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Journals of Discovery:
The Practice of Roast-Data Logging

By Donald N. Schoenholt

Plotting, mapping, recording - it’s all a vital role in roasting. Donald Schoenholt explains.

Alexander McKenzie of the Hudson’s Bay Company was the first European to cross the northern American continent. His story, told in Voyages from Montreal is not widely known today. A decade later, in 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were directed by President Jefferson to keep careful records of the geography, indigenous people and natural history of the American West. Lewis and Clark filled their journals with observations during their expedition. They also returned with maps, specimens and drawings. Others in their company kept diaries and notes as well. Collectively they left a chronicle that provides both a snapshot of our continent before the era of westward expansion and a history of the corps of discovery’s continental trek. The heritage of the telling and retelling of their story has provided context and the rich content and texture of what they saw and learned.

We are about 40 years into the specialty coffee story in America, and right now, for the most part, we are not producing the paper trail that will act as a teaching tool for coming generations of independent specialty roasters. Our roasting practices are mostly still hit or miss in producing the best coffee in the world. We may produce the best roast on Monday, and look for it in vain all day Tuesday. It is not for lack of dedication to the best, or for lack of the best beans for the job. Many of us, trying to hit the perfect roast every time, must rely upon memory, skill, temperament and senses alone. Sadly, that is just not enough. If we want to produce the very best coffee that can be made, and we want to replicate it roast after roast, we have to begin thinking about creating records of what we are doing, as guidance for ourselves, and those who follow us in our own businesses and in the trade community.

Big roasters have been logging their manufacturing procedures for a half-century. Today it is becoming more evident that in roaster-retailer settings, and among specialty roaster wholesalers, logging our roasts is something that should be adopted as a practice.

ROASTING LOG
  • Date:
  • Weather (temperature and relative humidity):
  • Item/Origin:
  • Region/District:
  • Farm/Co-Op:
  • Altitude:
  • Arabica Variety:
  • Grade/Bean Style:
  • Process:
  • Crop Year:
  • Moisture Content:
  • VICO #:
  • Batch (Lbs/Kg):
  • Roast-Start Time:
  • Time at 1st Crack:
  • Temperature at 1st Crack:
  • Time at 2nd Crack:
  • Time at Drop:
  • Temperature at Drop:
  • Quench Amount (expressed in gallons/liters):
  • Yield (Lbs/Kg):
  • Weight Loss (% of Batch Size):
  • Notes:
  • Roasting Person:
  • Your Roast Journal Is A Pathfinder
    Tracking time and temperature is the most straightforward way to begin the recording process. If you make several notations during the course of the roasting process you can begin to see developmental patterns in coffee roasting. You can plot the time and temperature notes on a lineal graph and connect the dots to see where first and second crack develop. This image is the roast’s “profile.” Comparing the collected data and graphic profiles of different coffees, or different batches of the same coffee over time, provides patterns that can help the operator more easily replicate roast coffee qualities. The log also creates a running historical record of coffees purchased and roasted, styles of roast and volume roasted that may be important to you and to others in the years to come. Below is a sample roast log page. You may find it useful in creating your own log sheets.

    Additional information that you may want to add to your profile sheets include damper positions and flame control (high, medium, low) settings, temperature settings at point of flame, ambient air in roast chamber and at point of exit. Still, data does not tell the whole story. Marginal notes and commentary is essential. Observe, consider and record everything.

    Technology Assisted Craft
    Digital signals, usually collected by electrical sensors during and immediately after the roast process, can be utilized to create a roaster’s log. The collected information can be downloaded using an interface between the data collector and a computer, to a database for immediate use or later study.

    Profile roasting is the harnessing of technology to improve our craft roasting potential by creating a roast data profile, and using the information from the profile to effect positive change in the coffee beverage by changing the way the roasting process applies heat to the coffee. A roast profile made by an electronic profile program, like our lineal graph, traces the time and temperature of the bean from the beginning of the roast cycle to drop-point. Interestingly the image of an electronically graphed profile is most often characterized in the form of a curve and not a straight trajectory of temperature, as the sensors are providing much more complex information than the human operator can sense with the eye, ear and nose.

    The shape of a roast profile curve indicates something about the taste of the subsequently produced beverage. That which is noted can be managed. Just as we can observe the trajectory of the roast curve, we can learn by cupping the coffee produced from different profiles (different ways of roasting) just how best to alter the profile by programming mechanical changes in roaster operation, or in the case of manual roasting change, what we can do to tweak the resulting beverage while the beans are still in the roaster.

    Managing the profile means we can predetermine the taste qualities of the coffee beverage before a cup is poured. Profile roasting can help us to make better coffee, and because it has the capacity to replicate its actions, it is a nifty tool to support the craft-oriented roasting person from error due to boredom, where repetitive roasts of the same item from the same lot of green coffee are required.

    A profile roasting system operating a roaster makes exacting mechanical changes to the machinery throughout the roasting process (using a software program based on a pre-determined model created by the roaster and his technician) ensuring that the profile of the coffee produced is exactly as the profile desired. Flexibility should be inherent in any profile roasting system; the operator should be able to fine-tune, adjust and modify the roast (over-ride the program) to his/her satisfaction as the roast progresses.

    Speaking of records and logging, remember that electronic records are as good as paper records, and are with care taken, easier to store, and no more likely to be lost, destroyed or compromised. Software can be purchased or developed that contains features as electronic signatures, access codes, secure data files, etc. They can be stored physically or electronically off-site and where desired they provide an excellent audit trail.

    Roasting coffee takes training, patience, concentration and creative talent. The ideal profile roasting systems are designed to capture the technical adjustments made by a thoughtful and attentive roasting person during the roast cycle. As a practical matter, the software sees and responds to information that might escape a manual operator. At the same time it may miss something to which a human operator may respond. A profile system should record the progress of a roast, which can, at the operator’s direction, compare the profile with prior profiles in its memory. The operator may choose to make and save changes in the profile effecting future roasts. When saving a profile it can be saved in original form or it can be saved in the new form also, providing a history of both how the roast was made and how it will be made in the future.

    It is really nice to have an archive at your fingertips. Say you just got in a Sumatra that you haven’t seen the likes of in a half dozen years. One of the nice things about computer data storage is that it becomes easy to pull up that roast of Sumatra Triple Picked Lintong that you did back in 2003, and see how you handled it. Data provides a foundation from which to build. You do not have to rely on the vagaries of reminiscence, and as long as you have an off-site back up you will never fear for your electronic memory.

    I find technology-speak and those who speak it to be intimidating. Proportional Integral Derivative (PID) logic controller settings and Modalities leave me in the dust. I always have the desire to reply to electronic techno-talk with a dissertation on the microclimates of Guatemala, and their effect on the cupping qualities of various Arabica sub-varieties. What you and I, fellow craftsman, must remember when having trouble concentrating on the technical stuff, is that profile roasting is not about the technology, it is about the cup. Technology that aids our ability to negotiate the roast curve following a preset path that can be reproduced again and again, without compromising even one thing that we love about pulling a roast by hand is nothing to throw spitballs at.

    Tracking Roaster Batches With A System
    Small operators roasting only unblended origin coffees can track a product back to its production origins simply by knowing the origin and roast date. As businesses grow it is harder to keep track of information, and having an information trail to follow becomes more important to the small independent roasting business.

    Roasters who are organically certified are accustomed to creating unique lot numbers for each roast of coffee so that that batch of beans can be tracked however it may be packed and wherever it may go, as each individual unit is identified with that lot number. Each lot number is traceable to the production log that details its production. Extending identification by lot number to all production roasts, and to all units produced from each batch begins to lead the roaster to the ability to follow his product from roaster to cup.

    Lot/batch numbers do not need to be a complex cipher. They can be as simple as a short sequence of numbers and letters.

    In a large production environment, a code is often used to keep the batch code small, but easily interpreted by those who need to know. You can mix and match the elements to make it less easy for outsiders to decode. Here is an example:

    As an operation becomes more complex, and as you want to have more information, you can expand the coding system to accommodate specific machinery used in production, blending, pull-dates and other information.

    In the future, specialty coffee roasting business success will depend as much on maintaining replicable control over the roasting process as it will depend on bringing out the very best in each coffee (based on your own standards).

    You can collect data and create profiles that will tell you how to roast better, and you can do this electronically or manually. You can roast automatically, with or without a profile, and you can roast manually based on a profile. Automated profile roasting is subject to lack of human sensitivity, while manual roasting is subject to human error, and you can track your coffee through lot numbering wherever it goes after leaving your premises. Every successful roaster finds a level of craft, sophistication and technology with which they are comfortable. Beginning by tracking your roasting data in a roast log is a step on a new coffee journey. In some ways it is akin to the journey into uncharted territory begun at Pittsburgh on August 31, 1803 by the corps of discovery.

    Specialty coffee frontiersman, Donald Schoenholt has been chronicling the progress of specialty coffee’s pilgrims in Tea and Coffee Trade Journal since 1980. He can be reached at: coffeeman@gilliescoffee.com


    Tea & Coffee - November, 2008
    Coffee & Tea Fest


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