It is time-consuming, laborious work, but the aroma and taste are unmistakable.
Ancient fragrances uniquely enhance the intrinsic characteristics of every single coffee bean, for both Arabica and Robusta varieties. The ancient artisan coal roasting method has now almost disappeared, replaced by more practical automated gas machines. Yet coal infuses extraordinary softness, characterizing espresso with the typical flavours of each variety and origin.
The only coal roasting business left in the centre of Milan is Hodeidah, a historic establishment founded in 1946 in Via Piero della Francesca, managed by Fulvio Rossi, who takes a skilful, passionate approach to roasting, just like his father before him. “At the age of four, I was already entranced by the smell of coffee freshly ground by my father,” Fulvio recalls. “From the age of ten, I helped him with the roasting process in the shop and I inherited his passion for this job. In later years, I have tried to enhance our product range, without forgetting my father’s most valuable lessons: patience, passion, perseverance and tradition.”
It takes a lot of perseverance every day to turn several kilos of green and fibrous beans into fragrant blends and single-origin beans, which are dry so they can be ground according to the customer’s preferred use. Every bean is roasted in the back room: gourmet blends, pure Arabica, pure Robusta and above all specialty coffees ranging from Galapagos to Kopi Luwak.
“Coal,” explains Fulvio, “is a natural material that produces clean energy. Blends or single-origin beans are roasted over direct heat to preserve flavours that come to life in the cup and leave an intense, clean aftertaste. Admittedly, the fire requires constant attention, but in my opinion, this ancient procedure, as in the case of pizza cooked in a wood or electric oven, brings out more complex sensory characteristics in small quantities of processed coffee.”
The art of roasting
So how does the roasting process work? “There are two schools of thought,” explains the owner. “Either you blend first and roast afterwards or viceversa. I believe that you should blend first because that way the coffee is harmoniously roasted at the same time. I would therefore opt for coffee that is already selected and comes from different “crus”, including Arabica and Robusta. We have used the same roasting machine since 1946, an old “Vittoria” coal model. The machine still roasts a maximum of thirty kilos of coffee at a time. This operation requires between sixteen to eighteen minutes (by comparison, modern machines take three) during which the water evaporates, reducing the weight by 20% due to cellulose carbonization and sugar crystallization, which condition the taste without stress. Bear in mind that during slow roasting there are 120 chemical variations within a single bean that determine the final taste of a high-quality espresso.”
“I roast fresh coffee every week,” concludes Fulvio, “because I also want to satisfy requests for custom blends and roasting. Some people like coffee to be more roasted and others less so. I prefer it lighter, even if it is more acidic, because when you use high-quality coffee, you do not lose all the aromatic properties. I also like to grind it and serve it immediately because it is different and has more character, although the aromas stabilize over the following week.” It is no wonder that, especially on roasting days, Hodeidah is enveloped with an intoxicating smell and offers a considerable range of legendary blends, a dozen single-origin Arabica varieties and several “gourmet” coffees created by the owner. Not to mention the countless teas, chocolates and sweets that provide a tasteful accompaniment to the coffee ritual.