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Caffe D'arte serves up artisan traditions at new Federal Way headquarters | Slideshow

Dario Brancato kneels down and peers inside a small door on the wood-fired roaster, watching the flame lick the base of the drum.

“See the fire touching the drum right there?” Brancato asks over the hum of roaster machinery at Caffe D’arte’s new Federal Way headquarters. “When I see the flame drop a little bit, I put the wood in there. There’s a lot of things to learn but the more you learn, the easier it is.”

Brancato knows the technique of adding more alderwood to the Italian 1949 Balestra wood roaster at just the right time to prevent the fire from scorching the coffee beans, due to his 18 years with Caffe D’arte.

The company specializes in real traditional Italian espresso, blended and roasted according to rigid artisan traditions.

The coffee roaster and wholesaler moved to Federal Way in April after 27 years in South Seattle’s Georgetown area. Joe Mancuso, the company’s general manager, said the business was finally all moved in to the building last week after operating two facilities during the moving transition.

Caffe D’arte and its nearly 60 employees moved to the former Orion Industries’ 35,900-square-foot building at 33926 Ninth Ave. S. The move more than doubles the company’s storage and roasting capacity.

Mancuso’s brother-in-law Mauro Cipolla founded the company in 1985, after moving to Seattle from Italy, where he was an apprentice and learned how to roast and blend coffee. At that time, coffee giant Starbucks had a sprinkling of stores.

“When his family moved to the United States, one of the things they missed most was their cappuccino and espresso that they drank every morning,” Mancuso said. “They would go out and they would see, in their eyes, that it was dirty water, this drip coffee.”

The company’s principal owner, Jeff Stock, became involved with Caffe D’arte in 2002, when he and partner Mark Schuur acquired the majority of the company. Federal Way was chosen for the company’s new headquarters because of Stock’s strong business ties to the area as CEO of Wild Waves Theme Park.

Mancuso said Stock has helped the company grow from its roots as a “Seattle-centric company.”

The company now owns four retail stores, including its longtime Seattle location, and others in Portland, Idaho and Bonney Lake.

But the majority of Caffe D’arte’s customers — which range from approximately 1,200-1,500 — are independent operators from around the United States, making the wholesale brand available in local restaurants, cafes, bakeries and hotels. Federal Way customers include Wild Waves and Joe’s Deli, among others.

Mancuso said one of Federal Way officials’ “big discussion points” before the move was air pollution. As a result, the company invested in three costly oxidizer systems that eliminate the smoke, odor and reduce the amount of air emissions the facility releases.

In addition to the wood roaster, the company also employs three commercial roasters and two test systems.

“We’re roasting, blending and packaging coffee five days a week. Nothing stays here longer than 72 hours,” Mancuso said, noting the company buys coffee direct from farmers the world over.

When they receive new coffee, workers take bean samples and roast each one to five different colors.

“Then we taste it and say, OK, the Brazilian that just came in, that’s going to replace the existing inventory.”

He points to a 1986 Diedrich roaster, where a master roaster drops 55 pounds of coffee beans that just finished roasting from a drum into a cooling bin.

“If you get close to it, you can hear a crackle,” Mancuso said, noting the sound indicates that the sugars in the beans are caramelizing. The crackle should happen when the beans drop into the cooling bin, not inside the drum.

“If it happens outside, it’ll scorch and burn the coffee. The margin of having a phenomenal batch or not is very small.”

A machine then removes impurities from the roasted beans, including rocks, sticks, bolts, wires and even bullets.

One of the most unique aspects of Caffe D’arte is they roast the beans individually and then blend them together — a traditional Italian method. About 95 percent of the coffee they sell is made this way.

“So a lot of companies based off of efficiencies and economics will take all the new coffees from Brazil, Columbia and Mexico and put it in the machine and roast them all together,” Mancuso noted. “But when you do that, some of these beans have more water density, some have less, so if you cook them all at one time, some get over-roasted, some get under-roasted.”

Another aspect that sets the company apart is officials buy coffee based on taste — period. If they buy coffee from Honduras, for example, workers will roast up to 11 samples, put them into bags and they will “blind taste” them.

“The reason why we do that is because you can easily be persuaded if you know that this sample right here costs an extra $11,000 or this one can save us an extra $4,000,” he said. “So everything we do is based off of taste.”

The new Federal Way facility provides a lot of storage space for the company’s shipments of raw beans it receives from various places every few weeks.

“If you ever need burlap, we can help,” Mancuso laughs, pointing to the mounds of hundreds of burlap sacks, each filled with more than 130 pounds of coffee beans.

He said the company is big on training and has a cafe in the building, where barista trainers, such as Meagan Bennett, can teach wholesale customers how to clean the coffee machine and the art of making coffee, each cup served with a heart pattern. In fact, “Caffe D’arte” is Italian for coffee art.

Mancuso noted the company’s expansion in Federal Way was a “big move” for them, and signifies the company’s success in carving out a niche in an area packed with coffee connoisseurs.

“You can’t even put us on the same page as Starbucks.”

For more information, visit www.caffedarte.com.

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