Michael Persicano's life has fallen lately into something of a grind. And that's a good thing.

Persicano, who began roasting his own coffee beans in his Anderson Township basement seven years ago, is evolving a tasty avocation into a thriving vocation.

After purchasing a former meatpacking plant in Newtown last year, Persicano retooled the place into a highly charged coffee factory that produces dozens of hand-crafted blends, from HenkeJava and Ethiopian Harrar Horse to Honduras Marcala Organic and Bolivian Organic/Fair Trade.

"I grew up around coffee," recalls Persicano of how his interests began. "My father worked for Coca-Cola, and I remember going with my dad to the factory, [and] those wonderful smells." (At the time, Coke's food division produced such blends as Maryland Club Coffee and Butternut Coffee.)

Persicano grew up to work for Procter & Gamble. "I was then inspired by a friend who left the company to start his own business," recalls the blend-meister. "I had already bought a miniature roaster and was making my own coffee [at home]. It was purely a passion." People seemed to like this "Original Blend," so he thought, why not launch his own business, too?

Persicano began the endeavor as a retail model, opening a Coffee Underground store on Salem Road in Mt. Washington in 2002. He quickly decided he preferred roasting to the front counter work. "I was getting burnt out by the retail business."

Voila, the Coffee Underground Inc. was born (the name pays tribute to his factory's humble basement origins), producing hand-crafted coffees for the restaurant trade. Persicano eschews the over-used term "gourmet," preferring the "hand-crafted" phrase.

Persican'™s clients were strictly local purveyors until"”and this is one big until"”the Blue Chip Cookies chain, of mall food courts across the nation fame, came calling. (Locally, Blue Chip franchises are found at Kenwood Towne Centre, Tri-County Mall and on the Loveland Bike Trail.)

"It's my first national wholesale account, and they're looking at developing 200 franchises. They looked at a lot of companies that could deliver coffee cheaper than us, but they wanted quality."

Persican'™s lovingly roasted beans appealed to Blue Chip for the same reason hundreds of east-siders have been buying the brew all these years: his devoted, some would suggest obsessed, attention to detail and taste.

Roasting the beans is akin to popping porcorn, except the kernels need even more constant attention. "The coffee bean is a hard, dense seed that turns golden and then a darker color" when super-heated. Temperature, time, color and endo-thermic factors all come into play for when the roasting must start and stop. "In the last few seconds, the beans generate their own heat. I've got to know when to cool them down, and to cool them down immediately, so it's a real art."

Persicano air roasts the beans and personally "cups" (the professional term for grading coffee) each batch himself. "We buy only premium grade beans, of course, imported from Honduras, Peru, Colombia."

The "micr' roasting production line is reserved for just a few pounds of coffee per batch, s'”much like the small-batch signature bourbons in Kentucky"”supply is limited and demand is great. With price tags ranging from $9 to $10.50 per one-pound bag, Persicano has no trouble moving his product via mail order and through area shops and restaurants. (Shipping costs $5 per two pounds.)

You can purchase bags at Keegan's Fresh Seafood & Coffee in Mt. Washington, Susan's Natural World in Anderson Township, or by mail order at the Newtown company's Web site, www.coffeeunderground.com. To try an already brewed cup of the java, head to one of the Blue Chip Cookie outlets, Henke Winery in Westwood, or the Main Street Cafe in Newtown (practically a bean's throw from the roasting factory).

Persicano confesses to "playing around" with his blends, always experimenting.

What's never an experiment is the unique packaging. Coffee Underground blends are immediately packed in air-tight "valve" bags to preserve freshness (a far cry from the paper bags used by some other specialty roasters). The valve on the bag allows carbon dioxide to be naturally expelled, but doesn't allow staling oxygen in. Once opened, the bags have resealable zip-locks to aid in preserving freshness for the whole beans.

Indeed, remove a whole bean from the bag and it's still moist; these arabica beans (as opposed to the blander robusta beans used in some commercial brews) are good news for dedicated drinkers. Coffee that is 100 percent arabica boasts half the caffeine of the robusta blends.
The coffee company's niche is unique, suggests Persicano. "We roast it the day you order it. No one else locally can say that. It's a crapshoot in a grocery store, where you're lucky if it's just nine months old."