The Skillful Roaster
Posted on December 14 2021,
There is a wide scope for adding creative flair as a coffee roaster, so one must be very careful not to judge too harshly and also to embrace the varying points of view, as this is one of the reasons the industry is so dynamic.
One of the things I have learnt from my time in the coffee industry and dealing on a daily basis with coffee roasters is that people’s approach to and their perceptions of coffee roasting are greatly varied. There is a wide scope for adding creative flair as a coffee roaster, so one must be very careful not to judge too harshly and also to embrace the varying points of view, as this is one of the reasons the industry is so dynamic. Someone roasting coffee commercially should really aim to approach the job in a similar way that a professional chef approaches their trade. There are many similarities between the two, and I have found the coffee roasters that apply themselves in a similar manner are the ones who tend to possess the most skill and knowledge. Roasting coffee is a form of cooking that, at an elite level, requires intimate knowledge of the ingredient, a trained palate, creativity, discipline, passion, and an understanding of coffee chemistry and the thermodynamics (the science of heat and energy) of cooking. In our beginner training courses at Coffee Roasters Australia, we focus heavily on the theory associated with coffee, as a solid foundation here makes a significant difference to the successful implementation of the practical side of coffee roasting. If you do not understand the science behind the process, then you will be no better than the part- time cook at home who relies mainly on a recipe book to deliver results.
Coffee roasting is a skill that needs to be learnt, so here are some tips for those wanting to begin a career as a coffee roaster or also for those currently roasting coffee who want to take it to the next level.
- UNDERSTAND COFFEE CULTIVATION
It is imperative that a coffee roaster should have a fairly detailed understanding of coffee cultivation, considering that is the ingredient used in the process. Just think of the knowledge a professional chef has to gain in regards to ingredients compared to a coffee roaster. They are using a vast array of ingredient types, whereas a coffee roaster we can mainly focus on the one ingredient. Sure, water, milk and some other additives are used in brewing, but predominantly as a coffee roaster we are focusing on one type of ingredient. Because of this, there is no excuse for not understanding coffee cultivation as a coffee roaster. A skilled roaster should know the impact that cultivation has on the character of the coffee. The Seasonality of coffee is an ongoing challenge for coffee roasters to manage, and a solid understanding of coffee cultivation will make things a lot easier for you. I would suggest visiting a plantation and spending some time with farmers, as there is no substitute for experiencing the real thing. Understand and appreciate the difference between hand picking and machine harvesting. Know what defects can be caused during cultivation and also what impact they have in the cup. There is extensive diversity when it comes to cultivation and for a thorough understanding in this area, you also need to look at the various countries and regions and understand what the characteristics are for each of these coffees.
- UNDERSTAND COFFEE PROCESSING
The next biggest influencing factor of a coffee’s character after cultivation is the processing type. A good understanding of the main processing types and the effect they have on coffee character is very important. You should know the differences between wet and dry processing and the main techniques involved. Learn about coffee fermentation and how it influences the cup. Also know the main defects that can occur through processing. There are a lot of different processing techniques employed by various regions, and it is impossible to know every one, but a professional coffee roaster should have an in-depth understanding of the main types and the effect on cup character, as this will help particularly in coffee selection. Visiting a coffee plantation during harvest and processing is very beneficial, particularly one that uses a variety of processing techniques.
- UNDERSTAND COFFEE CHEMISTRY
The chemistry of coffee can be overwhelming for most, but to truly understand coffee one must be persistent in this area. You don’t need to have a chemistry major to understand it, but you need to have a grasp on certain areas, as this will greatly improve your roasting. First of all, you need to know the coffee bean organic properties. To be a good chef you need to understand the ingredient, as this will determine how you cook it. The same is for coffee: there are sugars, oils, moisture, proteins, acids, to name a few, and these are all important to the roasting process. Just getting your head around the chemistry of aroma and acidic compounds in coffee can be daunting, but also rewarding. There are a couple of very good resources on the web, such as www. coffeechemistry.com and www.coffeeresearch. com that I would recommend for roasters to have stored in their favourites list.
- UNDERSTAND COFFEE GRADING AND SAMPLE EVALUATION/CUPPING
There are certain objective and subjective means of grading coffee. As these are used to determine coffee quality, which then in turn influences pricing, a coffee roaster must have a good understanding in this area. This area can be confusing, as not only are there some standard forms of grading, but most regions also have their own classification or grading systems. I find it useful to predominantly work off the facts of the coffee, as brokers’ cupping notes may not always tell the full story; and in any way, are subjective, as palates vary. A good coffee roaster should know how to grade coffee themselves, and this is not hard to learn. You need to be able to evaluate the coffee and come to your own conclusions. If you only rely on others, then you will not truly understand the coffee. The facts such as origin, type, season, climate, altitude, density, moisture, screen size, processing method and grade are amongst the most important. Use cupping notes from others as a general guide only, but you must do your own sample preparation and evaluation. Knowledge of proper sample preparation and cupping procedures should be known and in most cases, followed. I, though, do not discourage people from creating their own coffee evaluation methods, as I recognize that people process information differently and they should ultimately do what works best for them in terms of being able to evaluate coffees. Just because someone says you should do it a certain way, does not necessarily mean you should.
- PRACTICE PALATE TRAINING REGULARLY
Palate training is one of the first areas that a budding coffee roaster should develop. Palate training takes time and is very important, as it allows a coffee roaster to evaluate the coffee after roasting. The use of industry tools like the coffee flavour wheel can help achieve results quickly. Not everyone can get to the level of a super taster, as there is a genetic disposition involved, but you can train your palate to a very good level. I found what worked for me in the beginning was to stop consuming coffee so routinely and to broaden brew types. You should try and consume coffee in as many different forms as possible: filter, espresso, milk based, cold drip etc. Get used to what the different brew types do to the character of the coffee. I also tried to experience as many different types of origins as I could, as this over time helped me learn the characteristics of the different origins and regions. It takes time, but eventually you gain an understanding of what to expect from certain coffees, and it makes coffee selection for roasting a lot easier. Try coffee from the same origin or if you can from the same coffee lot but processed differently, as this will help train you to understand the nuances that processing can do to coffee character. For example, a natural Ethiopian can be very different to a washed one. Do all this while referring to the flavour wheel and practice describing each of the tastes and aromas until it becomes second nature.
- STUDY COOKING THERMODYNAMICS
I mentioned before that roasting coffee should really be considered within the same realms as cooking. Cooking and roasting is ultimately about heat and how heat enters food and how the food reacts with heat. As coffee roasters, we are using the equipment as a medium to transfer the heat to the coffee beans. If you really want to take your roasting to the next level, then you need to have a solid grasp on thermodynamics in cooking. The coffee beans’ thermal character (how it reacts to heat) is critical to understanding how best to roast it on the device you are using. Let’s face it; anyone can brown a coffee bean, as long as they can apply enough heat to it. If you understand the coffee beans’ thermal character and also that of your equipment, then you will be able to apply heat in a more controlled manner. Coffee beans are poor conductors of heat, which is the reason that the roasting process requires a skillful touch to get the best results. There are some important laws of heat that help us to understand the roast curve easier. Thermodynamics is an area that I studied a lot, as for our business, we deal with a variety of roasting equipment and it is important to know how materials and burner types affect the roasting process. If you apply yourself to this area, then I guarantee it makes it a lot easier to adapt quickly to roasting on a variety of coffee roaster types and will also help you to understand your roaster better.
- UNDERSTAND ROASTING CHEMISTRY
From reading this article by now you should understand that chemistry is an important area for a coffee roaster. Roasting chemistry is about knowing what key reactions take place during the roasting process, where they happen, and what the effects of those reactions are. There are some key reactions that take place during the roasting process, such as Caramelization, Maillard’s Reaction and the Strecker Degradation, that all play a very important part on the resulting character of the coffee. Heat is a common factor, and how you apply the heat during the roast will influence these chemical reactions. The coffee bean goes through a number of different heat reactions during the roasting process, with a couple of them being audible, such as 1st and 2nd crack. When the coffee is endothermic and exothermic in the roast it is very important for control and heat application. If you really want to be a proficient coffee roaster, then you need to know what is happening during the roast and why. You need to understand this as it will determine such things as when you can influence flavour development, or when you can influence the balancing of favour and overall cup character. If you know this, then it will make construction of recipes a lot easier. You will be able to cup samples then apply changes to the roasting process in the right places in order to achieve the desired end result. A proficient chef requires the same skill set in order to be able to create great recipes.
I believe these are the main key areas for a coffee roaster to have covered and understood. There is no substitute for practice, and with this the commercial application of roasting coffee for a business. There is a real difference between roasting coffee as a hobby for pleasure and roasting for the needs of a business, trying to please customers and make a profit. In the commercial application there is the added pressure of competition, and quality and control procedures need to be adhered to. The glamour side of it tends to wear off when having to roast the same profiles week in, week out to meet customer demands. I find a lot of roasters get caught up with the daily grind of roasting for a business and leave little time for further study and training. This is an area that can improve your business or as an individual develops a more competent skillset, making you more attractive to employers. Try not to become a slave to the roaster and give yourself time to experiment and be creative. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, as these can be the most rewarding lessons learned.
Written by: Mark Beattie