Feature Photos

Coffee with a mission

By September 4, 2011

COFFEE FARMER “Raphael" manages the Las Marias Estate in Nueva Segovia, Nicaragua, one of the collectives the El Dorado Coffee and Tea Company sources its beans from. Courtesy photo

Retired fireman’s family coffee business serves local non-profits and women-run coffee farms in developing countries.

Coffee roaster Dennis Planje enjoys telling people that he lives between the first and the second crack.

Just ask him. The retired fireman will explain how the water inside a green coffee bean suddenly boils off right around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, puffing it up like a kernel of popcorn and emitting an audible “first crack.”

The real coffee-magic happens next, as the flavor-laden oils, enzymes and sugars simmer inside the bean. Left in the roaster, they’ll escape a few minutes later, somewhere around 435 degrees, in a second, equally audible crack, after which the oils and sugars are outside the bean, where they quickly caramelize then burn. They can even explode.

Most coffee connoisseurs, Planje included, disdain the taste of dark roast coffees as front-loaded and indelicate with a bitter aftertaste. “French roasted beans all taste the same,” said Planje.

Planje’s coffee roasting “life” between the two cracks is a recipe for retaining the region-specific flavor in the bean, along with most of the caffeine.

That’s why “We take it right up to the second crack then pull it,” he said.

After he retired from the El Dorado Hills Fire Department Planje bought a small roaster and started cooking coffee in his garage. His wife Renee found a commercial-grade, 100-pound capacity “San Franciscan” artisan roaster on the Internet and snatched it up for him.

El Dorado Coffee and Tea was born, and immediately became the lone commercial coffee roaster in the county.

In the process of refurbing the machine, Planje discovered that he’d unknowingly acquired one of the original prototype “Franciscan” roasters. He boasts that the handsome machine is a collector’s item, but has no intention of parting with it.

He installed extensive venting in the warehouse “roasting room,” to satisfy the county and also upgraded the vintage roaster’s motor and burner. To comply with EPA regulations he outfitted it with an afterburner.

Large commercial coffee companies automate the roasting process, but Planje does it all by hand, using his eyes, ears, nose and, importantly, taste buds to ensure that each batch is right. It’s a true hand-roast.

Planje documents each “burn,” carefully logging weight loss, times and temperatures.

A small portion of each batch of roasted beans is ground, brewed and tasted as quality assurance.

“Dad’s a real artisan roaster,” said his son Cory, who, along with his brother Rob helps their father in the roasting room.

El Dorado Hills families know Cory as “The Grinch” in the Firefighter Association’s annual Santa Run, where he dons a green mask and torments the elves, steals Toys for Tots and makes mischief along the route, to the delight of kids and parents alike.

Non-profit retail channel
El Dorado Coffee and Tea is now being served at the Cellar Wine Bar, next to Sienna Restaurant in El Dorado Hills. It can also be found at Chateau Arme Latte and Bakery on Francisco Drive and Sutter Street Grill in Folsom.

It’s become a favorite at farmers markets in Folsom, Placerville, Sunrise and Carmichael.

El Dorado Coffee and Tea has a website — eldoradoroasting.com — but no café or store to directly market their beans to the public, a fact that’s made it difficult to achieve the name recognition necessary to win the commercial accounts they hope will anchor their coffee business.

The Planjes hope to team up with local schools, sports teams and charities to help them raise funds while injecting their brews into the hearts, minds and cups of local coffee and tea drinkers.

They’ve put together a simple program that lets non-profits earn $4 for each bag of small-batch, artisan-roasted coffee beans they sell.

“It’s the ultimate fundraiser,” said Renee. “The cost is $12 per bag of coffee, about the same as the supermarket and way better.”

The Planje’s can even brand the coffee for the non-profit. They recently created a “Sister’s Blend” for the Susan G. Komen foundation which includes the foundation’s distinct pink logo.

The benefits of their unusual distribution channel extend well beyond the boundaries of El Dorado Hills, or North America for that matter.

Renee met Mery Santos, the secretary of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, last year and got a quick lesson in the global economics of coffee, how women represent a majority of the 25 million coffee farmers in the world, and that most of them live in poverty, hampered by a pervasive machismo attitude that’s common in coffee producing countries.

Most live in rural areas that lack basic social services and in some cases, schools.

Santos works directly with the women growers, teaches them best agricultural practices and shares advice on forming collectives, branding and marketing their beans. She also takes roasters and grinders to the farms and brews coffee for the growers, most of whom have never tasted their own coffee.

“We’ve done a lot with them in their countries,” she said, “but we didn’t have a roaster in the U.S. willing to work with the relatively small quantities they produce.”

Not until Dennis and Renee Planje came along.

Santos and Renee co-founded “Project 2 Love” with a mission “to support our sisters from seed to cup,” said Renee. “To buy, roast, sell and promote their coffees and other products in the U.S. market.”

The Planjes currently roast beans from woman-producers in Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, with more in the works.

The farms are typically small, which makes them bit players in the $70 billion global coffee market. “The first thing we did to help them was buy their coffee,” said Renee.

Renee and Santos hope to create a full-blown distribution channel for the small-farm coffees and to teach the women ways to augment their coffee income and raise the quality of life in their villages.

El Dorado Coffee’s “Woman’s Harvest” blend comes from Costa Rica, and supports a shelter for young girls who have suffered abandonment or abuse.

Each country’s beans roast into wonderful “coffees of origin,” said Dennis, who’s also importing and roasting coffees from Africa, Indonesia and the Americas.

Daughter Hannah Planje recently visited a collective in Nicaragua run by 28 women. She brought their daughters “pillowcase” dresses made by a group of women at Rolling Hills Church.

The group plans to return in January outfitted with surplus sewing machines and pillow cases to teach the women how to make and sell the dresses themselves.

“We’re trying to focus on more than just the coffee business,” said Hannah, who plans to help the women market jewelry, woven products and baked goods.

“These women are the sole providers for families … stuck in generational cycles of poverty,” said Renee. “We’re also teaching them about sustainability and the importance of educating their children.

“It’s where our heart is,” said Renee, who’s leaving for El Salvador later this year on a similar mission.

Meanwhile, they’re focusing on local non-profits. They recently sold coffee and Renee’s “Sweet Dreams” tea blend at the Sweet Dream Foundation’s Designing Dreams fashion show.

Residents at St. John’s Shelter Program in Sacramento will soon bag and sell their own brand of El Dorado coffee. “They’ll even roast the beans with Dennis,” said Renee. “Then we’ll show them how to go out … and sell coffee.”

Besides helping local non-profits and not-so-local women-operated coffee farms, the Planjes also believe their business will create some local jobs. Dennis predicts his roasting operation will require a half-dozen employees, with others in marketing and distribution, once it’s up and running.

Until then, it’s a family affair. Rob and Cory are in and out of the roasting room. Hannah has her hands in many aspects of the business, including marketing material, farmers markets and working directly the women growers.

You can order El Dorado Coffee Company online at eldoradoroasting.com.

During their extended start-up the Planjes are offering free home delivery to El Dorado Hills, Cameron Park and Folsom. Specify shipping, pickup or delivery in the notes section of the website’s shopping cart.

Mike Roberts


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