The restoration of Betty, our vintage Probat roaster, was transformational.
In 2010 her arrival reduced our roasting schedule from 8 roasts a day / 7 days a week, to just a few hours.
For us, our next step was clear…. A new project centred around efficiency and sustainability. We were driven to take on something bigger which we could rebuild into a machine which could run more efficiently, more sustainably than when it was brand new. Something truly unique, built by us.
Two years earlier, we’d stumbled across an ad for a 120kg Probat roaster. Bigger than we needed, fully decommissioned, sat in pieces, there was no evidence it even worked. But, after seeing Betty in action, we felt anything was possible. It just so happened, that the machine was still available.
This roaster was a blank canvas. It needed everything doing to it. Forget restoration, we were looking at a complete rebuild.
The odds were stacked against us. We didn’t have the business demand for a larger roaster. At the time, larger machines were dismissed by the industry as not truly artisan, our tiny premises had no room for a larger machine. To top it all off, this roaster was in Bosnia.
It made no sense, but we knew that this was the right path.
We found ourselves on a 6am flight to Belgrade and landed in 40-degree heat which hit you as you walked out of the airport.
We were collected by a guy named Darko. He drove a blacked out Mercedes and had three mobile phones. Darko hurtled along the motorways at 200km per hour. He mounted the pavements to get around traffic jams.
Looking out of the windows, the country still being rebuilt post-war, many buildings were still in half. Everything ahead was unknown. The condition of the roaster, the scale of restoration required, whether we had the skills (and funds) to pull it off. The country, the language, our interpreters.
After a four hour journey, we arrived at the roastery in Bosnia. A huge operation which had recently undergone a refurbishment and was decommissioning all the old machines.
We spoke (via a translator) with the roastery manager, a man who had operated the roaster for the past 15 years. For all the language barriers, and all the unknowns, we could see that a lot of love had gone into caring for this machine – and he was sad and reluctant to be passing it over.
In between looking at the roaster, the remains of what was once a mezzanine caught our eye. An interesting pile of metal, in perfectly good nick, just needing putting to a new use.
Darko and the manager looked at us like we were insane when we started enquiring about shipping the scrap metal back to the UK too…
The entire visit took just 45 minutes. Then we were in the car heading back to Belgrade. The car journey back was quiet. Darko was waiting for our offer, we were trying to work out the logistics of how this could work. We didn’t even know where we would put it, let alone the logistics of getting it to the UK. The margin for error was huge, but our gut instincts told us we wanted this machine.
We continued to mull over our decision over a few drinks back in Belgrade. The streets of Belgrade were exciting. Buildings were in a sort of state of ornate disrepair. Our hotel was so grand and so lavish in many ways, but so rundown in others. The vibe on the streets was young and free, and liberating.
What we couldn’t get out of our heads was the love that the operator had for this machine – even when in pieces on the floor. There was a sadness of seeing it go, and the shiny new machines simply didn’t seem to cut it for him.
We flew back to Bristol and made the offer. Then got to work figuring out how to transport it to the UK (along with that extra scrap metal which has been transformed into our roastery training area) and where we were going to find the space to rebuild a 120kg roaster.
The restoration took a further four years. Aside from rebuilding the roaster, we had also set ourselves the challenge of making her more sustainable. It took a lot of work but we did it. Bertha's improved fuel efficiency means that requires just 40% of the original fuel input to roasts the same amount of coffee. To make her even more sustainable, we also retro-fitted a custom built afterburner to eliminate VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from our emissions and reduce pollution in Bristol.
In 2016, she was finished. A bigger, more efficient, more sustainable roaster. Rebuilt by hand.
She is the heartbeat of our roastery today.
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