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When Coffee Speaks



There’s a traditional, Cameroon proverb that addresses the common mistakes and blunders of roasting: "Better a Mistake at the Beginning than at the End."

There’s a scene at the juncture between wholesale and retail where the familiar routine of pulling espresso shots breaks off, a mostly unobserved setting where the commotion of café life dwindles and the solitary life of roasting experimentation comes into prominent view.

Here, roasters do not sport crisp aprons or name tags, but wear khakis or jeans, rolled-up sleeves, or favorite tees and caps often bearing the company logos of discarded work lives. They think in jargon terms like “tipping” and “listening for the first crack”, and for hours on end they coax flavors from exotic beans for fairly skimpy recompense.

On fiberboard counters lined with tall lidded bins named after foreign farms, brown bits of burnt beans speckle the crisp pages of the roaster’s recording book. This leather-bound folio is like a captain’s log. It captures all the past journeys: the times, temperatures, successes and disasters. The room reeks of coffee and smoke, and particles of burlap and chaff dance together in midair.

This is the back room of roasting. This is where every roaster is perfecting his or her craft. Despite those aspirations - or perhaps because of them - all kinds of experimentation and screwups take place. Today’s coffee lover may have some knowledge about coffees or have seen a roaster working in a coffeehouse, but they probably don’t know very much about the world behind the gleaming café counters. That back room is where the hard work of calibration takes place - and where good war stories are born.

In this column, we will talk with working roasters about their craft. We will ask about everything from burnt beans (Oops) to roaster fires (Whoops) to a variety of resulting explosions and disasters (Outright Blunders). Frankly, we will look at all kinds of roasting stories. Perhaps you have a story to share with our readers? In the pursuit of the perfect cup, have you experienced any hiccups? If we incorporate your story, you will receive 15 minutes of fame and our readers’ appreciation. There are almost 2,000 new roasting locations in the USA. The growing number of roasteries have been started to support the burgeoning demand for specialty coffee.

With that new growth, we’ve got all kinds of stories to tell. Some are about process, others about solutions. A lot of them are about roasting dilemmas. Mix a little fire, chaff and other flammable substances with the goal of achieving a fine roast, and you’ve got the makings of many stories - and lessons. No matter how much an experienced roaster in that back room goes by the book, sometimes coffee didn’t read the book. Sometimes the roasters themselves struggle with how to solve chronic frustrations. That is the subject of our first story.

I’ve just heard the second crack. Tryer in hand, I’m pulling La Torcaza samples every few seconds in pursuit of the perfect roast. These dark-brown beans are shiny with a mist of sweet sugar at the surface. I’m conscious of the sharper sound of the harder crack and concerned about scorching, but I’m lost in the “roasting zone” and still a few seconds away from that sweet spot I’m looking for - the look of those shiny brown beans. It’s a look that transcends the shrugged shoulders of onlookers whose expressions say, “What’s the big deal?” But, even they know something’s not right. Even they can see and sense that I am working towards a great roast - the perfect roast.

I pull the drum door release and a rush of beautifully roasted Panama La Torcaza tumbles out of the hopper and into the cooling tray in a puff of heat and smoke. I exhale and pull the green release forward to drop my next batch of green: Guatemalan Huehuetenango. I then realize that the green beans have just dropped through the drum, out of the hopper and into the cooling tray with my newly roasted La Torcaza! A customer peers over the rim of the cooling tray and I realize this is not a private screw-up. I’ve just humiliated myself in public! What did I do? I’ve just dumped my green beans into my roast. There is nothing to do now but eat crow and toss it all into the trash.

“Usually, if you make an error you make it in three places at once!” says Sam Schank of Intelligentsia Coffee. Of course, juggling green and roasted beans, working with flames and heat, making decisions affecting the palates of friends, family and customers puts me right where I want to be: experimenting, innovating and aware of all the ways I can titillate their senses with my roasted coffee.

I simply want to roast great coffee. But having done this for almost 15 years you’d think by now I would’ve nailed down this particular process. Instead, I find myself sporadically making mistakes that cost me time and money and sometimes more (like my ego).

So maybe for a moment I can tell myself that the problem lies with bad judgment on my part or even that I was in a rush or that I lost my head. Who knows? But of course, I want to correct this error. I want to roast perfectly every time up. I want to excel at what I’m doing to earn a living. But more importantly, I want to recognize what was my mistake and how I can prevent it in the future.

Have you made this error as well? Letting the green hopper go before you’ve closed the drum door, releasing green into roasted beans? Roasting coffee is as much art as science, so we must take notice of what we’re doing each step of the way: from green into hopper, from hopper to drum, and finally releasing pre-cooled beans into the cooling tray.

“There’s something about human nature that’s mesmerized by speed. You just want to take it further,” says Schank. He might as well have been describing my missteps in releasing my green before I closed the drum release. I wanted my next batch of green available for release into the drum as soon as the drum was back up to the right heat level. I was trying to avoid wasted seconds. Instead I was picking green beans out of roasted coffee - what a mess! I finally came to my senses, accepted my loss, tossed out the multi-colored combination of beans, and moved onto the next roast.

I then experimented with different ways to solve this problem. My goal was to find a way to prevent the green coffee beans of the next batch from going forward too soon. What I discovered that day is that I could put the green for the next roast into a separate container that sits within the green bean hopper. That way the next green batch can’t accidentally go through! When I next pull the green lever release I still have to empty that container into the hopper. I’ve just added a step that saves me from making another Bozo mistake. This brings up the concept: “think before you act”. And if you can’t do that, at least put a separate container into the hopper and avoid another Oops! If we build this kind of safeguard into every step of the process wouldn’t we avoid some mistakes? Wouldn’t it be easier to train a junior roaster? We serve ourselves best if we remain conscious of every action we take on the way to a perfect roast.

Send us your stories!
Do you have an interesting anecdote about roasting? Come across a glitch or solution? Send your stories to: Karl Seidel, 11820 Hamlin Street, North Hollywood, CA 91606. E-mail: karl@freshroastdaily.com

Tea & Coffee - August/September, 2005
Theta Ridge Coffee


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