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Michael Sivetz: engineer, inventor, writer, curmudgeon.

In specialty coffee, we toss around venerations as legend and luminary perhaps too freely, elevating ordinary people to a level that is often beyond their depth. In the case of Michael Sivetz, whom we lost in March at the age of 90, somehow whatever encomium we use with his name is not good enough.

Sivetz, an SCAA Lifetime Achievement laureate, was perhaps best known among U.S. specialty coffee roasters for his innovation of a fluidized-bed roaster on which he held 1976 US Patent # 3964175, which helped to jump-start small independent roasting operations in the early decades of specialty coffee's American revolution. He is more widely recognized by the wider trade as co-author of Coffee Processing Technology (1963), one of the most authoritative works written in English on the subject of coffee in the latter half of the 20th century. Later, he wrote Coffee, Origin and Use (1975) and an update of Coffee Processing Technology, Coffee Technology (1979).

The early tabletop Sivetz roasters were glorified heat-guns braced upward with an extended tube jutting up for the levitation of roasting coffee on a bed of hot air. A piece of wire screening prevented the escape of errant beans; chaff blew everywhere. For some years he converted hot-air popcorn poppers and sold them as tabletop coffee roasters to the trade, and later to consumers. In larger models it was an odd duck, appearing to be a sheet-metal box with few moving parts and a whirring-roaring jet engine lying next to or beneath it. While the apparatus with which Sivetz was identified did not transform the technology upon which most coffee is roasted, it did help to revolutionize the coffee roasting business in the U.S. by making available an easy to use, relatively inexpensive machine that became a fulfillment to the aspirations of specialty coffee's first generation of independent small roasters and roasting retailers including Paul Katzeff's Thanksgiving Coffee Co. in California, Dan O'Neil's The Roasterie in Missouri, and Robert Stiller's Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Vermont.

Michael said he didn't keep sales figures so he didn't really know how many roasters he had sold through the years or during any given year. Orders came in and he fulfilled the orders. It has been imagined that there are more than 100 of his machines operating around North America today.

Michael grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, and Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, now part of New York University. He was denied service in WWII because of a spinal infection, and eventually found himself employed as an engineer for instant coffee production by Maxwell House and later Folgers and later MJB. He did a tour of duty with Kaiser Aluminum for two years, where he first experimented with the idea of a fluid-bed system. Eventually he found his taste for coffee again, and began to freelance as an instant coffee plant design and production expert.

Michael was prolific, writing to other coffee people, editors, industry leaders, and board and committee members of organizations large and small. He would drop notes and postcards sometimes as kisses, and sometimes as grenades. He was held high among those worshipped by the far-flung scores of retailer roasters who broke into the industry with a Sivetz machine.

Michael believed in transparency in coffee labeling. He wrote, "Every man has the right to know what is in the coffee he is drinking. When it comes to coffee the last thing to trust is your luck." His passion for coffee quality, freshness, and his distaste for those whom he saw as standing between the ideal cup and the American consumer often led to ruffled feathers among his peers. He pulled no punches, and many of his friends found ourselves on the receiving end of a Sivetz haymaker from time to time. It was the price of being Mike's friend. They all knew it, accepted it, and frankly, oddly enjoyed it. He was also lavish with praise when he thought it was earned. He was staunch in his ideals, and many of his ideals have stood the test of time.

Michael's last patent, granted in 2000 at the age of 82, was for preserving freshness of roast coffee by maintaining it in a low-oxygen, low-temperature environment. Deep into his 80's he was still teaching, and scratching and fighting for better coffee in America's cup. He pushed us and prodded us to become more serious in our attitude, more scientific in our approach, and more constant to high standards; ethical standards so high that perhaps only he and angels could touch them.
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Title Annotation:OBITUARIES
Author:Schoenholt, Donald
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Jul 1, 2012
Words:765
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