It’s a chilly January evening, and 20 some kilometres south of Whitehorse, the cyclic hum of a whirring metal drum comes to a climactic finale with a “snap, crackle, pop.”
It may be cold outside, but 34-year-old Michael Russo, dressed in insulated overalls and a down filled jacket, is aglow as he steps off an old German stationary bike attached to a “Frankenstein” oven.
No, Russo isn’t training for this year’s Yukon Arctic Ultra; the Ontario born, stay-at-home-dad is hard at work in his down time, roasting another fresh batch at his start-up company Firebean Coffee Roasters.
As the fair-trade, organic beans reach their peak, Russo transfers the glossy, chestnut stones to a metal sheet to cool, the oily beans glistening under a single lamp in the corner of this custom-built coffee setup (resembling a maple sugar shack).
It isn’t long before Russo loads up the drum with another round of green beans and hops aboard his trusty, static steed to roast another batch.
The stationary bike, acquired by chance from the Parry Sound museum, is connected via chain to the outside of an pizza-oven-turned-coffee-roaster, which, when pedalled, spins a specially fabricated drum inside the oven. The beans, secured tight in the sealed drum, are roasted to fiery perfection overtop a bed of neatly stacked Dawson birch wood.
While incredibly unique, this off grid, sustainable, eco-friendly, pedal-powered setup is not for the faint of heart. As Russo explains, there are many variables, like drum speed, that need tending to.
“Pedal too slow and you risk the beans taking on too much heat and scorching; pedal too fast and the beans don’t get the heat they need as they continuously tumble,” Russo says. He describes the process as a “constant juggle between time and temperature from the moment you drop the beans to the moment you dump them.”
Russo, who started his coffee roasting business with wife and “lead product taster” Sarah, admits their set-up is unorthodox by modern standards, but Russo believes in the simplicity of the machine. He takes comfort in the self-sufficiency they have created, and trusts the creative process of this traditional wood-fired method.
As the beans tumble and crack overtop the flames, Russo speaks to the fact that before the advent of commercial roasters, people used to roast coffee at home, just as they did with baking bread.
It’s this connection to the old way – the connection to the food we eat –that draws him to the grassroots roasting craft.
While coffee was traditionally roasted using wood or coal, today, the coffee industry has moved towards using gas or electricity as the primary heat source. Although this speeds things up, Russo feels that an inexplicable something has been lost in the modernization of the process. He sees it worthy to help preserve the traditional art and craft of the wood-fired roast.
It’s a good thing that Russo’s favourite part of the entire roasting process is splitting the birch into various sized pieces. He often wonders whether he’s roasting to split, or splitting to roast.
For Russo, the art of coffee roasting is a creative outlet, or coffee therapy, if you will, and sharing the results of this artisanal craft with family and friends is an added perk.
Firebean Coffee Roasters is a labour of love, but Russo says the coffee was born out of necessity after the couple moved away from Whitehorse two years ago.
“Like many, we fell in love with well established Yukon roasters Midnight Sun and Bean North, then meandered through parts of northern Ontario where it wasn’t as easy to score fresh coffee.”
Pining for freshly roasted beans in the morning kick-started the DIY in Russo and later lead to the discovery of traditional wood-fire roasts. They fell in love with the idea and decided to take a crack at it themselves.
Their first attempts over an open fire pit resulted in a few burnt batches, which is how Firebean Coffee Roasters got its name.
“The first batch went to flames,” Russo laughs, adding, “You’re not a roaster until you’ve had a bean fire or two.”
This optimistic outlook is a vital ingredient to the entrepreneurial spirit, and pitfalls and failures are all part of the creative process. Luckily, Russo wasn’t too deterred by a few burnt beans. Instead, he viewed challenges such as these as problems to overcome, and not charred dead ends.
After successfully selling their fire roasted beans to friends and family and at farmer’s markets and craft fairs in Ontario, the Russos were inspired to continue growing their business and love of artisanal coffee.
When they were offered an opportunity to return to Whitehorse this year, they leapt at the chance, this time with their two children, both under four. By day, Russo calls himself an “experience coordinator” to his young kids, but by night, at least once per week, he can be found inside his coffee shack, churning out another batch.
“It’s a do-it-yourself hobby turned very micro business,” he says. “It reflects the spirit of this place, that ‘roll up your sleeves and get it done’ attitude of adventure-seeking people.”
While the company is still in its early stages, Russo sees farmer’s markets and craft fairs as a next step, and tinkers with Sea Can conversions and other mobile coffee ideas for the future.
Until then, it’s a cup of wood-fired coffee, one steady bike pedal at a time. For now, you can buy Firebean Coffee by calling (867) 334-8294 or through their Facebook and Instagram pages.