Follow Your Nose: Making Roasty, Toasty Magic at Wheeling Coffee & Spice
WHEELING — On what might be an ordinary, wintry Monday anywhere else in downtown Wheeling, Larry Sprowls is firing up a fan deep inside a building adjacent to Heritage Port. Leather belts whir overhead and, given the motor’s 10,000 revolutions per minute, it sounds like a jet engine. It’s impressive. But, it’s the aroma that follows that verges on magic.
Sprowls — Wheeling Coffee & Spice Co.’s master roaster of a dozen years — hooks a metal chute to the front of one of three Victorian-era ovens and beans the color of the darkest chocolate rush into a cooling bin set into the floor below.
The air’s so suddenly coffee-saturated it might wake the dead. There’s smoke. There’s a scurry as General Manager Shelly Smedley rakes beans across the bin’s aerated bottom in a race to get them cooled quickly enough so that the oil glistening on their surfaces will sink back into the beans rather than burning off.
Their efforts are at last successful. Smedley sets down her rake, dips her fingers into the still-warm mass and does a taste test, crunching through a couple beans before smiling. Fifty pounds of French roast is born.
THE COLOR OF YUMMY
“I usually let it sit for a day — then I take it upstairs and put it in the grinder,” Sprowls said of this first batch of the day, which he shepherded from the pale beige of raw beans through a golden hue that smells like popcorn, then to the deep brown that signifies the company’s house roast before reaching the elusive-if-temporary sheen of French roast.
“If you don’t keep an eye on it, it will get away from you,” he said of the process.
He roasts twice a week, but no longer pushes beans even further — to the dry brown of espresso. There’s not enough of a local market for that, he said, noting that in the company’s heyday, the eight-foot long roasters were handling 500 pounds of beans at a time. (Testament to the lure of coffee, a hand crank near the massive roasters’ base reveals the intense work it once took to keep the now gas-fed fires burning evenly when wood and coal were the fuel source.)
These days, roasting for the coffee shop that has storefronted the business since 1993 and the internal workings for larger-scale retail and wholesale is done on a more gourmet scale, he noted. French roasts are especially small lest they smoke out the place, he explained.
Even the largest batches — Wheeling Coffee & Spice’s house roast — come together as a 145 pound mix of Arabica beans from Honduras and Nicaragua accented by robusta beans from Uganda, Vietnam or India.
Large or small, Sprowls notes the roasting is as much art as science. Timing varies not only by the preferred roast, but on how hot the roaster is when the beans enter. Temperature gauges and a tiny door in the roaster’s front that allows him to frequently pull a sample of beans are key.
“It can be done faster, but we want to do it slower,” Smedley said of going for taste. “No burnt coffee.”
Spowls echoed her devotion to doing what’s best for the beans. “One: I love coffee. Two: I love making coffee for other people,” he said, noting he gets a buzz not unlike that which comes from caffeine when a customer compliments a blend. “I’m surprised I can sleep at night.”
Smedley — whose sons Owen David and Tyler David purchased the business in 2019 — feels a similar jolt from operating a historic business.
When a customer presented her with a vintage coffee jar from the era when the company’s Paramount Coffee brand was packaged under the Dawn label she was thrilled. She said such things particularly matter since the family made a commitment to longtime owner Mary Ann Lokmer, now deceased, to preserve Wheeling Coffee & Spice Co.’s history as well as its place in city foodcraft.
A self-described Air Force brat who came to Wheeling when her sons relocated to the area from Oklahoma about 12 years ago to work in the oil and gas industry, Smedley has fallen in love with both Wheeling Coffee & Spice Co. and the Ohio Valley in the process.
She’s learned to roast. She’s embraced a wide variety of flavors — including the shop’s best-selling Highland Grog, with notes of rum and maple syrup — even though she prefers her own coffee straight-up black. She knows where the knitters who regularly meet in the shop share their charitable works. And, in a “Cheers”-like way, she seems to know nearly everybody’s name.
“I’ve lived in a million places,” Smedley said in explanation of her fondness for her new home. “You don’t feel like an outsider here.” Then, she nodded and said it again. “You don’t feel like an outsider.”