"I do not love roasting coffee," says David Meyers. "I don't want to spend my life doing this. I only want to do it one or two days a week."
Meyers bends over the Bean Boss, a squat propane grill tricked out with a rotisserie spit, a motor, and a cylindrical drum. He's listening for something akin to the sound of charcoal smoldering, which signals that the beans roasting in this garage on the northwest side have entered their second phase. During the first phase they crack and bang around the drum like popcorn; in the second oil rises to the surface of the bean. Leave the heat on too long after this and they'll start to smoke something furious. In fact, the air around the garage is already thick with ribbons of smoky, carbonized coffee-bean sugars. Meyers turns down the gas and, after another minute, decants two pounds of scorching black beans into a sieve mounted over a fan rigged off to the side of the Boss. Once they've cooled, he weighs out a pound at time into brown paper bags emblazoned with the likeness of Russian anarcho-communist Pyotr Kropotkin.
Meyers is the roaster, packer, marketer, and delivery guy behind tiny independent Resistance Coffee. "Pretty much everything I do comes out of anarchist activism," he says. "Rather than being just an end in itself, [coffee] is a way to build community and further these social goals."
Meyers splits his time between Chicago and Union Pier, Michigan, where he runs a small organic farm on 23 acres of donated land shared by several others, including God's Gang, a south-side nonprofit that trains inner-city teens in ecology, urban agriculture, and landscaping. He's had his hand in various social justice causes over the years, including a 12-year stint as a grant writer for the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. In 2004 Meyers had just rented his first Michigan farm and was trying to make a go of it when his friend Ibrahim Parlak, the Kurdish owner of Cafe Gulistan in nearby Harbert, was arrested and threatened with deportation.
Up till then Meyers, who likes the control home-roasting allows, had been buying green coffee beans online and roasting them for his personal use in a popcorn popper. But coincidentally, the day before Parlak's arrest he'd taken ownership of the Bean Boss, purchased for just under $900 on eBay. As Harbor County mobilized in Parlak's defense, Meyers realized he had an opportunity: "I could have good coffee, make a little money, raise funds for cool stuff I believed in, and not have to work for anybody else," he says. He got busy and in a few weeks he'd raised $2,000 for Parlak's legal defense by selling pound bags of beans at $20 a pop. Ever since then, he's pieced together a living between farming and coffee roasting.
These days Meyers roasts as many as 70 pounds of beans a week on the farm and in the northwest-side garage (which belongs to a friend), and sells them to a range of customers drummed up via word of mouth and his Web site, chicorycenter.org, where you can order from him. He's currently buying beans from a Nicaraguan women's co-op through friends at Just Coffee in Madison, but hopes to set up his own purchasing network soon. His requirements are pretty simple. "The coffee has to have a good pedigree politically," he says—it has to be fairly traded and organically grown. "But it also has to taste good, and taste good at different levels of roast."
Up until the early 20th century most coffee was roasted at home over coals or an open fire. But with the rise of commercial coffee companies like A & P and Maxwell House the practice all but disappeared from the American mainstream. Today most commercial coffees are roasted in hot air, which produces a uniform batch of beans with a slightly acidic flavor. Home roasting, while unpredictable, offers the roaster more control over the level of roast. The darkest roasts—like Meyers's current blend, Kropotkin's Kaffe—produce a rich, chocolatey cup of joe.
Kropotkin's retails at $10 a pound, and Meyers will bring it to your door. He also sells beans to raise money for various causes, among them the Chicago Women's Health Center, West Town Bikes, and the Latino Union. The "benefit coffee" goes for $12 a pound, and the proceeds are split three ways—$4 toward raw materials, $4 to Meyers, and $4 to the organization. "It's no work for them and drums up new customers for me," he says.
Juanita Guerrero found out about Resistance Coffee through a fund-raiser for the Latino Union a couple years ago. "I go to Costa Rica once a year and always bring coffee back," she says. "I hadn't found any coffee in Chicago that compares to it until I found David." She started bringing his roasts into the Evanston law office where she works as an administrative assistant and, she says, "Everyone went crazy for it." They're now buying about ten pounds a week.
But while the demand seems to be out there, Meyers isn't interested in expanding his operations—in fact, he says, "I spent years trying to put the brakes on this." Instead, he and another roaster, Michael McSherry, created the Chicago Coffee Confederation. Meyers met McSherry, a musician and freelance painting contractor, at a rock show in March and shortly after taught him the ropes. McSherry built his own version of the Bean Boss, and after a few false starts (his third trial batch caught on fire) was soon selling his own beans under the name Grinderman Coffee. He sells to friends and small offices, and occasionally at clubs.
"Delivering coffee is fun," says McSherry. "It's a social thing. People are curious, and if they like coffee they like talking about it, and they're usually willing to give this stuff a try."
"He's like the tamale guy," says Meyers. "He just goes to shows and opens up a bag of coffee and waits for people to come to him."
Now Meyers refers new customers to McSherry; another fledgling coffee entrepreneur, AREA Chicago publisher Daniel Tucker, has set up a Chicago Coffee Confederation Web site and plans to start roasting in October. Through the site they hope to share resources, information, surplus beans, marketing duties, and customers, each referring new buyers to the others when he's reached his limit. This way, no one's a slave to the Bean Boss.