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Coffee roaster ‘piece of history’ in Yacolt

Millar family’s coffee business built around a machine that’s the world’s oldest

By , Columbian Innovation Editor
6 Photos
Mocha-Java beans are seen in an antique coffee roaster in Yacolt on Friday afternoon, Oct. 11, 2019.
Mocha-Java beans are seen in an antique coffee roaster in Yacolt on Friday afternoon, Oct. 11, 2019. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When a Serbian sunflower farmer named Zoltan Zelenka brought her to the brick shed near his cottage in a small farming town, Marijana Stojanovic saw the rusted, defunct machine with jammed gears, chipped paint and missing belts.

It was September 2017, and Stojanovic had driven about four hours through Eastern Europe on a sunny day to inspect the old coffee roaster. She snapped some pictures and emailed them to the man who hired her to make the trek.

Todd Millar, wearing his black horn-rimmed eyeglasses, had already decided he was going to buy it before he saw Stojanovic’s pictures, but looking at them wasn’t pleasant.

“Boy that’s in really bad shape,” he remembers thinking while sitting in his house near Yacolt with his wife, Mary Millar, the two holding glasses of wine. “It looked like it might be seized like an old train that might be frozen. I thought it was old, but I didn’t know how old.”

He figured it would be worth his time because “it’s a piece of history,” he said.

It would be the newest addition to his coffee roasting business, which is likely the county’s most rural and isolated coffee shop, near the eastern border of Clark County. Mary and Todd Millar’s decision was solidified after receiving the photos of the coffee roaster, made by a company called Probat — a brand that Millar sees as the Mercedes of coffee roasters, he said.

But the machine became more than a way to roast coffee.

It took Millar on a journey to haul it to his rural plot of land. It sparked a massive restoration project. And it ignited in Millar a deep urge to chase coffee’s authenticity that separates himself in an industry that’s evolving into sugary, flavored coffee drinks.

But it also brought Millar something that he didn’t expect: a minor international conflict rooted in a World War II aerial bombing and his own personal quest to prove one thing: That his roaster is the oldest known Probat in the world.

• • •

The drive from Vancouver to Millar’s coffee roaster and cupping house, called Pull Caffé, at 33111 N.E. 236th St., takes about an hour. The road stretches along the East Fork Lewis River, past little waterfalls surrounded by a forest that in October sheds red, orange and yellow leaves on pastures and homes.

Settled in the hills, Millar’s green steel shed doesn’t display any signage. He pulled open the garage door and the sunlight fell through the coffee smoke and onto the Probat.

It was roasting day for Millar and his friend, Don Griswold, who owns the Old Liberty Theater in Ridgefield. Griswold hoisted a burlap bag of raw coffee beans up a ladder and poured them into the coffee roaster’s hopper.

Beans clattered onto a cast-iron surface. They seeped into the machine’s rotating drum, where a wood-fueled flame roasted them for about 20 minutes before they started to emit a faint popping sound, signaling they’re ready to be poured onto a cooling tray.

The aroma reminds Millar of toasted, brown bread.

Millar roasts about once a week. He cans the roasted beans in vacuum-sealed aluminum containers and sells the coffee to high-end grocery stores like News Seasons in Fisher’s Landing in Vancouver and Market of Choice on Belmont Street in Portland. They’re also on Amazon.com.

He only roasts a mocha-Java blend, the oldest-known coffee blend in the world, consisting of beans from the port of Mocha in Yemen and Ethiopia, and the island of Java in Indonesia.

• • •

Getting the roaster to Yacolt was not easy.

After wiring the money to Zelenka in Serbia, Millar hired a shipping company for almost $20,000 to load the roaster, in pieces, onto six pallets, onto trucks, into storage containers and aboard sea-going vessels. Along its trip to Washington, he kept getting nickel-and-dimed.

“Every two seconds they were saying it’s going to cost this much more,” he said. “I was already committed, so I said OK.”

Millar wishes he hadn’t told the shipping company employee what was in the container: “I think he knew I was kind of stuck,” he said.

In December 2017, two feet of snow lay on the ground by the time the roaster’s heavy pieces arrived at his property. To move the pieces into the shed, the Millars had to use a 15,000-pound forklift, with a tractor holding the forklift’s rear down so it didn’t lift off the ground.

“We had a hard time knowing how big and heavy it was,” Mary Millar said.

Shortly after the roaster was planted on the shed’s floor, its weight cracked the concrete.

“I thought it was going to be 5,000 pounds,” Todd Millar said. “It’s 12,000.”

Millar’s first instinct was to sandblast the Probat and paint it to make it look new, but his friend David Cornell, a master in restoring old machines, convinced Millar otherwise.

“He said if you paint this and try to make it look new again, you’re going to reduce the value of it tremendously,” Millar said.

So Millar chipped away the loose paint and removed the rust. He applied a high-temperature clear coat (which Millar said the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved) to the outside of the roaster to preserve its remaining faded teal paint. He left clean, raw iron where the coffee beans touch. He made new belts for the wheels, and he installed an afterburner to reduce the smoke generated by roasting.

Counting all of his friends’ free labor, it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore, Millar said.

Cornell came to visit Millar a few times during the restoration, and he also spent countless hours on the phone advising Millar without asking to be paid.

“Without him I wouldn’t have known how to do it,” Millar said. “I would have made so many mistakes.”

Millar said that Cornell was one of the biggest influences on his decision to buy the Probat and restore it.

“He gave me the confidence I didn’t have,” Millar said.

Millar became so invested in the restoration of the roaster he developed a spiritual connection with it, he said.

“I talked to the roaster quite a bit,” he said. “I asked it what it needed. I said, ‘Show me the way to bringing you back in a proper way.’ ”

Cornell and Millar talked on the phone for hours about putting seized parts back into use. Cornell was able to tap into his experience that got him working with Jay Leno and his restoration projects at times in his life. Cornell also used experience gained as the crew chief of the Rare Bear — a heavily modified and restored Word War II-era plane that broke a world record for being the fastest piston-engine propeller plane in the world.

Despite Cornell’s help, “There were a lot of frustrating days,” he said. “Every time you turn around there was something else you had to fix.”

Millar was getting close to firing the machine up for the first time, but in December, he called Cornell to talk about the Probat.

His wife, Bonnie Cornell, answered the phone.

She told Millar that David Cornell, a source of inspiration who gave Millar the confidence to take on the Probat’s massive project, had died.

“I was devastated,” Millar said. “It hit me harder than I was expecting.”

• • •

In December, a year after the roaster arrived, Millar got it running. Its pinion gear emitted a constant croak like a frog’s. A fork shifted the new leather belts, flapping and turning the whizzing wheels.

But it wasn’t yet time to drink from the awakened ancient.

Millar put five rounds of coffee through its drum and cooling tray to re-season it, and he used those beans as compost. The machine was working.

“I felt extremely honored,” Millar said. “I felt very emotional.”

It was a clear April afternoon when Millar finished roasting the sixth batch, ready for consumption. He ground the beans and brewed the ceremonial first cup.

He and Mary, their son Devin, and Griswold stood around a table in the cupping room. Millar put the cup on the table, and each dipped a spoon into the cup and then slurped the coffee to taste it.

“Oh, my God,” he remembers saying.

The group stood with their mouths open, looking in each other’s eyes.

Millar just then realized that the sheer size of the cast iron roaster, along with the wooden fuel, gave the roast a unique taste that Millar didn’t sense from his other roaster, even though he used the same blend of beans.

“We were blown away by the nuttiness,” Millar said.

He also thought of the authenticity behind the coffee from the oldest roaster with the oldest style of blend.

“This is probably the way coffee used to be,” he remembers thinking. “We’ve all forgotten what coffee used to taste like.”

But Millar also thought of Cornell, a “father figure” to him. He wouldn’t have bought the Probat if it wasn’t for his guidance. It hit Millar that Cornell would never drink the Probat’s coffee.

“That was so, so sad,” he said.

The machine was brought back to life, but it wasn’t done causing issues for Millar. It’s also the center of a mystery that goes back to an event 75 years ago.

• • •

On Oct. 7, 1944, Allied forces’ airplanes bombed the German city of Emmerich into a field of debris.

In the rubble were not only lost lives, but also lost businesses. One family-owned business, co-founded by Theodor von Gimborn in 1889, lay destroyed. The company’s products and all its paper records were lost.

That business was Probat.

“We don’t have so much info on our products anymore because of World War II, when my hometown of Emmerich and the town of Goch, where Probat is, were completely destroyed including the company and all the papers we had,” said Tina von Gimborn-Abbing, head of the Probat Museum of Coffee Technology — and also Theodor von Gimborn’s great-granddaughter.

After the war, Probat rebuilt its factory and its name to become one of the world leaders in producing coffee roasters.

It now employs more than 900 workers across the globe.

After Millar got his roaster working, he reached out to Probat’s American headquarters to inquire about the age of his machine. He sent pictures, but the company, because of the bombing, didn’t know how to date it.

In May, the president of Probat’s American headquarters in Illinois emailed Millar and gave him permission to print “The world’s oldest coffee roaster” on the label of his coffee cans. He said it was approved by the CEO of the company in Germany, Wim Abbing, who is Tina’s husband.

But soon after, Tina Abbing contacted Millar and told him that she doesn’t think he has the oldest Probat roaster.

She speculated that the machine was made at Probat’s factory in Austria, which only started making roasters in the early 20th century.

25 Photos
Finished cans of mocha-Java decaf whole bean coffee are seen at Millars Wood Roaster Coffee in Yacolt on Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 23, 2019.
Pull Cafe Photo Gallery

“We can date it closer to 1909, but it’s not 19th century,” Abbing told The Columbian. “I’m sorry to say, but there are older roasters.”

But Millar dates his roaster to around 1892 for a few reasons.

He compared details on his roaster to the oldest-known drawing of a Probat coffee roaster, printed in a book from 1922 called “All About Coffee,” which shows a drawing of a Probat roaster. His machine’s technology, he said, is clearly older than the drawing’s depiction.

Abbing told Millar that the oldest Probat that the company recognized is in Switzerland, which the owners claim is from 1895, but that roaster’s age is unknown too.

But when Millar saw pictures and a video of that roaster, he noticed a more ornate design, which leads him to believe it’s newer than his. There is another piece of technology that gave him a clue that his roaster is older: The Swiss Probat has ball bearings, but Millar’s roaster has bushings.

Bushings are the contact part when a shaft turns, and in service they require a slow drip of oil. Bearings are enclosed and don’t require constant lubrication.

“Bearings really weren’t even being used until the 1900s,” he said.

But Millar and Abbing both concede that there aren’t enough facts, enough paperwork or clues that weren’t burned or smashed under Emmerich’s rubble in 1944.

“I admit I don’t know,” Millar said.

In the meantime, his label still reads “World’s Oldest Coffee Roaster.”

Despite the disagreement, there’s not much animosity between the two sides; Abbing invited the Millars to visit her in Germany and stay with her too, Millar said.

He plans to make the trip, to which he said he was honored to be invited.

• • •

Millar doesn’t want to reveal what he paid for his roaster or how much he thinks it’s worth, but as a benchmark, he said a new Probat roaster of its size costs about $500,000.

“That gives you an idea of how much,” he said.

The Probat and Pull Caffe is the newest chapter in Millar’s coffee-industry life.

After both growing up in Yacolt, the Millars moved to Seattle in 1989 so Mary could study at the Art Institute of Seattle. While there, a friend approached Millar and asked him to build an espresso cart. But after Millar was finished, his friend bailed on the offer. Millar posted the espresso cart in the classified section of a newspaper and “sold it very quickly,” he said. “So I built another one and another one. It turned into every aspect of the business.”

Millar made the espresso carts for more than 10 years and sold them to customers around the world.

“We did real well with it,” he said.

But the city life started to grind on the Millars, so they sought out the piece of property near Yacolt where they could build a house. Mary Millar wanted a space to create her artwork, playfully painted metal signs with lights; Todd Millar wanted a space to run his roasting business.

In a separate building near the cupping room and Mary’s art studio on the Yacolt property, Todd Millar also builds high-end espresso machines costing $10,000 or more.

“This is my very messy shop that I make my machines in,” he said, standing next to a packed box marked for shipment to Albertville, Ala.

He does all the machines’ woodworking, using American East Coast walnut, and does much of the metalwork too. But the critical components, the blower and valves, are from Italy — all the highest quality.

“We focus on what works,” he said of the espresso machines that he modeled from a 1947 “hand-pulled” design.

Now, Millar is most excited about his Probat roaster and his coffee that he wants to share with others.

“Everyone gets to taste a piece of history,” he said. “I’m just so lucky that I got to be a part of it. It belongs to the history books.”

Millar said he may sell the machine to Probat someday if they want it, but for now he only plans to roast with it.

Millar remembers back to December 2017, when the truck pulled into his snow-covered Yacolt property with the rusted Probat pieces. He was so grateful to have it, he mailed Zelenka a box of commercial fertilizer for his farm, and offered another $1,000 as a sort of tip.

But Zelenka returned the box and refused the money, and Millar doesn’t know why.

“He didn’t accept it,” Millar said.

The Serbian sunflower farmer told him that ” ‘a deal’s a deal.’ “