In the Summer of 2019, we participated in a Q&A with Sprudge as part of their ‘Build Outs of Summer’ Series that highlighted the Big Red Roast Rig. Below is the longer version of that conversation.
How did the project come about?
Steve brought up the idea in the Summer of 2018 of creating a seed-to-cup mobile coffee lab. The monthly classes at our campus in Minneapolis had become really popular but there was still a barrier to entry for people from further away who either couldn’t afford travel or couldn’t leave their businesses for a few days to attend. Mobilizing coffee education would allow us not only connect with those people but to also to promote specialty coffee to the public in a more immediate, hands-on way.
The idea really started to take shape when the 2019 US Coffee Championships were being planned. For a few years now, Mill City Roasters had been the official roaster of the US Coffee Championships and when the finals were scheduled for Kansas City in the Spring of 2019, the venue chosen did not have the ability to host the roasting competition indoors. Instead of roasting in a tent, we shared our mobile coffee lab idea and suggested it could be developed to host those competitors.
We purchased a 40-foot Peterbilt box truck that just happened to have a cab in Mill City red and got to work.
What were the functional design challenges in the beginning?
Space. For roasting competitions, we need two 500g sample roasters and two 3kg roasters and enough space for 2 people to work comfortably at each machine. The interior width of the truck was just under 8’ so early on we knew we’d need to incorporate a slider or “pop-out” to give us more width for people to work back-to-back. We worked with a local company that builds RVs and they were able to build a 10’ wide pop-out that allowed us to gain 30” of width inside the truck.
Beyond roasting, we wanted to incorporate surfaces for extraction/brewing/cupping and we needed a three-compartment sink for clean up. To further complicate the layout, all of these items required support equipment to be hidden away under the truck chassis and inside cabinetry. The challenge was to incorporate all of this function, allow enough room for people to work independently or in small groups, and still maintain a bright, beautiful space.
What type of support equipment was required?
We had to solve the big three – gas, electricity, and water. Water was relatively easy. We have three areas that required water: a pair of La Marrocco espresso machines, a pair of Wilber Curtis brewers and a three-compartment sink. All three areas have dedicated supply water reservoirs tucked below at each location and the sink cabinet also incorporates wastewater storage and an electric, on-demand water heater.
For the gas, we already required propane tanks mounted to the underside of the truck to fuel the roasters so we increased the specified size of propane tanks and installed a generator that could also use propane as its fuel source. The generator sends electricity to a bank of high capacity batteries which in turn power not only the roasters, espresso machines, brewers, grinders, water heater but also the lights, air conditioning, and stereo system. At full use, the battery bank can run truck operations for an entire day but we also have the ability to connect to shore power to both runs the truck and charge the battery bank.'
Beyond the utilities, the last problem to be solved was venting the coffee roasters. To save space and reduce heat load, the chaff collectors for the 3kg roasters were moved to the ground, outside of the truck. We converted the clamp together ducting systems we already use in our venting kits to connect the chaff collectors back to the 3kg inside as well as duct the 500g sample roasters to termination through each side of the pop-out. At the end of each event, the venting is dismantled and stored in custom carrying cases and the chaff collectors are secured in the aisle during transport.
Beyond the function, what other decisions were made as to what a coffee lab should be?
Much of what we were trying to do functionally had already been done in food trucks so we wanted to borrow some of that capability but we didn’t want it to look like a food truck. We wanted the space to feel more like a warm workshop than a commercial kitchen. The truck had wood floors that we patched and refinished. We lined the walls with maple veneer plywood with a clear matte finish. We designed custom metal cabinetry that incorporated residential-scale details and finished them in matte black. We used butcher block counters at all the stations and incorporated soft task lighting at each work surface.
But the windows are really the most important part of the interior. We wanted every work surface to have enough natural light that interior lighting was not required but the windows play a larger role in framing (literally) our experience with this project both from inside and outside. The windows give viewers outside the ability to be voyeurs to what can sometimes be very focused and intense tasks. From inside, the windows reinforce this idea of mobility, travel, adventure, and capability. You could be hitting first crack or pulling a shot and you look outside and see the Grand Canyon. It reinforces our original goal – spread the love of specialty coffee everywhere.
When outfitting the truck, how did you choose which companies or brands to include?
We wanted to choose those companies and brands that shared our values within the specialty coffee industry. We chose to work with La Marzocco and Wilbur Curtis as two highly respected equipment suppliers. Both of those companies have a wide range of solid equipment and we were able to find pieces that worked perfectly in our layout.
We’re highlighting four greens this year from our greens sponsor, Cafe Imports with whom we continue to have a close relationship not only on the truck but back home in Minneapolis. And our 2019 Road Sponsor has been Pacific Foods whose generous support makes much of our travel possible. Pacific Foods continues to be an incredible supporter of the specialty coffee industry and we’re grateful for their support alongside our other sponsors and collaborators.
Outside of industry events, what has been the public experience with the roaster?
The exterior graphics on the truck command a lot of attention. The truck was nearly complete before they were designed and the goal was to turn the truck into a moving billboard to announce what was happening inside. It’s been effective. We’ve had people follow the truck for miles to our destination just to say hello and check us out. At every stop, people ask about our travels and every opportunity we can get to connect with people about coffee and roasting is welcome.