Meet the Roaster: Todd Carmichael of La Colombe

A peek inside the world of a man who is dedicated to coffee

“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 childlike enthusiasm for everything, as well as his awareness that most of what he says will probably 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, Wash. One thing I quickly learned from spending time with Carmichael at his Philadelphia roasting plant was that if he has an idea, no matter how wild or aspirational it may sound, it will likely materialize right 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. He and partner (and Frenchman) JP Iberti built the successful roastery La Colombe Torrefaction with their bare hands, setting up shop in downtown Philadelphia in '93.

Dedication also led him across Antarctica, as the first American to trek from the coast to the South Pole, solo and unaided. It then led him all over, visiting 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 headed up the mountains, following the terrain to a coffee plantation he didn’t know was there, but intuitively knew he’d find. Since then, he’s been the first American to export large amounts of Haitian coffee to the U.S. in nearly 30 years. (I met with a Haitian farmer in New York, 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 with some of the greatest chefs of our time, who were serving the coffee he had labored over for many years. This is just a day in the life when hanging out with Todd Carmichael.)

In the mid '90s, La Colombe was the first of its’ kind — a sophisticated coffee company that elevated coffee to a unique experience, one where different flavors and notes were brought out with great roasting and concern for origin. They called it “culinary coffee.” Carmichael and Iberti opened up their first café near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and immediately built up accounts with restaurants in Philadelphia and New York City.

Founded on a certain ethic (both Carmichael and Iberti 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,” Carmichael 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 Iberti 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 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, already on the scene (both founded in '95), were grouped with this new movement. And La Colombe, with their interest in a deeper roast? To Third-Wavers, they slowly became the new Starbucks.

So Carmichael, 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 hate directed at Carmichael and his coffee, circulating the blogosphere.

These recent events made my trip to Philly to meet with Carmichael 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? And he wasn’t. In fact, he was kind, funny, animated, and honest. He could talk at length about his expeditions and adventures, about coffee, music, and Africa. He was quite pleasant to be around, actually.

So 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 growing their presence in major U.S. cities. But even with a new shop in Chi-Town, and a third New York City location, La Colombe is still Philly’s baby, their pride and joy.

And the roaster just won’t stop. Carmichael and Iberti 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, housed 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 your morning cup.

Click here for more from The Coffee Experiment

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