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The history of coffee technology is told through antique machines at Probat's museum.
A Coffee Roaster Museum

By REG BUTLER

The technology of coffee roasting has come a long way since the mid-19th century - from the simple roasting pans used on household kitchen hearths, to the giant computer-controlled automated roasting machines of today, handling up to five tons an hour.

One of the first German commercial roaster patents was granted in 1877 for the Emmerich ball roaster, which had been developed several years earlier by 28-years-old engineer Theodor von Gimborn.

Instead of roasting coffee in an open pan, a rotating iron ball container enabled beans of a consistent quality to be roasted with the desired characteristics of aroma and flavor. Together with wholesalers based in Emmerich, and leading German green coffee importers - who found that roasted beans sold far better than green - a machine-making company was founded in 1868 as the Emmericher Maschinenfabrik & Eisengiesserei, better known today as Probat.

Success was immediate. Emmerich was the first place where roasting machines were produced in series. In 1899, Emmerich produced the first patented rapid gas roaster. With the company now in its 136th year, the third and fourth generations of the von Gimborn family are still actively associated with the business.

Probat is located in an industrial site on the outskirts of Emmerich, close to the Rhine, which marks the frontier between northern Germany and Holland. A wing of the office building houses the Museum of Coffee Technology, displaying a wide range of historical roasters that were built in Germany and other countries. Some were used for many decades by leading coffeehouses and trading companies around the world.

The establishment of the Museum in 1978 was indirectly a result of World War II. In 1944, the town of Emmerich was 98% destroyed by Allied bombing, including the Probat factory located in the inner part of the city.

Postwar, from 1946, when tentative manufacture was resumed, there were no designs or production facilities in existence. All office records had been destroyed. The only way of reviving the business was for a few employees to visit former customers who had working machines, measure up and make new engineering drawings.

Whenever possible, Probat also bought back machines, to rebuild or to have on-the-spot models to copy from the original. Later, when these models were just gathering dust in a warehouse, the idea was born of establishing a technology museum. Finally, when the new office block was built in 1977, space was allocated to house what had become museum pieces. From that basis, the collection has been expanded whenever the opportunity arose, followed by several extensions of the museum.

The motivation for the museum came from the third-generation family member, Carl Hans von Gimborn, who is now 80 years old. He still cycles to work in his capacity as chairman of the board of Probat Holding.

Today’s museum of about 600 sq. m. displays more than 1,000 exhibits. These reflect the technical stages of development from the ball roaster, through the Emmerich quick roaster, patented in 1884, up to examples of 20th-century roasting technology. Also displayed are around 50 commercial and industrial grinders, large and small.

Coffee Technology Museum (Left to Right): The collection features a varied display of retail coffee packaging: Ingo Jerkovitz, musuem director, displays a gas-heated battery sample roaster; a scene of household coffee preparation from green beans.

Apart from the industrial-level machines, a full range of shop and sample roasters is featured - greatly accounting for the claim that the company had delivered its one hundred thousandth roaster by 1931. An interesting corner of the Museum is devoted to battery sample roasters dating from the early 20th Century.

A further focal point is a collection of some 600 household coffee mills. Many of the household grinders are highly decorative, and would have looked more at home in a lounge or dining area than in a kitchen.

The oldest commercial roaster on show dates from the 1870s and is one of the original series of ball roasters. Green coffee was poured into the spherical bowl, capacity 5 kilos, and it was shut. Then somebody, probably a boy of 12 or 14, would turn the handle for 40 minutes. During the roasting, fired by coal or coke, a sample of the coffee could be taken to check how it was doing. When the color was right, the bowl was opened and emptied over a cooling sieve, and then raked to ensure even cooling of the roasted beans. It was a slow process, but 19th-century per capita coffee consumption was much lower, and ranked as a luxury.

Also on show is a complete roasting plant - and SB drum roaster of 22-kilo capacity with two grinders. Driven by transmission and fired by coke, this equipment was in constant use by one company from 1900 until 1981. Possibly a record for a long-life roaster? The machine was acquired when the owner decided to retire.

At the Museum entrance, a display reproduces an early 19th- century household kitchen. The wife turns the handle of a domestic roaster as it revolves over a fire, while her husband sits with a hand-held grinder. The Museum includes numerous examples of 18th- and 19th-century roasting cylinders and roasting pans with stirrers, for use on the kitchen hearth. Throughout Europe, domestic roasting still remained prevalent even into the early 20th century.

The Museum is not intended solely as a promotion for Probat, but comprises the history of coffee technology, with the inclusion of competitors’ roasting machines. Some of those earlier rivals still exist, but others are now members of the Probat group. There are several roasters, for instance, from the Jabez Burns company, which became a leading U.S. manufacturer from the Civil War years, when coffee was a daily part of military rations. The oldest of these was the Burns No. 1 perforated cylinder drum roaster, patented in 1870 - coke fired and with a two-bag capacity.

Aspects of the Museum are also displayed in the surrounding lawn area, where a two-bag coke-fired drum roaster with combined cooler dates from 1930, and also one of the larger ball roasters from about 1900, with one-bag capacity. Some of the outside office facade is decorated with coffee-roaster spare parts!

It all makes useful study material, setting the background for engineering apprentices and other technicians who come on training courses. School visits are encouraged, partly as a public relations exercise in the region. The Museum is also open free to the public, by appointment.

Museum of Coffee Technology, Probat-Werke GmbH, Reeser Str. 94, P.O. Box 100752, D-46446 Emmerich, Germany. E-mail: i.jerkovic@probat.com Tel: (49)(2822) 912-313

Reg Butler is a freelance journalist who covers the tea, coffee, and tobacco industries for Lockwood Publications. He can be reached via email at: r.butler@lockwoodpublications.com.


Tea & Coffee - November/December, 2003
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