Toast 'N' Roast

Why Portland streets smell like burnt toast and how to fix it.

Portlanders are not actually terrible at making toast. That smell of burning breakfast that lands heavy on our streets, especially on wet days, isn’t bread-based—it’s smoke from a small coffee roastery.

“It can sometimes be pretty astringent,” says Dave Monro, air quality manager for the Department of Environmental Quality. “That smell is not the one people normally associate with a fresh cup of coffee.”

Coffee beans need to be roasted for up to 30 minutes at temperatures of up to 550 degrees Fahrenheit. The resulting smoke can be a nuisance to neighbors and, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report, fumes from coffee roasters include alcohols, aldehydes, nitrogen and sulfur compounds along with a thin, flaky skin called chaff, which burns at 1,400 degrees. To incinerate the chaff, many roasters use an afterburner. But afterburners use a lot of expensive fuel and can make the shop uncomfortably warm.

It’s a problem big outfits like Stumptown spend a lot of money to solve. The company recently spent $500,000 on a high-tech ceramic filtration system. Small roasters don’t have that kind of money, and the fact that many favor primitive, vintage equipment doesn’t help.

Oregon roasters are not required to get an air quality permit unless they roast more than 60,000 pounds of coffee a year—that’s enough to make 1.3 million 12-ounce cups of coffee—meaning most small roasters only fall under general rules against any business churning out thick smoke. Possibly because of these very lax rules, the DEQ rarely takes enforcement action against coffee roasters. According to state records, the last fine levied was in 1998, when a Bend roaster was charged $2,658.

At least one Portland roaster deserves plaudits for going above and beyond with his afterburner alternative. In the basement of unassuming Cellar Door Coffee Roasters in Ladd’s Addition, roaster Jeremy Adams has quietly overcome these cost and environmental issues with some old-fashioned Portland DIY ingenuity by building his own system. Adams’ roaster employs a second chamber where a fine mist of water and ionized electrons cool the smoke as water molecules drag the chaff to the bottom of the chamber. The cooled smoke goes through a series of filters that Adams calls an “electrostatic precipitator,” which uses ionized electrified wires to grab organic compounds from the air. It sounds complicated, but to put it simply: It uses less fuel, was cheaper to make and keeps the neighborhood from smelling like burnt toast.

“I try to be a good neighbor,” he says.

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