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The Life and Death of Portland’s Bike-Powered Coffee Roaster

Portland is known for bikes, coffee, and hipsters. If you put those three things together, you get a charm-oozing café fueled by a bicycle-powered, wood-fired coffee roaster.

All photos courtesy of Kainos.

All photos courtesy of Kainos.

Portland, Oregon is known for bikes, coffee, and hipsters. If you put those three things together, you get a charm-oozing café fueled by a bicycle-powered, wood-fired coffee roaster.

But the novelty bike—developed by the brick-and-mortar Kainos Coffee—has been out of service as of November. The decision to discontinue putting any pedals to this metal was motivated by an unlikely factor: the Philippines. Specifically, the bike roaster wasn't supplying Kainos founders Martin Boyden and Austin Roberts with enough coffee, or revenue, to aid people who live far, far away from the luxury of bougie coffee shops.

Ironically, the persistence of poverty in developing nations is what also prompted the development of the bike roaster to begin with. That's because Kainos, fittingly named for the Greek word meaning "new in innovation," follows an ethos that goes much deeper than simply providing sleek capitalists a place to sip high-end coffee.

In 2012, Boyden was traveling the globe, embarking on some twentysomething soul-searching. He wound up meandering through slums in countries like the Philippines and Bulgaria. In the latter, he resided with a village of gypsies who provided him with food despite their meager inventory.

The gypsies inspired Boyden to spread the love—or, in this case, coffee grounds—even if it was to his own detriment.

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Buoyed in part by his wife, who insinuated that she would be more attracted to him if he had a job, Boyden dreamt up a business plan. Ultimately, Boyden designed Kainos to accommodate his own nuclear family of four—as well as 20 to 25 orphans from the Philippines.

Boyden hopes that the income Kainos generates will contribute to interest in roasting, especially for people who lack the education to earn higher-level jobs. And in the Philippines, this makes a lot of sense: Currently, the Philippines produces four distinctive varieties of commercially viable coffee.

Boyden wouldn't necessarily suggest that anyone follow in his footsteps by manufacturing with a bicycle-powered roaster, however. The bike, as it turns out, did not allow him and fellow Kainos co-founder Roberts to be as generous as they'd like.

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"We give 21 percent of what we make to orphans and education abroad, but the bike was such a novelty item," explains Boyden, a native of Austin, Texas. "We could do 15 pounds on it easy, but scalability was a factor; the question arises: Do we want to make more so we can give more? The bike roaster was limiting."

By opting for a larger (albeit less innovative) machine, Boyden hopes to produce more so that he can give more, paying it forward.

Mostly, the bike roaster was limited in that it was a bike: Logistically, it relied on a pair of human legs to work the pedals and function, meaning one owner would have to operate the roaster while another tended to the register. This meant that Kainos could only open for four days a week, which is very limiting, considering the larger Portland espresso game.

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"I'm in Portland, coffee is huge. Wverybody does either really well or terrible," says Boyden. "It started really well, but we needed to build a larger roaster, which would have cost $60,000 to $70,000. You go to a conventional roaster, and one person can control everything and it's easy, but people would ask how hot we would roast our coffee, and it was hard to keep a real understanding of how hot it was just by looking at the thermometer."

To its credit, the bike-powered coffee roaster remains a humble, homegrown design. Boyden and Roberts took a six-speed bike and created a roaster that ultimately resembled a large grill. There is a large, open compartment toward the bottom where a drum drops in; the bike is attached to the end of the spit and a sprocket. A wood fire heats the beans.

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The coffee is churned out in a process that takes 15 to 20 minutes, and brewed with a Hario V-60 pour-over system. But let's cut to the chase: What did coffee taste like that's made by a bike? Surprisingly, its flavor didn't resemble rubber and rust.

"Some people would say that it's smoky," says Boyden. "Because it took 20 minutes to roast, we found that the edges were cut off and we had a smooth coffee coming out."

But will the bike roaster make a comeback?

"We'll still keep it and use it on rare occasions," says Boyden. "We might do one week a month and we can roast up to 50 pounds and sell bags. We want to be able to say, 'Hey, come in and get the wood-fired stuff.'"

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Soon, Boyden will attempt to sell bike-roasted coffee on the shop's website. He hopes he can ship some to the Philippines so that new friends there can taste his solidarity.

In the meantime, we'll cross our fingers that someone in San Diego finds a way to brew IPAs with a surfboard.