past two decades, they have expanded from a single cafe in Rittenhouse to more than 10 coffee shops in New York, DC, Chicago and Seoul with more on the way.

The majority of revenue, though, doesn’t come through retail sales. The roastery - “Torrefaction” is part of the official company name - plays a huge role. Beans sourced from all over the world (as chronicled in Carmichael’s TV show, Dangerous Grounds) land at the roasting facility in Port Richmond.

There, in an industrial building across from a run-down hoagie shop and next to a furniture distributor, is where a much of the La Colombe magic happens. We were lucky enough to be invited inside for a look.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    Once you pass a small front reception area, you’re in the main floor of the roastery. Sixty-kilogram burlap sacks of green beans are lined up throughout the space, waiting to be turned into something special.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    Single origin and specialty coffees are roasted on small-batch equipment, but for the main blends (Corsica, Nizza, Phocea), it’s a bulk process. A worker manually empties beans into a huge container that can hold 500 sacks at once (compartmentalized into 10, wedge-shaped sections).

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    On demand, the beans are piped overhead, Willy Wonka style, into a custom-built industrial roaster that looks somewhat like a kids jungle gym.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    It’s controlled by software, using a custom program that Iberti describes as being as deep and complex as Photoshop. “You can get lost in that program if you don’t know it well,” he says.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    When the exact roasting program has run its course, a batch of beans is released into the cooling tray, where rakes air it out to lower the temperature before bagging.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    The cooling trays for the small-batch roasters are around 1/10 the size of the main bad boy.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    Another machine portions out the coffee as workers slip bag after bag beneath the chute to catch exactly 12 ounces of beans.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    After the containers are sealed on another device, a staff member snatches bags off the conveyor belt one by one.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    Most of the coffee that goes out is whole bean, but La Colombe also does a solid business in pre-ground coffees, portioned into vacuum packs and used by corporate clients and hotels.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    The schedule for coffee production is determined entirely by La Colombe management. “We don’t let our customers tell us when they need more coffee,” Iberti explains. “We tell them. We don’t want anyone, anywhere, serving La Colombe more than a week after it was roasted.”

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    The facility has other areas, like the production line where Pure Black, La Colombe’s pre-bottled cold brew, is steeped and then packaged in glass bottles.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    Each bottle gets a sticker denoting a “best before” date. During the busy season (May-October), up to 10,000 bottles of Pure Black can go out the door each week.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    La Colombe provides both its cafes and some wholesale customers with the best in brewing equipment. Some 200 espresso machines, carafes and brewers are in limbo here, either waiting to be refurbished or sent to a new home.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    The on-site repair shop employs two full time workers who rebuild antiques and machines that have broken down, as well as apply tweaks to machines for special occasions or uses.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    A small room to the side is where cupping (the testing of new coffees) is usually done. A shelf contains seemingly every brewing apparatus known, from Aeropress to v60 to espresso machine, in order to create a variety of cups from which to sample newcomers.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    As of right now, the Port Richmond facility is where distilling R&D takes place - La Colombe Distillery will soon release a coffee-infused rum. When the new flagship cafe opens in Fishtown, distilling will move there.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    Baking will also move to the Fishtown venue when it opens. Why get into rum and bread? “We like to make things with our hands,” says Iberti. “With rum, sugar cane is near all the farms where we get our beans. It’s the farmers’ moonshine, and we got into it. And bread? I just love good bread with good coffee. I’m French, what can I say.”

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La Colombe Torrefaction

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La Colombe Torrefaction

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