In her cups 

It's roasting day at Cafe Francisco.

If there is anything better than the smell of coffee brewing, it's the smell of coffee beans roasting. It begins as a slightly acidic tickling in the nostrils. Then, over the course of a half-hour or so, it swells to a chocolaty crescendo so complex it makes the nuttiest, earthiest, plumiest, jammiest wine you've ever sniffed seem plain as tap water.

It smells like a lifetime of wonderful mornings and leisurely afternoons. It smells like Café Francisco on a Tuesday night when 125 pounds of coffee beans are roasted in a gas-powered contraption that looks like a cross between a pot-bellied stove and a Rube Goldberg device. Large windows look in on the roasting room at the cafe so coffee junkies can watch while the beans are roasted, and, although the door to the roasting room remains closed, the intoxicating smell permeates. Visiting Café Francisco on roasting night is like taking your nose to a day spa.

"When I went out to California, I was really stupid about a lot of things," says Café Francisco owner Julie Ray, a native Memphian who learned to sling the mud while living in San Francisco. "I thought Folgers coffee was it, you know?" she says, sifting through a white plastic tub of sage-green coffee beans that look like fat split peas. "I thought Folgers was the best you could get."

Ray was scrambling for temp work in San Francisco when she stumbled into the original Café Francisco. As it turned out, the owner needed someone to manage his books.

"I think the place was taking in something like $150 a day," Ray says. "And that's not good. There was so much money going into the business, but there was no business."

"One day I told [the owner] that I'd always dreamed of owning a little café, and he gave it to me," Ray says, still sounding surprised. It wasn't exactly a gift, but the conditions of the sale were sweet. But owning a failing coffee shop in a city of renowned coffee snobs was another matter.

"I didn't know what a latte was," Ray confesses. "I didn't know anything. Literally, the neighborhood taught us what we were doing when we took over. It was truly a community effort." Eventually, she learned the ins and outs of the latte thing, as well as a thing or two about roasting beans. In 2001, she brought her expertise back home and opened a second Café Francisco.

"The thing I like best about roasting our beans here," says Christen Sterling, Café Francisco's master roaster and chipper barrista, "is when people ask me about the coffee, I can really tell them about it." Sterling, like Ray, didn't know beans until she started pouring coffee for a living. Now she works the roaster like a pro.

"There are different kinds of roasters," she says. "It's sort of like ovens: Some people like electric, some people like gas." Sterling clearly prefers gas. She compares the difference to oven-roasted meats and barbecue. "With the electric roasters, you just pour in your beans and push a button," Sterling says. Not so with gas. The roaster is pre-heated to between 450 and 500 degrees, and samples are taken out regularly to check the color and aroma.

"And you have to listen for the popping," Sterling says, referring to the snap, crackle, and pop of coffee beans shedding their outer husks. "On lighter roasts, they may pop once," she says. "For the darker roasts [like Italian and French], they pop twice."

Café Francisco isn't the only place you can sample Ray and Sterling's work. The café supplies coffee to a dozen local restaurants, including Jarrett's, Ronnie Grisanti, Elfo's, Midtown Books, and Epicure.

"Now I'm a total coffee snob," Ray says. "And it's amazing to me that in America you can still get a cup of coffee for about a dollar." She runs through the difficulties of growing coffee: the sprouting, the raking, the picking of every bean. "You would think coffee would just be outrageous, a luxury. You would think it would be like oil."

Café Francisco is located at 400 N. Main, 578-8002.

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