Monks master roasting coffee
Oldest Orthodox monastery in US uses technology to get right flavor
WAYMART — Faintly at first, a crackling sound leaks from the roasting drum as green coffee beans turn a light amber color behind a small, round window.
Father Innocent Neal, a Russian Orthodox priest who looks the part with a full brown beard and gentle eyes, draws a short, narrow scoop from the churning drum and inhales, seeking sensory milestones from the beans.
Wet grass, then hay, then bread, he explains, are the scent stages that lead to a perfect roast. The beans in the metal scoop smell more like wet grass, so he slides it back in place to continue roasting.
The clergy at St. Tikhon’s Bookstore in Waymart, Wayne County, the nation’s largest Orthodox bookstore, and printing press, started Burning Bush Coffee Roasters in January. Since then, the monks embraced roasting and became experts.
The name Burning Bush Coffee Roasters derives meaning from the Old Testament story of Moses and the burning bush that Christianity says signaled the eventual holy conception in Mary — both perfect vessels unconsumed by the fire inside them.
Father Innocent, who like other orthodox clergy prefers to be called by first name only, manages the bookstore.
A longtime coffee aficionado, he roasted coffee in small batches long before considering it could supplement the bookstore sales — a business to support the ministry of 12 monks.
They live and work at the Monastery of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk and teach at the affiliated St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary across the street.
Founded in 1905, St. Tikhon’s is the country’s oldest orthodox monastery.
“Father Innocent was roasting at home, and he’d share it with us every now and then,” said Father Daniel Armstrong.
The monks and the priest began stewing up a way to convince their abbot, Father Igumen Sergius, to green-light a commercial roastery in the already-busy bookstore and printing press operation.
It was easier than expected.
“Somehow, it all just fell into place,” said Father Daniel, who had the task of pitching to the abbot.
With the abbot’s blessing, they needed a hand up to get the roasting started.
Enter Father Alexis Baldwin, a priest who grew up in southeast Mississippi and graduated from St. Tikhon’s seminary in 2013. During his schooling, Father Alexis ran the seminary kitchen and catered events for the monastery.
He also spent more than a decade working in the coffee business, and even now at his ministry post in Aiken, South Carolina, he works part-time roasting for an independent chain of coffee shops.
After learning about St. Tikhon’s newest endeavor, Father Alexis lent his expertise and visited for a day and a half to help Father Innocent get familiar with the roaster and hone their style.
Their de facto roastmaster, Brother Stephen Lindell, tracks each 10-minute roast with a MacBook Pro laptop, watching temperatures drop when he introduces the beans, then slowly rise to the optimal temperature determined by where the coffee grew.
Tracking each roast helps them tweak the process, he explained.
Burning Bush roasts 10 pounds at a time, and just 80 to 100 pounds per week. The monks sell hot coffee from the bookstore for $1 a cup, and also in 12-ounce, one-pound and five-pound packages from the store and online at www
.stspress.com. The coffee costs about $15 for a one-pound package, depending on variety. Burning Bush also has its own Monastery Blend.
Using a scale and a filter in a ceramic cone, Father Daniel pours water from a long-necked kettle over freshly ground coffee weighed to the gram. A timer ticks off the seconds, keeping his pour on pace for a single, perfect cup.
“We don’t roast dark,” Father Innocent said, just before Brother Stephen opens the hatch to let a fresh batch of Ethiopian beans pour from the drum. “What we’re really trying to do is bring out the characteristics of the bean.”
Specialty coffee seems to be is a natural muse for orthodox clergy.
Father Alexis and his wife, a self-employed music therapist, both work multiple jobs. They have four boys, all under age 7.
“Coffee is a very important part of our lives,” he said. “It’s such a joyful thing.”