By Ric Rhinehart
The coffee world lost one of its great innovators last month. Michael Sivetz, renowned researcher, inventor and coffee scientist passed away at the age of 90 on March 22 in Albany, Oregon. Sivetz, an SCAA Lifetime Achievement laureate, was perhaps best known for his invention of the fluidized bed roaster, and dedicated himself to the manufacture, sale and advocacy of these roasting machines for much of his life. He was also the author of one of the seminal works on coffee technology, Coffee Processing Technology, first published in 1963, as well as the fully updated companion Coffee Technology published in 1979.
Mr. Sivetz was a prolific author and inventor, publishing a number of books, tracts and articles on coffee quality and coffee technology. Along with his unique fluidized bed roasters, he also invented and produced a low temperature coffee extraction system. He was well known for his passionate advocacy of coffee quality and freshness, and often spoke eloquently and occasionally bluntly about the state of the coffee industry.
“Mike’s work in advancing the science and technology of coffee set a new standard of excellence for intelligent, authoritative, and intellectually honest debate on a wide range of coffee issues, lying to rest a number of “old wives tales” and “half truths” that had hobbled scientific advancement of the collective industry wisdom up until his book was first published. All of us who care deeply about coffee science will forever be in his debt,” said Ted Lingle, one of Mike’s greatest fans and advocates.
The Sivetz legacy will live on as his roasters and extract technology are widely employed by specialty coffee roasters around the world. Michael Sivetz also inspired, informed and educated a generation of roasters, many of them pioneers of the specialty coffee industry. Here are a few testimonials that capture a bit of the genius of Sivetz:
My introduction to Michael Sivetz was through an exchange of letters on coffee roasting technique that he had with my father in the 1960s. Later, his published writing included two sentences that burned their way into my coffee consciousness at a young and impressionable age. In a time when coffee companies provided their customers with no more product information than that they were purchasing A blend of the world’s finest coffee, Mike Sivetz wrote When it comes to coffee the last thing to trust is your luck, and Every man has the right to know what’s in the coffee he’s drinking. We exchanged letters and telephone calls through the years, encouraging, and occasionally goading on at each other’s efforts in support of the trade, the consumer, and trying to make a living. In 1981 I took delivery of the first Sivetz roaster to be installed east of the Mississippi River. We saw each other yearly at SCAA, where we tried to find the time to share a cup, and a few minutes together. I had the privilege of being on the podium in Atlanta when Michael was presented with the 2004 SCAA Lifetime Achievement Award.
Mike Sivetz was among a handful of people that defined and gave character to specialty coffee in its early years. He always expected more and better of us, and in pushing us on he made us, and our coffee better. He was a unique intelligence, bent to our aid and support. He was a singular personality whom those of us who had the privilege of knowing him personally will hold dearly in memory.
-Donald Schoenholt, Gillies Coffee Company
According to Mike, I purchased his first commercial Sivetz Roaster in 1976. It was a 75# half bagger. It was such a fine machine. It produced light and medium roasts with a clarity of flavor notes that I have tried to duplicate ever since. He was pure coffee all the way through.
-Paul Katzeff, Thanksgiving Coffee Company
Mike revolutionized my view of coffee and what could be produced with his fluid bed roasters. He challenged every stroke of our methods from freezing to dry roast; but was also quick to accept the cup we put before him. He would not accept any reasoning that was not well thought out and would shred your ideas before your very eyes. However he was a joy to be around when business was done; with stories and anecdotes of his journey through the coffee industry that would have you in tears of laughter. No one taught me more. He will be sorely missed.
-Denney Willis, Arbuckle Coffee Roasters
In a world of ‘follow the leader lemmings’, Michael Sivetz was his own man. I first met Michael in August of 1993 when I spent 8 days with him in his church-turned-factory in Corvallis, OR. He was a straight talking, gruff type of a guy, much like the farmers I grew up with in Iowa. I especially admired him for his passion for quality and his understanding of the science behind coffee roasting.
In our small little world of Specialty Coffee, tradition is as often a millstone around one’s neck than it is a servant of great quality. Michael wasn’t blind to this; in fact, if he discovered (usually through rigorous testing, often using the traditional scientific method) that would improve quality or consistency; he’d employ it immediately, regardless of tradition.
Normy and I both admired Michael for his work ethic and willingness to be different. Like Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, he cared little for following tradition simply for the sake of following tradition. And he had the intellect and self-confidence to back up his beliefs.
We’ve been using Sivitz fluid-bed roasters exclusively since 1993 and have successfully roasted millions of pounds of some of the worlds’ best coffee. We are grateful for Michael’s enormous contributions to the Specialty Coffee industry and his impact will only grow with time.
-Danny O’Neill, The Roasterie