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For over twenty years, I’ve longed to get my hands on a Whitmee coffee roaster

BISHOPS’ HATS AND SCALLY CAPS

For over twenty years, I’ve longed to get my hands on a Whitmee coffee roaster. Due to their extreme scarcity and cost – whenever one did come onto the market in the UK, it carried a price beyond my means – the dream eluded me. I contented myself instead by diligently researching and collecting heavy-duty ‘Monitor’ roasters built here in the U.S. and amazing open-drum and open-flame ‘Uno’ roasters manufactured in England.

Why Whitmee? I fell in love with their design – especially their gothic “Bishop’s Hat” profile, and their über-cool cast iron combination charge/discharge chute that projects out and downward from their face plate like a ski-jump – many years ago after seeing my first photograph of a Whitmee coffee roaster. Taken somewhere in Britain, and first published in 1922 in William H. Ukers’s seminal book “All About Coffee”, the photo shows one of the larger Whitmee Simplex roasters (their 168 lb batch machine) in action.

love the roaster chap standing proudly next to his belt-driven Whitmee machine, with his working-class ‘scally’ cap perched squarely on his head and his white shirt and tie protected by a long shop coat – sleeves rolled up and ready for action. (You have to respect a man wearing a hat and tie whilst roasting coffee – very proper and professional, and very British.) What I wouldn’t give to be able to chat with him for a few hours about roasting coffee with his Whitmee – ideally over a pint or two of ale at his favorite pub!

I discovered my Whitmee last winter, while searching on-line in the UK for interesting roasters. The fellow that was selling it had a couple of roasters for sale; an older, mid-sized Probat that wound up being acquired by a roaster in Canada, and the smaller Whitmee shop roaster that I eventually acquired. I contacted the owner, and grew quite excited when I saw the pictures he e-mailed me. I learned the roaster wasn’t currently operational because of a fire, but otherwise he claimed it was in pretty good shape, relatively speaking (aside from someone painting it a vibrant – and completely inauthentic – shade of blue at some point in its past). He believed the roaster to be from the 1960s, but I suspected upon seeing the photos that it was much older, as its splay-legged style and Gothic-arched design resembled the post-WWI Simplex-class Whitmee roasters I had seen in old photos, not the Romanesque-arched Whitmee roasters I’d seen from the post-WWII era through the 1960s, after which the business appears to have folded.

There was one other clue about the age of the roaster in the photos that the English fellow sent me, which I’m not sure many other people would have discerned. His photos showed that his Whitmee’s drum was not driven by a V-belt connecting a pulley on the drum to a smaller pulley on the shaft of an electric motor, as I would have expected in a machine from the 1960s. Instead, it was powered by a complex off-set chain-drive system, with a huge circular sprocket on the back of the drum that struck me by its resemblance to the chain-drive systems once common on pre-WWII motorcycles, such as the American-built Indian or the British-built BSA and Norton bikes. But what was this chain-drive – common on early motorcycles – doing on this coffee roaster?

The answer I arrived at actually gave additional support of my supposition regarding the early post-WWI vintage of this roaster. In my research into Whitmee (or, more properly, ‘The Whitmee Engineering Co., Ltd.’, located at the ‘Alecto Works, Grove Road, Balham, London’), I learned something very interesting. I’d discovered that the Whitmee company in the 1920s and 1930s – in addition to manufacturing coffee roasters and tea equipment – also manufactured a line of touring and sporting motorcycles that were sold under the brand-name ‘Alecto’! How crazy was that?! ‘Today, lads, we’re assembling coffee roasters, but tomorrow come ready to build motorcycles!’ But with some further investigation, it turned out that it wasn’t such an unusual idea after all. I uncovered the fact that in that era there were literally dozens of brands of motorcycles produced by many different manufacturing companies in Britain – all rivals for a strong domestic market for ‘cycles, plus a lucrative export market that existed at that time throughout the British Empire for inexpensive transportation. So perhaps designing and building coffee roasters and motorcycles with the same team of engineers and fabricators under the same roof wasn’t as crazy as it sounds, being instead simply a prudent diversification of manufacturing resources in uncertain times – while incidentally creating another puzzle for a steampunk roaster enthusiast to try and solve someday.

http://www.coffeebeanintl.com/blog/roaster-restoration-%E2%80%93-part-2

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British Roasting Machines

SALVATION OF A STEAMPUNK ROASTER

I’m the first to admit that I’m passionate about coffee – and in particular, coffee roasters. That probably explains why I decided years ago to collect coffee roasters, and now find myself owning seven of them (not counting my three sample roasters, of course…they’re so petite!) in sizes ranging from a husky half-bagger all the way down to a diminutive three-pound countertop beauty.

Some guys collect cars. I round-up roasters. Same disease, different symptoms.

My current project is an extremely rare, British-built “Whitmee” shop roaster from the late 1910s or early 1920s. Discovered languishing in a junk-filled farmer’s shed outside of a small village east of London the roaster was thought by its UK owner to have a seven pound per batch capacity. However, after getting it to the States, taking it apart and examining it, I have discovered it is actually a much rarer – and more desirable – 14 pound per batch machine! In fact, it’s only the second 14 pounder I have ever seen anywhere in the world, and without a doubt the only Whitmee of any size in the United States.

The old Whitmee roaster – part of their Simplex-class of roasters, which ranged in batch size from 7 pounds to 224 pounds – is a beautiful piece of early 20th century industrial engineering and design. With a style that is almost steampunk in character, the roaster is built of cast iron and hand-shaped steel. Nothing digital or plastic here, thank you very much. I suspect roasting on it will be like driving a fully restored old-school stick-shift pickup truck. The kind of truck that turns heads, and makes you jealous of the guy behind the wheel. Minimal controls, maximum appeal.

My Whitmee roaster is a legacy of the era when Great Britain had few rivals anywhere in the world in building machinery that excelled in both form and function. The roaster features a perforated drum with the gas burner mounted inside – a style of roaster radically different than those built today. “Direct flame” roasters were nearly universal in Europe and the United States in the years between WWI and WWII, but went out of style because of their low fuel efficiency and the extensive training needed to operate them properly – not because their coffees didn’t taste good!

Led by the Jabez Burns Company and their “Thermalo” class of roasters, “direct flame” roasters such as the Whitmee were eventually replaced with “indirect flame” machines featuring solid drums instead of perforated, with the gas burners moved from inside the drum to underneath it. Less cost to roast because of greater fuel efficiency, and less chance of burning the coffee. However, as one of the few people in the country to have an intimate familiarity with both “direct flame” and “indirect flame” roasted coffees, I mourn the passage of these great machines. When operated by someone that really knows what they’re doing, the flavor of “direct flame” roasted coffees can be incredible, with flavors and aromas seldom found in conventionally roasted coffees.

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