Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Java Enabled: Probat, Unlike Any Other

Posted By on Wed, Aug 19, 2009 at 3:00 PM

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It's the Cadillac of roasters -- or maybe the Mercedes-Benz, considering its origin. The German coffee roaster Probat isn't a household name, but it's synonymous in coffee circles with high quality coffee roasting. Some of the best artisan roasters in St. Louis -- Shaw's Coffee Ltd., Northwest Coffee Roasting Company and, most recently, Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Company (more on that later) -- have been using Probat machines for years.

When I visited Northwest earlier this summer, owner Rick Milton showed me how the company roasts its beans on a vintage 1957 22-kilo Probat.

"Low-end roasters don't have the same air flow," Milton told me, comparing his Probat to newer, lesser models. "Besides that, the cast iron in the older ones really improves the roast."

The most coveted Probats (the most coveted of any brand of roaster, really) are the oldest. Yes, a certain mystique -- a sense of history and a classic design -- accompanies a vintage roaster. But the true advantage of an old-school roaster comes down to one thing: cast iron -- lots of it. Just like old cars, vintage Probats were made with more metal. (Looks like I'm really getting some mileage out of that classic car analogy.) The cast iron lends a more even heat distribution across the barrel. improving quality and consistency in the roast. As the cost of cast iron rises, however, less of the conductive metal goes into newer roasters.

click to enlarge Kaldi's new Probat, packed up and ready to go. - PHOTO COURTESY TYLER ZIMMER
  • Photo courtesy Tyler Zimmer
  • Kaldi's new Probat, packed up and ready to go.
The search for these coveted classics keeps roasters' ears to the ground for when the next one appears. A blip on the Probat-radar sent Kaldi's Tyler Zimmer all the way to Buffalo, New York, to check out a lead. When a small roaster went out of business, Tyler heard through the grapevine that there might be a unique roaster available. What he found was, literally, one of a kind. The vintage 1937 Probat G75 is the only known model to be in operation in the U.S. Probat stopped production of this model after World War II, but its history doesn't end there: The G75 was the same model used by Peet's and Starbucks in the 1970s.

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