John DeBartolo - New York's Coffee Meister
Gourmet Coffee Is A Serious Pleasure
I come from a family of serious coffee drinkers – generations of serious coffee drinkers.
My father was born in Laurium, Greece, a small town outside of Athens. His father was Italian, his mother Austrian. My great-grandfather was the captain of a small coastal sailing ship that sold green coffee beans and salt to the small towns on the Adriatic Sea, as well as to the numerous Italian and Greek islands in the Mediterranean.
Yes, they were very heavy – and very serious – coffee drinkers. My father used to tell me stories about how his mother roasted green coffee beans in a coffee roasting pan every morning before the rest of the family arose. The pan was similar to an old-fashioned popcorn roasting pan and it had a very long handle. There was even a hand crank located on the top of the coffee chamber so the beans could be turned to prevent scorching.
Turks, Germans & Coffee Houses
My father loved to accompany his Austrian grandfather on selling trips to the numerous coffee houses in Pireaus – the seaport outside of Athens.
My father remembers selling inferior coffee beans to the Turkish coffee houses where the coffee beans were roasted very dark, then ground into a powder just before being brewed. To enhance the flavor of that dark roast (and to add a little aroma to the coffee house) the Turks would add a small quantity of higher grade beans into the roasting pans.
At that time, just before the turn of the century, German engineers were finishing the Corinth Canal. The numerous coffee houses catering to the Germans used to purchase the better grades of coffee beans for their clientele. My father vividly recalled how you were able to locate those coffee houses and cafes by smell, long before you were able to see them.
Hey, Soldier! Want Some Coffee?
During the Great War (WWI) my father was stationed on the Austrian border of the Italian Alps. During the quiet periods, when they weren't slaughtering one another, my father (who was in the infantry) used to resole the boots of the officers on both sides in exchange for coffee beans.
He recalled that the Austrian officers most definitely had a better grade of coffee than the Italian officers during the first years of the war. As the war progressed, however, the supply of coffee beans diminished. During the last stages of the war, my father recalled roasting all types of greenery to add to the few available coffee beans.
Gourmet Coffee . . . It's All In The Family
My association with gourmet coffee came to a halt when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. At the time, my father owned three grocery stores, was part owner of the Montgomery Coffee Company, with another interest in a sugar refinery.
I was a teenager and, of course, expected to join the family business. But on December 8, 1941 my country was at war and I had to do my part. The grocery and coffee roasting business wasn't the place to be during those times. I quit school and, being too young for any military service, went to work for a military supply company.
As the USA entered the war, my father had difficulty purchasing green coffee beans, and on Monday December 8th, he found he couldn't purchase any. After his current inventory was exhausted, he was out of the coffee business in a few short months. Then, the government put a hold on his sugar factory forcing a sale of all my Pop's businesses but one.
After the war, I went to work for an airline. My father had expanded again and wanted to return to the coffee roasting business. Ah, but I was young and there was no way I was going to leave the glamorous aviation industry.
Looking back, I sometimes think I may have been happier blending beans and inhaling the fragrant aromas of freshly roasted gourmet coffees – rather than foul-smelling aviation fuel.
I'm fortunate to come from a long line of coffee connoisseurs, and I continue to enjoy gourmet coffees with the best of them. Right now, it's rather late. . . so I'll have a cup of Colombian Supremo. Tomorrow's another day.