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The Craft of Espresso Roasting:
Part I

By Timmothy J. Castle

Setting out to “assess the state of the craft of roasting for espresso” is, obviously, doomed to fail. No single magazine article, much less a single book, could conceivably cover such a diverse and often divided field. Nonetheless, Timothy J. Castle finds that by setting out to do so, the journey’s destination might not be reached, but a lot might be learned along the way.

Before Before any discussion of roasting for espresso can begin, there has to be some context established as to what is going on with regard to the science and craft of roasting in general. There seems to be two threads common to most of today’s discussions about roasting, at least among specialty and dedicated regional roasters. The first is a renewed discussion about the roasting process itself and what is actually occurring as the beans in the roaster go from green to some shade of brown. The second is the dynamic playing out between the operator and, for lack of a better term, what might be called the programmer. At one point in the recent history of roasting, even the aspiring artisan roaster looked forward to a day when they could program their roasting equipment to roast a coffee consistently to an ideal roast level. In both discussions, however, most roasters have viewed the lack of process understanding as a fixture on their landscape and the characteristics of the equipment they were using as being another inevitable condition of their existence.

Presently, however, a sea change is likely to occur in the industry that will change forever how roasters look at their equipment and how they work with the suppliers of that equipment. Most of this change is due not to the internet or even to the two associated trade organizations (the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the Roaster’s Guild) that are actually spearheading much of this progress, but to the increasing desire on the part of roasters to perceptibly differentiate themselves from their competitors. In this regard, both in terms of understanding the roasting process and deciding how that process should be controlled, the roasting enterprise will, by necessity, seek out more information about roasting and seek to apply it in an increasingly informed and directed way. The challenge, of course, is resources - the resources to conduct the research necessary to analyze the roasting process in, literally, microscopic detail.

For much of the coffee industry’s history, roasters have been somewhat in the dark with regard to the roasting process. Most manufacturers have guarded what information they did have available to them. They decided, it seems, that it was in their best interests not to disseminate too much of the information upon which the construction of their products was based. Likewise, those roasting companies with the resources to delve into the actual chemical and physical processes of roasting decided that their findings were best kept private as well. The best reference material available then, comes from either third parties more interested in increasing overall expertise in the industry, presumably to increase consumption, and from a few unselfish, if opinionated, manufacturers of roasting equipment, most notably Michael Sivitz. These manufacturers, generally, are fighting an upstream battle against conventional wisdom with regard to both their theories and their equipment.

One prominent Mid-Western roaster, who asked not to be named, said that he believed that very little understanding was either possessed or applied to the roasting process and that very little serious experimentation went on in the industry as a whole. “People don’t try things and then measure the results, there’s some seat of the pants stuff but not a lot of serious efforts to test and measure what goes on during roasting and how different roasts will affect the flavor of certain coffees. For our espresso blends for instance, we test every roast we do with the entire roasting staff, every day. We discuss the way the roast went and try and tie that back to how the coffee’s tasting out of the espresso machine. We also let our baristas know what’s going on and they often participate in our cuppings. We have a high level of feedback going on that keeps us learning and perfecting our blends and our roasts while at the same time we’re keeping our customers informed.”

Jay Isais, senior director of green coffee and manufacturing and distribution for The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf based in Los Angeles, California had these observations about the state of the roasting art: “I think that there’s a greater awareness of the science of roasting that there’s ever been. At the same time there’s a return to the craftsman approach to roasting. What draws people to want to roast coffee and to be fulfilled through that is the coffee itself. There’s more scientific understanding available but underneath that there’s more passion toward the craft side of the roasting process. It’s become less of a button pushing process than it used to be a few years ago. Twenty years ago, most ‘roasters’ were simply pushing buttons - but now it’s a much more craft-based process. But I don’t see technology as being that emphasized, a lot of the technology available today is designed to give roasters more control and more ability to control and personalize the roasting process.”

Peter Giuliano, currently president of the Roaster’s Guild and also the master roaster and green coffee buyer for Counterculture Coffee in Durham, North Carolina, reviewed the state of the roasting art. According to Giuliano, “We talk about this a lot in the Roaster’s Guild. The artisanal approach is something that we’re trying to encourage generally and achieve through the accreditation process. Master Roasters will be required to publish their roasting studies - so if you’re going to be a Master Roaster you have to do this kind of work and share it with the industry. I think that we’re entering into a time where roasters are really in a community. In the early stages of the SCAA there was a sense of community. Similarly, it’s my hope that the Roaster’s Guild will generate a greater exchange of information, both scientific and artisanal,” he said. “Right now the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) money is going where it needs to go, trying to ensure supply, but at some point it would be nice to see some of that money come to the Roaster’s Guild for research and for disseminating knowledge about roasting. Roasters that are the size I am feel they know what they need to but when they ask questions of each other, nine times out of ten the answer is ‘I don’t know.’ At some point it would be nice to answer questions like ‘I’d like to know more about pyrolisis.’ The roaster’s guild will probably never have a lot of money of its own but perhaps it will be able to influence how some money is spent.”

This mixture of enthusiasm for the future of roasting combined with a certain amount of frustration for the current body of knowledge on the subject is part of the backdrop for any discussion specific to the challenge of roasting for espresso. This is partly because there is also tremendous debate about espresso itself - about what it should taste like and what coffees it should contain. Indeed, there is even disagreement about what espresso actually is and what is going on when a shot is pulled. Any discussion of roasting for espresso, then, is much like pointing a flashlight around in a large and completely dark room - you’ll shed some light on a wall or two and even illuminate a corner, you’ll learn something about where you are, but you’ll never get the whole picture. You’ll only be able to extrapolate and make increasingly well informed guesses.

Darrin Daniel, green coffee traffic coordinator at Allegro Coffee shared, “We do a darker, milk-based espresso. It’s a darker roast and it has more Indonesian in it. We use a classic, sweeter Bel Canto blend, which is a lighter roast and has more washed Africans, and we have an organic Sierra blend. Actually we don’t approach the roast itself differently but we use the same temperature curve for both of these blends and for our blends that are intended primarily for drip brewed coffee we’ll use the same profile. Blend preparation, all pre-blended, and drop point are how we manipulate the espresso taste profile.”

Danny O’Neill, president of the Roasterie, Inc. of Kansas City, Missouri, and a former SCAA president drew a bright line between roasting for drip brewed and for espresso, “For our blends and single origins intended for drip brewed coffees we look for coffees that in addition to all the flavor and body you’d expect, are also bright, clean, and have elegant acidity - this is the exact opposite of what we need for espresso. It takes a lot more trial and error with our espresso roasts and I think in general we change the profile of our roasts for espresso a lot, we need to tweak them more. I believe this is because with espresso, you’re exaggerating everything in the cup, good and bad, so the roast profile makes a bigger difference when roasting for espresso. That the roasting for espresso is more critical than it is for drip coffee is indicated, perhaps, in that a coffee might cup well but it won’t necessarily work for espresso. Conversely, though, we have some great espressos that almost always will make great brewed coffee as well.”

O’Neill, who clearly loves what he does, reflected that the subject of espresso itself is so vast that it can never be fully mastered, “It’s just inherently interesting, almost any time I get into a discussion or an interchange with others that’s espresso-related I walk away with a huge awareness of what I don’t know. It doesn’t make any difference where you are, you learn something every time you start talking about espresso. If you taste four or five different espressos they’re all going to be different and then you look at a some other factor, like group head temperature, you start to realize how complex the subject really is.”

George Bregar, the coffee quality manager at Alterra Coffee Roasters, Inc. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, also noted that he approaches his roasting for espresso uniquely; “About 10% of our roasting is solely for espresso. We approach roasting for espresso differently than we do for drip coffee. Because the preparation methods for espresso and drip coffee are not the same, there are different goals to achieve with roasting. Each component in our espresso blend plays a distinct role in the final outcome of the beverage. When we roast for espresso we are not necessarily trying to preserve the varietal characteristics of each origin but rather roasting the coffee so that it reacts a certain way in the portafilter.”

Bregar noted that his approach to roasting has evolved of time; “I learned how to roast coffee at Alterra but over time acquired my own methods and style. I encourage my roasting crew to do the same as long as they communicate their ideas with one another. Everyone is very aware of the ongoing learning process with coffee. We arrive at most of our conclusions about coffee the same way we learned how to roast and blend great espresso - through continuous experimentation and cupping. Tasting is always blind and we love to break new ground.”

When he does that tasting, Bregar looks for a lot, “My perfect shot of espresso must have plenty of rich reddish-brown crema, good flecking, and a heavy mouthfeel. A good espresso will translate differently on the nose and on the palate. I like nuance, complexity, and body more than strong acidity or dark roasting.”

John DiRuocco, roastmaster and green coffee buyer at Mr. Espresso in Oakland, California, provided detailed information regarding the approach Mr. Espresso takes to roasting their namesake, “We roast for espresso a little longer, we slow it down a bit, with drip we go a little faster for a more dynamic roast. For espresso we use a heavier load in the roast, a slower roast, it tends to mellow the coffee out. Normally our roaster is 240 kilos, and that’s what we do for espresso but for drip we use a lighter load for a quicker more dynamic roast, 180 to 210 kilos. With espresso, you’re trying to tame the coffee and control the acidity and bring out the body, and a longer roast does that. I haven’t found, however, that this makes, necessarily, for more even bean development.” DiRuocco noted that his approach is not unique and that the equipment he uses was designed for espresso, “Of course our roaster, an Italian machine, was engineered for espresso roasts. The guy who we buy our roasters from, our main roaster is modeled after a Farina, tells us that some roasters in Italy overload the roaster in fact, to draw out the roast even longer. Of course, this may be motivated by production goals as well as roast profile.” DiRuocco also pointed out the longer roast effects the final shot of espresso in very tangible ways, “We’ve made shots from coffee we roast for drip brewed and it doesn’t extract well, the crema will be lousy and the water will go right through it. It really depends, there’s always exceptions, but the way an espresso roast extracts has a lot to do with the roast profile.”

Where are roasts going? DiRuocco points to Starbucks as an influence toward the dark roast for espresso. “People think espresso is very dark, but as people learn more about espresso, the lighter roast is more appreciated. It kind of seems to be a split. In restaurants, where people are starting to order more espresso, our light roasts are becoming more popular. In cafés, however, they like the dark roasts and I believe this is because they sell more milk drinks. A dark roasted espresso blend will make a more palatable milk based espresso drink.” According to DiRuocco, sugar is also a consideration when considering the degree to which espresso should be roasted, “In Italy, they roast darker in the south. In the north people are starting to drink espresso without the sugar. Here, if you put sugar in your espresso you’re not considered a purist. And this is another reason that lighter roasts, I think, will become more popular.”

In our next issue we will continue our exploration of the approach that roasters take to roasting for espresso and the distinctions they draw between that process and the roasting they do for coffees intended for drip brewing and other applications. What is clear so far, from the areas we’ve illuminated thus far, is that the number of approaches to roasting for espresso is limited only by the number of passionate artisans practicing the craft of roasting.


Tea & Coffee - July/August, 2004
Tea Fair - China

ASIC 2014


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