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John Rufino uses energy-saving technology in his Classic Gourmet Coffee roasting plant.

Eric Schoenfeld 4162205413

The environment was the last thing on John Rufino's mind when he built his industrial coffee-roasting plant. Natural gas prices were nearing all-time highs, and the green movement wasn't as developed as it is today.

Ten years later, the exact opposite is true - gas is cheap and green is in. Fortunately, his decision to use technology in his Classic Gourmet Coffee plant rather than traditional roasting methods meant he was able to tell any customers who were interested that his process was at least 50 per cent cleaner than the competition.

That's because his technology - designed by Italian tradesmen who were flown to Concord, Ont., to develop the first stainless steel roaster in North America - doesn't rely on an afterburner. Instead, the entire process takes place in one convection chamber. It sounds simple, but it represents a revolution in roasting that a few smaller, high-end companies have embraced.

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"The others don't use the equipment because it is expensive," he says. "They also think the old ways are fine, that to do it the way it has always been done is somehow better. I wasn't worried about being green, I was worried about making good coffee. But now I have both."

The roaster is controlled by a computer, allowing him to adjust the flame by tiny increments. That's in contrast with artisan roasting machines, in which the flame is difficult to control. The technology also allows him to produce consistent product.

In an industry that prefers tradition, Mr. Rufino's stainless steel equipment is standard factory fare - stainless steel buckets and vacuum tubes disappearing into the walls. He may have felt the same way at one point, but a degree in electrical engineering convinced him that the process could be automated.

"People use old equipment and call themselves artisans," he says. "But this way is better and uses less energy. I can control everything. They can only try to control a flame."

The main savings come from using less gas. An independent review by a Ryerson University professor showed that for each pound of coffee roasted the company burned .0268 pounds of natural gas and produced .07057 pounds of carbon dioxide. If he had used an afterburner, the figures would be 59 per cent higher.

His love of the bean began in Italy, when as a child he would carry a juice bottle full of strong coffee to elementary school. His teachers would take notice, but rather than take it away they would provide him with milk and sugar.

"It was no big deal," he says. "We all drank like that. In Italy you don't keep things from children and make them want them more, you make it all available and if they don't like it that's fine. But if they like it a lot, then good, they like it and they can have some."

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He began roasting coffee in Canada decades later, after opening a bakery that had a 10-kilogram roaster in the back. He opened Classic Gourmet Coffee in the mid-1990s, and today he has 10 employees.

While much of the industry's efforts have been focused on sourcing - fair trade beans, environmental stewardship and organic methods are all hot issues - Mr. Rufino opts to focus his efforts solely on what he can accomplish as a manufacturer. He stocks fair trade and organic products, but isn't under any illusions about the industry's environmental footprint.

"So a bean is organic," he says. "And then a roaster gets it, and blasts it with fire and heat and makes all kind of carbon dioxide. Is it still organic? Yes, but is it good for the environment? All we can do is make it less bad, which is what we do."

Roasting is the final step of Mr. Rufino's process, which begins when one of his 40 buyers from around the world sends him a bag of beans to sample. His palate is refined; he can easily identify dozens of beans by country and region through smell and taste.

And while environmental concerns were not front of mind when he opted for the energy saving system, he's very much aware that his future depends on his environmental image. His customers are increasingly interested in knowing where his power comes from and how he produces his product.

"We weren't thinking about these things when we set that up," he says. "But I'm glad we did, because now we are using much less gas than everyone else and making really good coffee."

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