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Wednesday, Apr 3 1996
Blend Ambition
Look behind the counter at the Universal Cafe (on 19th Street, at Potrero) and you'll see something you won't find in too many small -- or large -- restaurants: a coffee roaster.

"It's a Probat," co-owner and roastmaster Bob Voorhees says proudly. "From Emmerisch, Germany, near the Dutch border." Voorhees was one of the founders of Coffee, Tea & Spice, which opened on Haight Street in 1973 -- and acquired a Probat roaster not long after. That business has long since been sold and resold, but Voorhees is still roasting -- with a new Probat. "I love coffee," he says. "That's why there's a cafe. We sell an awful lot of coffee for a cafe this size. We sell food, too." (Note: Good food.)

If you order a cup of coffee at the Universal Cafe, you'll know the beans were roasted right there (every Monday, according to Voorhees). But if you order coffee at the South Park Cafe or Ristorante Ecco -- two other ventures in which Voorhees is a partner -- you'll also be served Universal. In fact he's planning, with some reluctance, to move the big Probat to a roomy nearby location, which will enable him to expand his wholesale business, as well as free up some working space at the cafe.

There's also a retail side to Voorhees' bean business. The cafe sells its three blends (house, espresso, and Swiss water-process decaf) to the public. The regular blends are $8 a pound, and the decaf is $8.50 -- very much in the Peet's/Spinelli price range. But Voorhees doesn't roast his beans as dark as they do, for the simple reason, he says, that "I don't like dark-roast coffee."

On the matter of espresso, Voorhees gives a bit of ground: His espresso blend is basically the house blend "with a little bit of dark roast thrown in," for depth and body if not for crema, the cap of golden foam that says the beans are fresh, the water hot but not too hot, the machine generating sufficient pressure to brew the drink correctly. The scary truth about crema, according to Voorhees, is that the best way of producing it is by using robusta beans -- the inferior kind. "They produce so much crema it's hard to get off the sides of the cups," he says. "But the coffee they produce has no taste." A tastier alternative: the Brazilian coffees, which "give you a little more crema than other varieties," Voorhees says.

One of the joys of doing something for the love of it is that you can do it the way you want. Universal's house blend is, says Voorhees, "a personal preference that's evolved over the years. But it's not like an assembly line at Ford Motor Company. There are year-to-year variations in crop qualities and characteristics. Coffee is like wine in that way -- a little different every time."

By Paul Reidinger

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Paul Reidinger

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