Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Probat Roaster From 1896 Fire-Roasts Coffee in Washington State



Pull Caffé is keeping it old school with the world’s oldest wood-fire roaster in operation.

BY RACHEL PINSKY
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE

Photos by Rachel Pinsky

Todd Millar, owner of Pull Caffé in Yacolt, Wash., dreamed of owning a historic Probat roaster for decades. In the early 2000s, when the internet allowed him to search the planet for it, he endlessly scrolled through every listing that he could find. Sometime around 2016, a farmer in Serbia sent him a photo of a Probat roaster he had in his barn. Todd agonized. Was this a hoax?

The huge metal roaster has an attached wood fire stove underneath, a large funnel up top to pour green beans into, and a huge round roasting  tray in the front.
The antique Probat was kept in a farmer’s barn in Serbia before making its way to Washington.

From Serbia to Yacolt

Todd had been importing espresso machines from Europe. He asked one of his contacts there to go to Serbia to check out the machine, and she confirmed its existence. The seller took the machine apart and the pieces made a laborious journey from Serbia, through the ports of Seattle and Portland, and finally ending up in Yacolt. Todd wasn’t sure what he would find in the crate at the Port of Portland; he was relieved it was the parts of the Probat he ordered.

It took a year for Todd to put the pieces together. He consulted with engineers, automobile restorers, and other mechanical experts because there wasn’t a manual or any other guidance for how to reassemble the coffee roaster. It was a laborious process, but he ultimately got it working. Todd began fire-roasting a Mocha Java blend of beans from Africa and Indonesia, using a mix of alder, cherry, and maple wood.

A man pokes the fire inside the roaster.
Pull Caffé owner Todd Millar adds wood to the fire in the Probat. He uses cherry, alder, and maple wood.

Probat Surprised and Delighted By Discovery

Probat employees from the United States and Germany learned about the existence of this antique during the Specialty Coffee Expo in Boston in 2021. “Everyone was surprised, especially in Germany, because what the heck was this doing in Washington?” said Daniel Glynn, digital marketer at Probat.

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In 2023, a Probat contingent from Germany and the United States attended the Specialty Coffee Expo in Portland, Ore. A group including President and CEO Wim Abbing, Senior Vice President of Engineering Robert Miller, CFO Ellen Nielsen, and BURNS Specialist Jon Morris drove out to Pull Caffé. They concluded that this is the oldest 120-kilo machine operating in the world, dating back to about 1896. “Everyone here was super impressed and amazed with what Todd has done,” said Daniel.

A front view of the roaster.
Using available evidence, the machine was dated to around 1896, making it the oldest functioning coffee roaster in the world!

Just How Old Is It?

Precisely dating the machine was complicated because Probat’s German offices (and most of their records) were destroyed during World War II. Nonetheless, Todd’s roaster looks like a spec drawing from that time period, and also fits with Jabez Burns sales logs from pre-World War I. Jabez Burns has produced industrial coffee roasters in the United States since 1864; the company is currently called BURNS and is the North American subsidiary of Probat. Additionally, the use of bushings instead of ball bearings dates the machine to before 1900.

Daniel from Probat later visited Yacolt when he flew in from Illinois for the Coffee Roasters Guild in Blaine, Wash. He made the six-and-a-half-hour drive to film the historic machine, then posted a video on Probat USA’s Instagram account. “Most people were like, ‘I’d kill to roast on this thing.’ They really want to be able to roast by sound and smell,” said Daniel.

A latte mug and saucer with Pull logo on the side.
A latte at Pull Caffé.

A Planned Retreat

As word of the machine has spread around the globe, Todd is finishing construction on a cluster of rustic but elegant A-frame cabins next to his roaster and café. The goal is to create a coffee retreat center allowing curious coffee-enthusiasts to stay overnight. Guests will be able to enjoy the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, visit this historic machine, and get a taste of coffee roasted in its antique drum.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Pinsky (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, Wash. A weekly columnist for The Colombian and a regular contributor to Eater Portland, Rachel’s writing on food and drink has also appeared in Willamette Week, 1859 Magazine, and Sip Magazine. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan who formerly practiced law in Northern California. You can see more of her work on Instagram.

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