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Myron Bontrager was roasting coffee even before he owned a coffee shop.
When he purchased the Electric Brew in 2007, he said he wanted to start roasting the beans at Elkhart County's first coffee house.
In August, he started putting green beans over heat at a roaster near the counter at 136 S. Main St. It's out where the customers can see it. And potential customers walking in downtown Goshen can smell the roasting.
Bontrager purchased the business, with Jason Keiser, from Tony Kauffman and Brenda Hostetler, who had started the coffee house in 1996 when Midwesterners barely knew what an espresso was. The coffee the original owners brewed and sold wasn't strong, and one of the first things Bontrager did was put more grounds in the filter.
When a priest tried it, he told Bontrager the coffee was "too damn strong," Bontrager offered to thin it with hot water. You can't make brewed coffee stronger once it's prepared, but you can make it weaker.
Making the coffee stronger made it better. And now Bontrager has stepped it up again with fresh roasting.
You can't make food fresher than it is. Whether it's vegetables or coffee, time tends to diminish quality. Coffee brewed within the first 24 hours of roasting can be too funky, but coffee not brewed within days or at the very least weeks of roasting simply isn't as good.
Few coffee vendors put roasting dates on their packages. Even Bontrager should start at the Brew. But you can tell a difference in the brightness of the flavor and the ability to get a topping of foam, called crema, on even brewed coffee. Crema is common with espresso but rare on brewed coffee unless the beans are fresh.
In a gas-powered machine alongside tables for customers, Bontrager can roast a batch of beans -- 5 to 6 pounds -- in about 13 minutes, or four batches an hour.
He roasts just over 100 pounds a week. Three-fourths of that is for use at the Brew, but 25 percent is heading out the door for home brewing. Bean sales have grown since the Brew started roasting its own. The cost is $10 a pound -- more than fair for good coffee beans. "People have now set a higher standard," he said.
Bontrager isn't the first local coffee shop owner to jump into roasting. The Refinery in Goshen, Main Street Coffee House in Nappanee and Sunrise Canyon in Elkhart started within the last several years. The Exchange Bakery, now John's Bagels, did it first in Elkhart, but the roaster isn't used now. I still miss the coffee that came from it.
Bontrager isn't just roasting any old coffee beans. He got Fair Trade certification and nearly every bean he's roasting, brewing and selling is Fair Trade or direct trade. A Fair Trade seal guarantees that the growers were paid a fair price. Kenyan and Nicaraguan coffees Bontrager roasts are sold directly from a co-op to an importer and don't have the seal, but growers are paid fairly, he said.
"I like to be paid a fair wage. I think it's important to pay back to the producer a fair wage," he said.
I'm a believer in fair trade, in no small part because my wife works for a fair trade retailer and sells Fair Trade-certified coffee. But I also value flavor and freshness, so being able to buy fresh-roasted coffee from a local business is appealing.
But poorly roasted coffee isn't enjoyable. And though Bontrager isn't a master roaster, he's good and getting better. The Bald Brothers blend is nice and even his Central American varieties have body. The Sumatran is earthy. Pairing the good coffee with what's still the best collection of baked goods of any coffee shop in Elkhart County makes the Electric Brew a very appealing spot.
The Seattle Blend is still purchased ready to brew, as is pumpkin spice. But otherwise, Bontrager is roasting everything and flavoring coffee to satisfy the Midwestern palates that want coffee to taste like something other than coffee.
I'm not a fan of flavored coffee. Neither is Bontrager.
"It's like adopting a dog and then breaking its leg," he quipped about adding flavoring to coffee he loves. "It's cruel. It's inhumane. It's not meant to be done."
But the way he adds flavor makes it drinkable. The Cinncredible he makes tastes like coffee with a hint of cinnamon. I finished the cup, but it didn't sway me from my belief that coffee should be dark, served in a big cup, and without milk or sugar.
Business may be down slightly but is holding steady, Bontrager said. His roasting won't hurt, particularly as he learns more, perhaps at a roasting school.
"I feel like I'm competent in bringing a good, quality coffee," he said.
He made a leap to go to better grounds. And better cups of java.
If You Go
What: Electric Brew
Where: 136 S. Main St., Goshen
Fare: Coffee, baked goods, and soup and salad at lunch
Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday
Details: Roasting own coffee; light breakfast and lunch served; handicapped accessible; catering available; credit cards accepted.
Phone: (574) 533-5990
* Mad Anthony Brewing Co. Old State Ale House is still on track to open along Elkhart's Main Street in December. Job interviews are taking place this week and the restaurant/pub is nearly complete, according to franchisee Eric Brewer. A grand opening will happen in January, he said.
* The South Bend chapter of the American Culinary Federation is putting on its annual holiday dinner from 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Palais Royale, South Bend. The five-course meal will be prepared by students in the Ivy Tech and ACF apprentice programs. The event is open to the public for the first time. Tickets are available at the door for $50 per person, $75 per couple. Reservations can be made by calling Elise Kunkel at (219) 575-0946 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
* River Inn, 304 E. Vistula, Bristol, is offering a $5 lunch menu during the week. New hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 11 to 9 Friday, 1 to 9 Saturday and 11 to 3 Sunday. A Polish buffet is offered from 11 to 2 on Sunday.
* Martin's Super Markets School of Cooking is having a holiday open house from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at 7355 Heritage Square, Mishawaka. Admission is free. Samples and recipes will be shared. Information: 239-1391 or email@example.com