After seven years in business and with two retail shops now running, the acclaimed Philadelphia company Ultimo Coffee has embarked upon the journey of bringing roasting in house. A 1992 Probat L12 now hums away in an industrial space just a couple blocks from the original Ultimo retail location, and the company rolled out its first in-house roast last week, excited to grow the program from there.
The inaugural coffee was a Burundi, chosen for its vivacious limeade citrus quality and brown-sugary sweetness. “I wanted to come out with something that was really dramatic,” said cofounder and now head roaster Aaron Ultimo, who has been tasting coffee professionally and honing his palate for over a decade.
After burning through roughly three entire bags of green coffee to get a handle on the roaster and finally reach a point of quality in which he could take pride, Ultimo was very pleased with the way the first official batch turned out, both on the cupping table and over the retail counter. “People really enjoyed it,” he said. “I couldn’t keep it on the shelves all weekend.”
Aaron and Elizabeth Ultimo opened Ultimo Coffee in 2009 serving Counter Culture Coffee. Today they have two locations in Philadelphia, including a 700-square-foot café on Catharine Street in the Graduate Hospital area and their original 900-square-foot shop on South 15th Street that was sadly robbed at gunpoint earlier this year. “The guy was caught after robbing several other places throughout Philadelphia including a prominent shoe store in Center City Philly,” Ultimo reported. “We were not actually stolen from, but the beer store we share our original space with lost several hundred dollars. We hope this will be the last time something like that happens, but I guess in the world of retail it is unfortunately to be expected at times.”
It was last August that the company acquired the black and brass Probat, which Aaron Ultimo promptly took to dismantling, cleaning and refurbishing. “I’m learning as I go, as far as repairs go,” said Ultimo. “I’ve done construction and handyman stuff since I was 17, so I’m not afraid of power tools and stuff like that.”
He’s also not intimidated by the ins and outs of varietals, roast profiles, origin characteristics and roast theory. Ultimo’s coffee career started in 2001, and has included stints at various businesses including the bygone institution that was Murky Coffee, founded by Nick Cho. Cho and his partner Trish Rothgeb, both now of San Francisco’s Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, had Ultimo sit in on some roasting sessions last year. Ultimo hopes to have the veteran duo out in Philly for more friendly, casual consultation in the future. He also continues to read quite a bit on the subject of roasting, and endeavors to continue, as he puts it, “just picking brains around the industry, and talking to friends who roast and have some experience.”
Ultimo’s 1,500-square-foot roastery is on the second floor of a building in south Philadelphia owned by the same landlord as Ultimo’s original café location, who’s been renovating the building for the eventual purpose of starting a brewery, but had that space to spare. There’s a freight elevator for getting greens and equipment up to the roastery, and the pleasant white-brick interior gets plenty of natural light. “The biggest challenge of course was getting that roaster upstairs,” recalled Ultimo.
The Probat was lifted whole by a crane, and loaded in through a barn door on the second floor. “There are guys who do that sort of thing, fortunately. We had a rigging crew come in and they made it look like nothing. They swing it in on the crane, pulled it in and there it was.”
Going forward, Ultimo looks forward to slowly growing the roasting program using greens from Café Imports and eventually other importers as they come to the end of their contract with Counter Culture, whose roasts they have proudly served in both shops to this point. Ultimo is in no hurry to pursue wholesale himself, opting instead to focus for now on expanding their in-store offerings and eventually setting up an online shop for retail beans.