The first thing you notice is the aroma - strong and vaguely sinister - a subtle scent that practically commands you to inhale deep into your lungs.
About 6 o'clock on a recent chilly morning, in an old East Baltimore industrial plant that looks from afar as though it had been abandoned decades ago, a trek two floors up a dark, dingy staircase is rewarded by an olfactory prize, a tantalizing hint of greater pleasures hidden behind one of many doors. The mesmerizing smell is like a warm current of air in the frigid, vaporous atmosphere.
Following one's nose leads a visitor to the modest premises of Bluebird Artisanal Coffee Roasters, in an airy, one-room loft, its windows fogged against the outside cold. Long before sunrise, before most people have blearily brewed their first cup of coffee, Erik Rudolph is carefully roasting an 8-pound batch of organic, Brazilian coffee beans, destined for local restaurants and retailers, a meticulous process that recalls a chef working on a minor masterpiece.
Working almost invariably alone, Rudolph will roast between 300 and 400 pounds of coffee - from places like Costa Rica, Sumatra, India, Bolivia and Ethiopia - during an average week. That's a lot of aroma.
Rudolph comes across as a perfectionist, someone who holds true to ages-old methods that involve not only respect for coffee's traditions but for the planet and the people who grow the beans in far-off lands. Huge retail coffee chains, he says - without mentioning any names - have undermined their own avowals of reverence for such traditions by producing "exotic" coffee drinks that sometimes are more homogeneous than remarkable.
But Rudolph is not above tipping his hat to the big chains and giving credit where it's due. "For years, you just got your coffee at a gas station," he said. "Now Starbucks has enabled guys like me to do some of this."
His career as a coffee roaster was not preordained. A little more than a decade ago, Rudolph got a job at The Daily Grind in Fells Point, making coffee for walk-ins. The owner, David Key, also owned a coffee roastery, where Rudolph learned the intricacies of beans, how they react to heat, and the variations in provenance and flavors.
"I liked producing a product that was around town and that people dug," he recalls. "People like to put a face on their coffee roaster, and they like to know their coffee was roasted just a day or two ago. Freshness is crucial."
When Key sold the roastery a few years ago to a company that moved it to Virginia, "I realized there was a bit of a vacuum in town for people who liked to know where their coffee is coming from," Rudolph says. Eventually, after getting some capital together, Rudolph started his own roasting outfit in 2005, and, while it's not profitable yet, he says, it does break even. A shipment of coffee beans that arrived recently cost about $3,000.
Rudolph hopes that this year the business will do well enough that he will be able to pay himself a salary. In the meantime, he pulls a second job as a waiter at Peter's Inn five days a week, a stint that usually wraps up about 11 p.m.
When you consider that he's usually roasting beans by 6 a.m., it's no wonder that, as he says, "I drink a hell of a lot of coffee."
Sometimes, he even has a social life, as was the case, when he went out after his waiter shift to celebrate a friend's birthday. "I'm a highly trained professional," he says, smiling, "so I can go out and get in here."
Rudolph, 36, gets some help from his girlfriend and business partner, Zorana Grdjic, and his 34-year-old sister, Shauna, both of whom come in when they can to bag beans or do paperwork.
The company's beans are already a fixture in both Whole Foods stores in Baltimore and the one in Gaithersburg; the Blue Moon Cafe and Peter's Inn, both in Fells Point; Chesapeake Wine on Boston Street in Canton; and the Oasis Coffee in Chase, near Bengie's Drive-In Theater. Rudolph makes most of his own deliveries in his red 1988 Toyota Land Cruiser.
All the beans he uses come from either organic farms or those certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which ensures that goods are produced under guidelines that protect the environment, wildlife, workers and local communities.
The bags carry labels with Rudolph's signature descriptions: His Ethiopian harrar coffee, for instance, suggests "wine with an acidy snap," while the Costa Rican La Legua has a "full body with a balanced acidity." Some of his blends, like Dodge Podge, Boo-Boo and Freaky Meeky, are named after his dogs, both living and departed.
"That Freaky Meeky is a good blend, man," he says. "People get it for the name and they keep coming back 'cause it's yummy. It's probably our best seller at Whole Foods."
Wearing a few days' stubble and a T-shirt with his company's logo and the legend, "No cream, no sugar," Rudolph sips a freshly brewed cup from a Salvadoran batch as he explains what he does.
Roasting, he says, removes moisture from the beans, but too much roasting removes too much moisture and therefore too much of the beans' taste. So he stands over the roaster - a "fluid-bed" stainless-steel contraption that resembles a rooftop air-conditioning unit, only much skinnier - with a stopwatch, occasionally making notes on a clipboard pad like a scientist in a lab. As he talks, chaff and smoke from the roasting beans are sucked into an exhaust pipe known as a chaff cyclone.
At one point, the temperature inside the roaster, which blows hot air through the beans, reaches 476 degrees. Normally, coffee beans lose about 20 percent of their water weight during roasting. Most batches are roasted in 12 or 13 minutes. During that time, as they expand with the heat, most beans will crack open a bit and then, a little later, they'll do it again.
As the morning progresses, the quiet concentration of the first hours gets a little freer, the music from the radio quite a bit louder.
"I ease into the day, and then I crank it up," Rudolph says. "You don't want to get too abrasive too early. It rattles the brain too much."
Rudolph's wares have fans in the building he shares with artists, cabinetmakers and other businesses.
"He's well-known here," says Theron Richardson, who makes furniture and who learned about Rudolph from sniffing the air. "Everyone comes by with their cup. You always smell that aroma - you know what's going on down the hall."