Entering the modest row house on Emory Avenue in Chambersburg, I am enveloped by the fruity, rich, herbal smell of coffee. Part of the front room has been screened off from the rest of the house. Amid rugs and a few chairs are burlap sacks of dull green coffee beans in several hues and a remarkable array of grinding, measuring, filtering, and pouring equipment. Set up near the front of the room is a suitcase-size, gleaming red contraption with a vent coming off the top — a roaster.
Abdul-Quadir Wiswall puts down a round tray of warm, dark-brown freshly roasted beans to shake my hand. He offers a chair and a coffee, which he then prepares in a dexterous choreography. He grinds a small handful of beans with a Japanese ceramic burr hand grinder, hand presses a shot in a manual espresso machine from the United Kingdom, pours the coffee into a glass with some brown sugar muddled in hot water, adds frothed milk, then hands me the glass.
“I don’t have any machines here, any electronics. This is a manual latte if you will,” says Abdul, an attentive and hospitable man with round glasses and a protruding ochre-tipped beard.
I taste the wonderful concoction. It is creamy and full of the natural mocha, cocoa and herbal flavors that Abdul says are the hallmark of the Ethiopian Sidamo bean he has served me.
Welcome to MicroBike Coffee Roaster, the remarkable boutique business Abdul, 44, operates out of the home he shares with his wife, four children, son-in-law and one grandchild.
MicroBike Coffee currently supplies ten pounds of beans a week to Champs Bar & Grill a few blocks away, keeping the artists, musicians and employees there happily caffeinated. Abdul also fills online orders and makes personal deliveries, usually by bicycle. He’s also been known to show up for Sunday afternoon bike polo matches at Lipinski Park in the North Ward, doling out individually made coffees from his specially equipped bicycle trailer.
As he acquaints himself with Trenton’s arts community, Abdul likes the idea of contributing to it in his own way.
“This is also a part of me, to be around people like that, and if the coffee fits in that would be great,” he says.
MicroBike Coffee is poised to undergo an evolution, as Abdul seeks to “bring coffee to the people.” He wants to set up a retail location from which to sell his beans and make coffee. He has considered the Trenton Farmers Market, perhaps a cart outside the Trenton Transit Center, the newly founded Greenwood Avenue Farmers Market, and other options, but has not made a final decision about which direction he will go in.
Perhaps it’s fitting during this time of change that a Swedish bike shop also named MicroBike contacted Abdul and told him they owned the rights to the name. He will soon go by the name Trenton Coffee Roaster, he says.
In the near term, Abdul will be serving up coffee at pop-up gigs. On the morning of May 15 he will be serving coffee at New Trenton Store & Studio at 324 South Broad Street, and conducting a coffee tasting and information session throughout the day at the store on May 16.
Fueled by one of his magnificent coffees, it is easy to lose an afternoon listening to Abdul’s tales of his peripatetic travels; the lore and history of coffee, of which he has an encyclopedic knowledge; and how he came to follow his passion for roasting coffee beans.
“I’m from Boonton, New Jersey,” says Abdul. He attended Antioch College in Ohio. In 1995, he briefly settled on Brunswick Avenue in Trenton, but spent most of the decade traveling and living in countries including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. He has been a bike messenger in Chicago, a taxi driver in Trenton, a college teacher in Saudi Arabia, an ESL teacher in New York and New Jersey, and a test developer at ETS in Lawrence.
“I took a spiritual journey, if you will,” Abdul says of these years. In 2004, he and his family settled in Trenton, and have remained ever since, immersed in the immigrant communities from Ghana, Liberia, Sudan and Bangladesh (Abdul’s wife is from Bangladesh).
Several years ago, “me and my brother took a trip down to Chiapas, Mexico,” says Abdul. Seeing green coffee beans for sale in a market, he bought some. “I brought back the coffee and started roasting it in my house.”
“I bought a little ten dollar popcorn machine and used it to roast beans, and it worked really well,” Abdul recounts. “I got more and more into roasting, more and more into taking it seriously,” he says. “My machine slowly, slowly, slowly got bigger.”
Eventually he graduated to the Sonofresco roaster he uses today. Its capacity is two pounds and enables him to roast up to 50 pounds of coffee beans a day.
His roaster is connected to his laptop via Bluetooth and Abdul conducts exhaustive data tracking and analysis of the batches he roasts. “My passion really is the roasting. It is so difficult. There is so much that can go wrong,” he says.
“I just want to do it right, and right for me. I’m learning every day. Every day I’m learning something new,” he says.
Roasting is a highly complex and exacting process where a matter of minutes makes a huge difference in the final coffee characteristics, Abdul says. On top of this, every type of coffee bean from every region of the world has it’s own unique physical and taste characteristics, which a roaster must take into account in the roasting process, he says.
He has learned to roast some beans precisely and well. He calls them “old friends.”
“When I get a new bean it takes me a long time to get to know what to do with that bean,” he says.
Still, “you just want to try everything,” he says.
He shows me plotted time and temperature charts of roasts he has conducted, talks about the stages of roasting where the beans yellow and brown and emit smells that progress from grass and hay to bread and popcorn – “roasting coffee does not smell like coffee.”
Abdul is exceptionally generous, both with his coffee and with his knowledge.
“There are no secrets,” he says. “If someone wants to learn how to roast coffee, I will teach them.”
Abdul talks of the “first crack” and “second crack” of a roast, the quick three-to-four minute window that separates a light roast from a dark roast. He can discourse on evolving American premium coffee tastes, moving from the early 1970s when West Coast roasters like Peet’s and Starbucks awakened the country to the pleasures of dark roasts, how ten years ago the pendulum swung the other way to light roasts, and how it is moving again.
Abdul explains coffee’s roots in Islam, its role in Sufi mysticism, even the true-life history of the turbaned sheik depicted on old Hills Bros. coffee tins.
Yemen, the cradle of the cultivated coffee bean with its port city named Mocha, has a particular hold on Abdul, whose daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter lived there until the recent unrest forced them to leave. A friend of his, a coffee grader by profession, has been single-handedly trying to revive high-quality cultivation of the heirloom Yemeni beans that Abdul says make “the best cup of coffee in the world.”
Abdul offers me another coffee, a special drip filter preparation. I reluctantly decline, knowing I might never leave otherwise. I tell him I want to purchase some beans before I go, however, but have to admit to having only a sacrilegious spice grinder (blades bad, burrs good) to accompany my French press.
Abdul says he could grind the beans himself, but this would violate several major quality rules: first, the newly roasted beans need to rest for one to two days to enable their flavors to develop before they should be ground; and second, if he ground a lot of beans for me it would violate one of his “15” guidelines, that the coffee should be brewed within 15 minutes of being ground (the others are that green beans should be roasted within 15 months of harvest, and that beans should be brewed within 15 weeks of roasting).
So I leave with no beans. But I will return. Abdul has converted me.
– MicroBike Coffee Roaster, soon to be Trenton Coffee Roaster
Appearing at New Trenton Store & Studio
324 S. Broad Street
May 15 & 16