OSHKOSH — Roasting coffee is not as simple as one might think.
For Mark Ferrari, president/roastmaster for Mark Ferrari Specialty Coffees in Oshkosh, the proper roast for his Kona coffee is a delicate process honed over years of work perfecting his craft. Ferrari was born in western Pennsylvania, but his family moved to California, then to Hawaii and developed a coffee farm.
“They call it a farm and it’s more of a private resort really, but he’ll never say that,” company vice president Mike Piva said.
Kona coffee grown in Hawaii on the Ferrari farm is now shipped to Oshkosh, where it’s roasted for either a 100% Kona product or mixed with other coffee beans for a blended product.
For 10 years, Ferrari worked as an apprentice for a neighbor who was considered one of the best roasters around.
“It’s kind of like learning to be a chef,” Ferrari, who has been roasting for about 34 years now, said. “It takes a long time to develop and get the understanding of what’s going on with the coffee when you’re roasting it. It’s basically a rotating oven and you’re using different coffees from different parts of the world. Some of them are aged, some of them are super fresh, different moisture contents, different times of year when we roast here, summer versus winter, changes in what’s going on with the roasting process because it’s not ‘Just put it in and push a button and you’re done.’ You have some gauges and parameters that tell you where you are in the roast, but the coffee is continually changing through the process. So that’s where the background of doing it for as much as I have, it’s just kind of innate in me now. You kind of know where you are in the roast and where you want to be so that you keep each style as consistent as possible so as people develop a liking for a certain flavor, they’re going to get it all the time.”
Ferrari typically loads the roasting machine in Oshkosh with about 122 pounds of beans, figuring that the coffee will lose 16-18 percent of its weight in the process. The roasting process is essentially a moving oven with a perforated drum inside, much like what you find in a typical dryer in your home. Once the machine is up to the proper temperature, the coffee drops and will roast for 14 to 18 minutes depending on the blend, moisture and other factors. Ferrari uses a keen sense of smell to know when the roast is just right.
“Really, what I’m doing is I’m kind of in tune with what’s happening with the coffee in the chamber based on visual here, or I’ll take a sample here,” Ferrari said. “You’re real involved with your senses. It goes through many different smells from very light, grassy, to kind of a baked flavor to a caramel scent. That’s something you develop over time so you’re noticing how it’s changing through the process. Also the coffee pops like popcorn, typically two times during the roasting process, so those are also indicators where we are in the roast.”
With the focus on sights and smells during the process, Ferrari tries to limit distractions, such as foods or drinks or people wearing cologne or perfume, not wanting to ruin a 100-pound batch of pure Kona that could cost upwards of $5,000. Ferrari said he can maintain focus with people close by, but Piva likes to try to distract with the occasional joke or comment.
“There’s rules when he roasts, we just basically leave him alone,” Piva said, but “(sometimes) I’m like, ‘I think I can get him.’”
If he’s focused, Ferrari can roast about 400 pounds an hour. An industrial grinder can process 100 pounds of beans into grounds in about 10 minutes.
Ferrari and Piva now have some young Kona coffee plants, a cousin to the gardenia family, in the building. They’re hoping the plants will bloom and they can be placed in the front of the building for their aroma and the novelty.
Piva is an Oshkosh native who encouraged Ferrari to plant the business there after the two met in Phoenix.
“He goes, ‘Where’s your hometown?’” Piva said. “So I get out the map, and I go, ‘It’s right there.’ And he goes, ‘No. There’s not even a dot!’ I go, ‘No, no, no, there’s the dot right there, my finger’s on it.’”
Despite the original trepidation, Ferrari said the small-town atmosphere has grown on him, even though Piva still occasionally calls him a “city slicker” and laughs when he tells the story of Ferrari’s first Sunday in town when he realized the local grocery store was closed and he was out of food.
“The people are great,” Ferrari said. “It’s enabled us to do a lot, make our dream come true having our own space, and you kind of feel like you have something real unique. What I really love is that I’m able to bring what many consider as some of the best coffee in the world, showcase it here and bring it to the area where people may have never had it, and we’ve created quite a following.”
Oshkosh Mayor Jim Levick said he’s been pleased with the success of the coffee business.
“When they moved here,” Levick said, “what I had heard was, ‘Who’s going to drink anything but black coffee?’ That type of thing. Well, it’s kind of amazing the amount of people you see over here with out of state license plates or even some of the elderly males in the community stopping and getting some fancy coffee.”
Levick tells the story of meeting someone at a conference in Gering who told of taking a vacation to Hawaii and making sure to have extra room to bring back Ferrari Coffee before realizing it could be found in Oshkosh.
“It lends to an interesting story – Hawaii grown, Nebraska roasted,” Ferrari said. “We’re obviously a little biased, but I think we’re producing a really great product and it feels good that it’s showcased here – that Oshkosh is becoming known for great coffee.”