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Sunny delight 

Pueblo brothers expand one-of-a-kind, solar-roasted coffee operation

click to enlarge Mike and Dave Hartkop, not yet in over their heads with solar coffee roasting. - PHOTO BY MATTHEW SCHNIPER

Drinking and scheming can lead to bad ideas. As Ernest Hemingway said, "Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

For brothers Mike and Dave Hartkop, though, a conversation over pints at a pub in Medford, Ore., turned out a rather good idea. Since the talk in 2004, they've built something they believe to be entirely unique in the world: a successful, commercial, solar coffee-roasting business.

On a warm February afternoon in a residential neck of Pueblo County, Dave, 29, shows his brother the progress he's made in recent weeks on Helios 4, soon to be a fully operational, 25-foot tall, 35-foot wide, completely off-the-grid solar concentrator.

It looks like a fusion of modern art and military hardware, and Dave equates its construction to building a carnival ride. It's a far cry from its predecessor, Helios 3, which was notable in part for giving what Dave describes as "the world-famous 15-second suntan." And for cooking pizzas uniquely.

"If you have a pizza with black olives on white cheese, the black olives absorb the light while the cheese reflects it ... the olives burst into flame and melt down into the cheese, and the red sauce bubbles up," says Dave.

He adds with a smile, "If you spray-paint the pizza black, it heats much more evenly."

Genesis of the Sun God

Solar Roast Coffee serves 100 percent organic, 85 percent fair-trade, carbon-neutral coffee out of its storefront in downtown Pueblo. The effort clearly is ecologically inspired, but Mike actually says that "aroma roasting" with only heat, rather than flame, also allows the coffee beans to retain more natural oils and not dry out. The finished taste is less bitter than most coffees, even when left to sit and go cold.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MATTHEW SCHNIPER

Mike, 26, is the entrepreneurship-and-business-major-turned-roastmaster who had dreamed of opening a series of coffee shops in Tasmania, Australia, where he attended university. Thanks to U.S. visa regulations for Aussies, Mike was turned down, and landed back at his parents' house in '04.

Dave's the film-school grad who later worked in special effects and computer animation, living in L.A. for seven years before returning to Oregon to teach computer graphics. For fun at a community college, he enrolled in physics classes. He learned about photovoltaic work from a family friend and learned how to weld through other friends. From his father, he picked up basic electronics.

(To make the rest of us feel better, he does admit to being terrible at plumbing and spelling.)

Dave created Helios 1, named after the Greek sun god, over two months out of their dad's old 10-foot satellite dish. It was rigged with a bunch of mirrors on a car jack and a revolving stand to track the sun across the sky. The $200 investment roasted a pound of coffee in just under 20 minutes, and the brothers started a modest mail-order business and sold to neighbors and friends before a rainy season halted work.

Dave constructed Helios 2 after five months of design and construction, for roughly $600. It doubled production, but still fell far short of meeting increasing demand. Helios 3, built over seven months in 2006 (as a trailer that could be hauled behind a truck) for around $8,000, again doubled roasting production, to about five pounds in 20 minutes.

But beyond roasting capacity, the real hindrance to the Hartkops' vision was the sun. The Northwest simply didn't have enough sunny days; thus the search for brighter horizons began.

After considering Flagstaff, Ariz., and several other potential sites, Dave and Mike choose Pueblo. In February 2007, they "made an attachment to the community," and they opened their shop in March.

"We found that Pueblo was the sunniest place that wasn't in the middle of a desert, and it's got the friendliest people," Mike says. "They're excited that something new is happening in Pueblo."

Bottomless cup

Though past the challenges of capital, patience and location, the Hartkops encountered one of their most serious hurdles with the Pueblo County zoning department and a handful of local residents. At a public hearing process last month, they had to assure people that Helios 4 would not blind airplane pilots or school bus drivers, or involve any dangerous lasers.

"There were really fervent letters of complaint from people living out there," says Dave. But charmingly enough, after a tour of the site, "a couple of them who were the strongest protestors at first showed up at the meeting in support of us."

Helios 4, now 10 months in the making thanks to family help and a small-business loan, will top out at over $65,000. On it, 800 IKEA bathroom mirrors will focus onto a receiver oven, capable of generating more than a thousand degrees of heat. The design for airflow (up for a few patents) vents air into a custom-made, energy-efficient drum coffee roaster, where it recirculates to roast the coffee before it is released as the machine's only byproduct.

When finished, Helios 4 will be able to roast 30 pounds in the same 15 to 20 minutes as its predecessors.

While Dave's already imagining the next incarnations of his roaster "We've had to turn down orders that even the H4 can't fill," he says Mike envisions expansion into East Coast markets via a roaster in Florida and West Coast markets via the Mojave Desert. He'd also like to sell a future version of the Helios itself, providing equipment for people in coffee-growing countries that maybe want to produce their own coffee but don't have the energy to do it. Most developing nations lack the infrastructure to allow growers to ever taste a properly roasted cup of their own product.

"Our overall vision is ... to be a recognized brand and entity in the world of coffee," says Mike. "That means being able to provide coffee to anyone in the world who wants it and following through with vision of solar roast using alternative energy for industry."

Within two to three years, the Hartkops will outgrow their current site in Pueblo, but say they'll stick around, "if Pueblo County is willing to work with us."

In the interim, if you know of any use for 500-degree air venting from a coffee roaster, maybe you can work with them, too.

matthew@csindy.com

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Solar Roast Coffee
226 N. Main St., Pueblo
719/544-2008, solarroast.com

  • It looks like a fusion of modern art and military hardware.

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