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.
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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.
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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.