When the fire in Bill Clarke’s 6-foot-tall roaster, filled with coffee beans from Ethiopia, reaches about 400 degrees, he stops talking, waiting motionless with one ear turned toward the machine.
“You hear that?” he asks, and a faint crackle filters through the morning din of a small store filled with people delaying the start of another workday. “That’s what you want to hear. It’s the chafe separating from the beans.”
It’s just before 9 a.m. in W.C. Clarke’s Cheese Shoppe in State College and its namesake is engrossed with the task at hand, guided by a Post-it note stuck to his tobacco tin that lists the bean varieties yet to be roasted.
After the Ethiopian Harrar Longberry there are two more varieties to roast, fewer than a usual weekday because snow and a holiday at Penn State have cut into the consumption of caffeine at the store.
Clarke’s large red coffee roaster has two thermometers — an old-fashioned metal gauge and a more modern digital mechanism attached to the side. He monitors both during the roasting process, as well as a small handle that allows him to extract a few beans at a time to check for color and development without affecting the fire.
Clarke also refers to a stopwatch he wears around his neck, but there’s no smile, no satisfaction for the perfectionist and owner of the small gourmet food shop, at least not yet.
When Clarke hears the crackling sound of beans as they turn deep brown, his features soften, eyes twinkling. He knows he’s just impressed a coffee lover who had never before seen the process of transforming new, green coffee beans into the oily, fragrant nuggets of caffeine that lead to euphoria.
Locals on their way to work count Clarke’s coffee a blessing — there are always nine different brews available at $1.25 for a small cup and two quarters more for a larger size — and so does the owner who claims the bean roaster saved his business.
A native of Wilkes-Barre, he once managed a cigar and tobacco shop and a branch of a gourmet food chain. That’s when he learned how to buy specialty food products from big importers and distributors in New York City, a practice he continued when he relocated his family of four to State College and poured every cent he had into the dream of owning his own shop.
W.C. Clarke’s Cheese Shoppe opened 31 years ago — this was pre-coffee bean roaster — in what was then a brand-new retail complex on Calder Way.
“People said, ‘Great idea, never last,’ ” Clarke remembers.
And it almost didn’t.
A series of unforeseen obstacles shut down the street to traffic during a few of the shop’s early years. Then a government report on cholesterol gave Clarke nightmares.
“Cheese was on the list of foods you shouldn’t eat,” Clarke said. “I was driving to New York to buy cheese, and I just remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to do something or I’m going to lose the shop.’”
He decided to throw his fate to coffee and a bean roaster.
“I thought, ‘How can I be a step above? What could be the freshest coffee? How could I be unique?’ ” Clarke said. “I later found out I was one of six roasters on the East Coast at that time.”
Clarke bought the roaster nearly two decades ago with money he borrowed from friends and loyal customers. The metal mammoth was the savior of the business.
For many years, Clarke arrived at the shop by 3:30 or 4 a.m. to begin roasting beans so he’d be able to devote his full attention to customers by 8 a.m., but then he realized he could roast and talk at the same time.
Clarke roasts beans every day but only in small batches as needed, and he uses separate coffee makers for different types of blends. These attentions have earned him a devoted, if sometimes unusual, following.
About a dozen patrons arrive of their own accord before 7 a.m. to help him open the shop, coming early both for the great coffee and for the good company. “It’s the freshest coffee in town,” said John Leedy, a longtime patron. “Part of Bill’s success is he consistently does things the right way, but he’s also consistently been a friend.”
Jeff Wilson, a local plumber and carpenter who calls himself the rookie of the shop because he’s only been a regular for a year, takes a break from the predawn jokes and ribbing to make known how much he appreciates the atmosphere.
“It’s one huge therapy session,” he said. “I had a rough year last year and this place has been a godsend.”
Wilson said his willing role in this quirky family is to put the fresh muffins on the counter every morning.
Customers become friends quickly at the Cheese Shoppe, and loyal patrons perform tasks every day, from helping to brew the first morning’s coffee to putting up the shop’s sidewalk sign. The practice has become tradition and has been going on for years, although no one can say exactly how or when it started.
“They knew how business was and they wanted to help,” Clarke said. “I can’t explain it but it makes me feel good.”
The cash register at Clarke’s place is usually a counter full of wrinkled dollar bills and some coins. Most make their own change on the wooden counter after they’ve poured their cup, although the owner offers to help make change when he notices a first-time customer.
“We’ve never been robbed, to my knowledge,” Clarke says, proud of the fact. “Would I like more customers? Sure. I’d especially like more customers like the ones I’ve got.”
Clarke has loyal cheese customers, too, and has carried a beautiful range of specialty food products over the years, from Spanish butter to foie gras.
Before the current plethora of food magazines and television shows, he always made sure any unusual ingredients in Sunday’s New York Times recipe section were on hand.
“I always got the paper and I knew what would be hot,” he said.
The marble and wood cheese counter is stacked with fresh, creamy rounds for every taste, from dark brown Norwegian cow’s milk to a French cheese that features layers of the herd’s morning milk and evening milk separated by a layer of grape leaf ash. It’s called Morbier and a thin slice of it lights up Clarke’s eyes.
His best-selling cheese is a horseradish cheddar, which he buys from a small farm in upstate New York he won’t name.
All he’ll say about his competition from big chains is, “All things that look the same are not always the same ... but people ask me, ‘How come yours tastes different?’” He said he needs to make a living but he works for the moments when someone appreciates his food or coffee.
A woman from Denver he’s never met buys beans only from him through his online sales business. She got hooked when a friend made her coffee with Clarke’s beans. He proudly describes how she called once to make an emergency order after some European friends “told her it was the best coffee they’d ever had and they took home the rest of her beans,” he said.
The beans are $11 per pound, but Clarke said he has decades-long relationships with two of his suppliers and knows they give him only the best. Some of the beans are organic, some aren’t. All are Clarke approved.
“I could sell cheap junky beans and make more money,” he said. “But I really like what I do.”