The coffee you keep

11/10/2009 12:00 AM

11/11/2009 1:53 PM

On countless steep, tree-lined hillsides all over the world, a particular type of tree erupts about once a year, depending on the rain, with lush, white flowers all over its branches.

About nine months after the glorious bloom, a round, red cherry will emerge from the delicate flower.

This cherry holds something unexpected in its flesh: two raw coffee beans, sitting belly to belly.

These beans will be picked, depulped, washed, fermented, dried, milled, sorted, bagged, shipped, roasted and eventually packaged for you to buy, drink and enjoy.

Not all coffee consumers know their coffee was once a cherry, which was once a flower.

However, if local coffee roaster Jon Rogers and his family had their way, American coffee drinkers would know everything about the origins of their coffee – from the conditions on the farm where the beans grew to understanding the subtleties of the coffee's taste with that first bleary-eyed sip each morning.

The Rogerses recently relocated their 30-year-old coffee roasting business, the Rogers Family Co., to Lincoln from a much smaller facility in San Leandro.

A cavernous 217,000-square-foot warehouse stacked with thousands of sacks of beans smells of coffee and burlap.

Rogers, co-founder and president of the company, is still delighted with the advantages of the move.

"Employees who paid rent in the Bay Area can now buy a house," said Rogers, who lives in Granite Bay. "The roads are new. The schools are new. The houses are new. Things get taken care of here."

You can find the roasting plant by following the whiff of coffee that hits your nose when you turn onto Aviation Boulevard near the new headquarters, where more than 40 million pounds of coffee will be roasted this year.

Investing in community

The Rogers family held its fourth annual company gathering in tandem with the grand opening celebration for the new facility over the summer, with more than 200 employees and growers – and a loud mariachi band.

There was no shortage of coffee lovers.

"Coffee is stimulating, good for the heart, and it makes the blood run faster," said Rogers coffee bean grower Alfredo Moisés of Mexico. "You become more intelligent for business, too, because you get to think faster."

Rogers, 76, started the company with his wife of 54 years, Barbara, in 1979, in a small kiosk on Third Street in San Francisco.

"We had to move everything out to the sidewalk in the morning and move it all back in again at night," said Barbara Rogers, who works closely with the Rogers Charitable Foundation, the nonprofit focused on improving the communities the company buys its coffee beans.

Last year, the Rogers Family Co. gave about $1 million to charity, according to Jon Rogers. This year, the company has earmarked at least $1.4 million, said the one of the Rogerses' sons, Pete, who serves as vice president of operations.

"You just go there and see how people are living, and you'd be hard-hearted not to do something," said Jon Rogers about the conditions at farms struggling to survive weather, pests and fluctuations in the commodities market.

"At first, I was suspicious and thought they would just say a lot but never do anything," said Sven Schalit, a coffee farmer from Mexico who signed a long-term contract with the family.

Rogers told Schalit that they would buy his coffee beans only if he built showers, toilets and living quarters on his property for the workers. Rogers ultimately gave Schalit $26,000 to help him refurbish living quarters for pickers, thus attracting top-quality workers.

"The coffee tastes better because we have happier workers," said Schalit.

In the past 17 years, the Rogers family has helped build schools, renovate living quarters for pickers, start baseball teams and invest in the infrastructure of whole towns where hundreds of families help grow and pick beans that end up in the Rogers roasters.

Putting down roots

Jon and Barbara's four children are all involved in the family roasting business: Pete spends several months a year in the nine countries where the family buys coffee. Daughter Lisa Smoot and sons John Rogers and Jim Rogers are in charge of managing sales accounts with retailers, including Costco.

"We're in this for the long haul," said Jon Rogers, who grew up just outside Detroit and still has his Midwestern pluck and candor. "I'm thinking about future generations."

Indeed, he wants his grandchildren – all 14 of them – to end up buying coffee beans from the grandchildren of his farmers.

Pride in production

Although he says he's not a "terribly religious person," Rogers asked Greg Weisman, a pastor from Bayside Covenant Church in Roseville, to bless the plant while flanked by farmers and employees.

The formal blessing is a good thing, said Rogers, given the precariousness of the coffee bean's long journey from being a seed inside a cherry to the warm brew that ends up in your hand.

"There are a thousand ways to ruin coffee, from the time you pick the beans to the time it gets in your cup," he said.

His farmers wholeheartedly agree.

"People have no idea how hard it is to produce that coffee they are drinking," said Schalit from Mexico. "It is back-breaking work to carry the cherries down the steep hills to the mill."

In addition to the difficult physical labor, there are natural nuisances.

A tiny black fly lays its eggs inside a coffee cherry, and a hearty fungus attacks leaves on the coffee trees.

Yet Pete Rogers wants to eliminate all chemicals from the coffee-production process, so the company is experimenting with natural pest control, including a Listerine-and-toothpaste mix and upside-down soda bottles filled with alcohol.

Beans come from two kinds of coffee trees, the Robusta and the Arabica. The heartier, cheaper Robusta can grow at a lower altitude. Its harsher-tasting beans go into many commercial coffees, according to Rogers, who says he wants his epitaph to read: "He never bought a Robusta bean."

The farmers speak just as passionately.

"The beauty of a mountainside covered with coffee flowers, it is a sight to see," said Jorge Chaves, whose farm in Nicaragua is called Santa Maria. "The field looks covered with snow and a fragrance that comes from the coffee trees smells better than the best perfume."

Chaves wants consumers to know that every bean you drink comes from a timeline equivalent to the birth of a child: nine months from blooming to picking.

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