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By Timothy J. Castle & Joel Starr

Many people who want to roast coffee simply dive in and start roasting. Others work for other coffee roasters to learn the trade. Many, however, seek out professional courses so they will eliminate the mistakes a novice might make on his own and that such a course will be faster and more thorough than an apprenticeship. Based on the interviews we conducted, there are several good trainers out there with different approaches to teaching the fine art of roasting.

Willem Boot, of Boot Consulting in Marin County, California was prepared to describe how he had adapted his courses to Asian students.

“We specifically train students that fly out from Asia for our workshops in Marin County California,” he said. “The roasters’ classes are given in small groups, and in every class we have overseas students. They focus not only on the design and temperature of roasting but also the sensory analysis necessary to assess your results in the cup. We’ve been doing this type of training for six years. I’ve been in the business since I was a young boy and have been roasting for 20 years. The training part is fun, because you can teach them the artisan style of coffee roasting, teaching them what heat does to coffee and how you can manipulate the parameters of the machine to come up with different flavor profiles for the same bean,” said Boot.

“Today, many manufacturers are coming out with roast profiling accessories that remove the operator from that aspect,” Boot continued. “They can manipulate the BTU’s throughout the roast cycle. They are good, but these roast profilers can’t really differentiate between bean types, densities, weather patterns at origin and so on. As a result, the operator becomes clueless as to what he is doing. With the proper training and a mastery of these essentials of coffee roasting, the coffee roaster can use profiling technology more effectively.”

“Now I’m taking various international contracts and I’ve hired some freelance consultants who have lots of experience in the Asian market. In the past I’ve had clients from Japan, South Korea, Thailand as well as New Zealand.”

Outspoken Opinions
Michael Sivetz, owner of Sivetz Coffee in Corvallis, Oregon is well known for his outspoken opinions and he had some ready for us when we called.

“The misconception is that it takes a lot of skill to roast coffee. It depends on the machine. On our roasters, we measure the beans’ temperature, which relates to the degree of roast, which relates to the taste,” he said. “So, the training for our roasters can be completed in two or three roasts. The harder part is choosing the best coffees available. That perspective is the most difficult to gain. The only way to gain that experience is to work with experienced cuppers day-after-day and taste what they’re tasting.

“It’s a misconception to think that you can learn to accurately taste coffee overnight, people that are in the trade for 10 or 20 years have a definite advantage,” stated Sivetz.

Roasting Curriculum
Jay Endres, director of engineering for Redwood City, California-based Coffee-Tec noted that he taps on his expertise in the equipment itself to build a curriculum for roasting.

“I teach everything behind the mechanical aspects of coffee. The advantage of training students at their location, assuming they have machinery, is that they get to learn on their machine and more than one person can participate, whereas, if they send a person here, then that’s generic teaching,” believes Endres.

“The truth of the matter is, you have to know coffee to know how to roast coffee,” he said. “Any idiot can put coffee in a roaster and dump it at 465 degrees. The problems with coffee roasting are in buying the right beans, blending the right beans and manipulating your roasting machine to do what you need to be done to the inside of the bean. So most of the training is at the cupping table, because if you can’t cup and you can’t taste the difference, then you can’t be a roaster. Theoretically, you want to cup every batch of coffee. You can change the parameters to make the coffee do what you want to have done. Our training emphasizes learning what’s going on inside the bean, making the roaster do what you want and being able to repeat it.”

“Some of the worst coffee roasters [people] today rely far too much on manufacturer provided roaster profiles,” Endres said. “They’re not even watching the beans. The bean will tell you, ‘I need more even development,’ ‘You’re roasting me too fast,’ etc…. Add to that that if you’ve got a profile developed by a man who’s not a coffee man, well, then you’re really in trouble!”

“One of the forgotten things in our industry is that each method of roasting has its own set of characteristics and issues which roast profiling does not address or solve,” Endres continued. “It’s not all heat and not all air. If you roast with nothing but heat transfer, then you run a real risk of scorching the beans. There is also a real difference between steel, stainless steel and cast iron. If you’re on a stainless steel surface, then you are walking on eggshells to begin with: your bean development is much more sensitive. With cast iron, the heat is much more gentle, it doesn’t have sharp heat, and then we’re back to being inside the bean. I think you should only learn on the machine that you’ll be roasting on, except for cupping of course.”

Endres then emphasized where he gets his marching orders, “The bean is boss. Being able to control your environment to do what needs to be done assumes that you know what needs to be done. We’re splitting hairs here, but splitting hairs is what makes the difference between a roaster and a roast master.”

“The Asian market is the second most rapidly growing market, behind only the Latin market. Whole bean coffee sales in Colombia aren’t very popular yet, but we’ve been very honored to supply roasters to many of the new shops opening in Bogota. They can’t import specialty coffees easily either, but we’ve found some ways,” Endres explains.

Craft of Roasting
Phil Hand of Café Makers, based in Hawaii and Los Angeles, oversees roast operations and quality control at Supreme Bean Coffee Roasters in North Hollywood, California. He also teaches aspiring roasters the craft of roasting.

“All consulting is done one on one. We find out what it is the student wants to do, and what he wants to grow into and go from there,” said Hand. “It’s relative to what the client wants to accomplish. If it’s equipment, we can help purchase it. I can’t think of a better market to go toward for what we’re doing as opposed to a Pacific Northwest-style that wants a drum roasted, darker profile. So, we’re working for a profile that has less of the roasted flavor and tries to maximize the bean’s flavor. I think that’s better suited to the Asian market. There’s a Japanese profile and a Korean profile, which are both lighter than what we’re used to. We’re not trying to coerce them into one roast style, but because the Japanese like the lighter roast, we can use the Primo roaster and get them where they need to be a lot faster. On a Probat, you’ll need a lot more hands-on training to achieve an ideal lighter roast,” Hand believes.

Hand discussed the profile he believes some roasters, and markets, are looking for, “Blue Mountain, Kona and Sulawesi: UCC (Japan’s largest coffee roaster) literally owns and dominates the acreage of those places. They were the ones that came into Sulawesi and brought modern processing techniques there; they have their own acreage that they control in Kona, and of course they’ve really cornered the market for Blue Mountain.

“These coffees are milder and brighter; ultra-balanced, except for the Sulawesi. When you roast that coffee light, it has a lot of acidity. What the Japanese are looking for are brighter, light- to medium-bodied, lighter roasted coffees; La Minita, La Torcaza would be good choices for a Japanese specialty roaster, they’re also looking at COE; ultra-premium Central American coffees. It has to be ‘the best’ so they’re really into the Cup of Excellence. Milder and brighter, typically, and they want to have a roast profile which fits that specific flavor profile,” Hand said.

He then described what he strives to do when teaching the craft of roasting. “We can help them dial in the parameters of the roast easier by pointing them in the direction of equipment that will make their ideal profile and philosophy more easily attainable,” Hand said. “The Primo offers the ability to have a digital control that shows what the parameters are and lets you manipulate them easier. You can set in a specific temperature for your high flame and low flame. For example, I want to start with high fire and achieve a temperature benchmark within a certain period of time. It’s not meant to be an angular curve when you’re roasting; it’s supposed to be smooth. The curve is also predicated on the volume of coffee in the drum. Temperature benchmarks need to be adjusted whether your using a 50-lb. load or a 30-lb. load. You have to know, based on the coffee, what to do.”

Hand addressed consistency and the personal preferences of the roaster, and then delved into some examples. “By virtue of using the digital control, we are able to help the end user dial in the bench marks of the roast parameters, so that the end roast profile will be more consistent. Companies like UCC have been setting the parameters of Japanese roast profile flavors. Its not dark, its fairly acidic and fairly light bodied. They can achieve what they’re looking for, even if they want to introduce darker coffee, they can do it in baby steps on a Primo, because it allows for greater flexibility.”

Hand also touched on the dynamics of training, “A lot of roasting training is to get people to understand that you have to have a fluid knowledge of varietals in order to establish how the training is to be employed on the roaster. A proper roaster training is like a wine makers training. It’s not just about operating the machine. It’s also about understanding what you’re using and the differences between the coffees. You have to understand that Chardonnay is different than Cabernet and you have to make those wines in completely different methods from one another. You have to understand the key differences between growing regions, cultivars and processing, and how all these things come together so that the roast master understands the different parameters and how these affect the end result.”

Hand concluded with a description of the length of his course and how he wraps it up.

“Typically our training session is three to four days. It take place at the site of the client,” he said. “After all of that, there’s equipment, the principals, the profiles and how you establish them for each coffee, cleaning procedures and blending. It’s very intensive and designed to give maximum exposure to someone so that they have the skills and the maximum confidence necessary to go for it. It’s kind of similar to barista training. I think it hits home better when you train them on their own equipment so they can see that the results are possible on their own.”

Annual Retreat
There is another resource, the Roasters Guild Annual Retreat (www.roastersguild.org). While it may not be practical for interested roasters throughout the world to attend the meeting of this annual convention in the U.S., it is worth noting that this organization is well worth looking at, if not for participation, then for emulation.

If you want to know how to roast better, or if you want your employees to, then membership and participation in this group is an essential element in the ongoing education of the dedicated coffee roaster. Just as the formation SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) presaged the formation of sister organizations in Europe and Japan, the Roasters Guild of America is likely to provide a model for other regions and nations as well. The training, education and the cross-pollination of ideas are just a few of the reasons that this is a pre-ordained conclusion.

As any professor will tell you, an education merely enables you to begin making more intelligent mistakes. Learning to roast begins by taking in as much information as possible, and clearly a good training course in roasting can be a great first step. But not one of the trainers interviewed above would argue that anything can replace the experience of navigating through each successive roast after that training has ended, and with each roast, with any luck, tasting better than the last.

Timothy J. Castle, is a past president of the SCAA. He is currently the head of Castle Communications and is a regular writer for Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. He may be reached via e-mail at qahwah@aol.com.

Tea & Coffee - January, 2008

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