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.