Above, the Intelliroast jug uses a bed of hot air called a "fluid bed" to evenly cook coffee beans.
Photo by Michael Woodley
Article by Jeremy Benson

Thanks to two mechanical engineers from Mid-Michigan, mom-and-pop coffee shops around the state and country will soon be able to roast their own coffee beans in-house, providing their patrons with the freshest brews known to taste buds. In the meantime, coffee lovers can get their fix directly from Cardinal Valley Coffee.

Although Justin Ruediger and Michael Woodley knew they wanted to collaborate to design and market something, a coffee roaster was not their first brainstorm. They wanted to join the renewable energy movement and tried their hand at designing wind turbines. Their plans changed when Woodley meandered into a small café outside of Phoenix, Arizona, and ordered a cup of coffee. It was the most flavorful java he had ever consumed. "It was an amazing cup of coffee." The woman behind the counter told him the intense flavor came from roasting the raw beans herself, using a hot air popcorn popper. "She told me, 'you can do that yourself, you know.'"

So that's just what Woodley did: he took home a bag of green coffee beans and began to experiment with a popcorn popper. As he fiddled with the process, Ruediger joined him, and soon they realized they were onto something. Traditionally, the roasting process is measured by senses; an artisan roast master will smell or even taste the roasting beans to tell how far along they are. Woodley and Ruediger decided to develop a machine that would take the guesswork out of the process, by adding science to the art of roasting.

"We asked ourselves, 'what do we know how to do? Make things!' So we built one," says Woodley. It took two years of fabricating, testing, and watching smoke billowing from Ruediger's garage before the pair had constructed a working prototype. Currently, they are on the fourth door design and the eleventh jug design, and countless parts are on their second or third evolution. New parts have already been ordered and designed for the next version of the Intelliroast machine.

"We kind of have a good grasp of what works and what doesn't," Woodley says, referring to the engineering of the roaster, but also to the coffee itself, the end result. The true benefit of the Intelliroast comes from the small on-board computer which controls the temperature of the beans as they roast, ensuring quality and consistency of each batch poured into the heating jug. The computer will come loaded with 9 presets, but can also be manually programmed by the user. The Intelliroast tracks and saves each program, so popular custom roasts can be reproduced on demand at a later date.

The machine needs only space, standard cooking range wiring, and a vent for the used hot air. Because it only uses electricity (most traditional roasters will use gas to cook the beans), the entire process can easily be run on footprint-less energy. Woodley and Ruediger's downtown Saginaw operation is powered entirely by a wind farm in the Thumb.

While sophisticated sensors and computerized roasting is not a new idea, the goal of Intelliroast is to scale the process down and put the technology directly into the hands of local baristas, or even shoppers at grocery stores. Coffee drinkers can then have access to freshly-roasted beans within the two-week lifespan of coffee's delicate flavors, rather than brewing and drinking it with the flavors long gone. "We hope to change the supply chain of coffee," says Woodley.

The supply chain of fresh, incredibly flavorful coffee currently begins at the retail side of the Intelliroast organization, Cardinal Valley Coffee. Regular visitors to the Flint and Midland Farmers' Markets might have already seen or purchased the intelligently-roasted blends; but the entire line of coffees is available to order at the Cardinal Valley Coffee website. "We roast the beans on Tuesdays, deliver them on Thursdays," Woodley promises. "Those two days allow the beans to rest the perfect amount before brewing." Certain parts of Saginaw, Midland, and Freeland may even receive free delivery when ordering online.

Cardinal Valley Coffee will continue to deliver what Woodley and Ruediger call"“the freshest way to energize your day" until the day when the Intelliroast has blessed and spoiled customers at cafés across the world.

Cardinal Valley Coffee will celebrate their grand opening with an open house on Tuesday, June 29 at 212 S. Washington Ave Saginaw, MI 48607. Light snacks will be served in the morning, with fresh coffee served all day long.

© Jeremy Benson, 2010.