Saturday, January 16, 2010

How the "Unseen Been" Roasts Coffee

Coffee aficionados will tell you that fresh coffee is best. Drink the coffee right after it’s brewed, brew it quickly after grinding and grind it soon after roasting. Luckily for those of us near Vicinity, fresh coffee is nearby.

Drive east of Main on 9th Ave. in Longmont, and you might smell the aroma of coffee. The scent is certainly appealing, but the origin is a little mysterious.

A little investigation reveals that tucked in a warehouse along the tracks is the Unseen Bean, Longmont’s own coffee roaster. The tagline “Blind Roasted Coffee” is also a mystery until you realize that master roaster Gerry Leary, is blind.

Leary was blind from birth, but that didn’t slow him down. He was working as an auto mechanic when he happened upon a San Francisco restaurant that roasted its own coffee. He was intrigued.
No one would take Leary on as a coffee roasting apprentice, so he went to seminars. His first roasting machine would handle only a quarter-pound of coffee at a time.

Leary’s first big order was for 90 pounds of coffee. It took him three weeks to roast that many beans. When he got paid for the beans, he thought, “That’ll buy me some more coffee.” He hasn’t stopped since.

Leary still has the small roaster, along with a larger machine that can handle 25 pounds of beans at a time. The roaster turns the beans constantly, something like a cement mixer. During the roast, the beans go through two “cracks” where they sound like popcorn popping. It’s a fast process that has to be closely monitored.

Cathy Miller, Leary’s long-time friend, works with him at the Unseen Bean. “I’m the ‘sight’ manager,” she said with a laugh.

But Leary has everything organized so he can work without help. He pointed out Braille labels on the bins of green coffee. He has voice readers for his roaster’s thermometer, his computer and the scales for weighing the coffee. For getting around Vicinity (and beyond) he has a voice GPS.

Miller and Leary agree that it’s a great business to be in. Miller said, “It’s like being on a coffee break all day.” Indeed, with every batch that’s roasted, Leary grinds some beans and brews a pot of coffee for a taste test. That’s fresh coffee.

That’s not the only benefit. Leary said, “The nice thing is that this is a business where people smile when they pay.” He explained that as a mechanic, he knew people weren’t happy when they spent money on repairs, but they enjoy buying good coffee.

Have you ever noticed the round devices on the front of whole-bean coffee bags? Leary explained that those are one-way valves that let air out of the bags, but don’t let it back in. Freshly roasted coffee beans give off gas, and if those valves weren’t there, the bags might burst. Once coffee beans are stale, they quit giving off gas. Makes you think about those cans of ground coffee, doesn’t it?

The Unseen Bean has about 20 different types of green coffee beans ready to roast, including some decaf beans. There are also five standard blends. Leary said that when possible, he buys only “organic, shade-tree grown, free trade beans.”

Leary said, “We’re more expensive,” noting the cost of the raw beans. But his website invites, “taste the passion in blind-roasted coffee,” and he’s serious about that passion.

Since I wrote this article, the Unseen Bean has expanded its operation and now has a coffeeshop in Boulder, Colorado, and sells beans at a variety of locations. You can also order online at

This was an interesting article for write, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, Leary is so comfortable with his blindness and is so aware of his surroundings that I kept forgetting that he couldn't see, and I ended up becoming a hazard for him as he worked. At one point while trying to take a creative photo, I caused him to spill some green beans into finished beans, which then had to be sorted. He was quite forgiving about it, but I insisted on getting the beans sorted so he didn't lose the whole batch because of me.

Also, Leary samples each batch of coffee after he roasts it, and during the course of watching him roast several batches, I sampled right along with him. He brews a strong pot of coffee. I'd already had a cup or two that morning before I left the house, but I couldn't resist that incredibly fresh coffee. By the time I left his shop, I had a bit of a caffeine buzz going.