Best Commercial Coffee Roaster: the myth of the "perfect" roaster.

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I’ve been hanging around commercial coffee for a while and I don’t normally search the internet for the “best commercial coffee roaster”. Recently though I’ve been inundated with spam and internet ads breathless paid placement new product release articles and a proliferation of weaponized clickbait sites. I can only imagine that the marketing departments of various equipment manufacturers are manipulating their analytics by spending money like crazy.

The thing that amuses me most is their relentless ratcheting up of marketing hyperbole.

“Best”, “Worlds Best.”, “Best Commercial Coffee Roaster in the World”, “Perfect”, “Perfect coffee”, “Perfect Batch”, and” Perfect repeatability”. “Best Coffee”, “Incredible Coffee”, “Zero Emissions”, “Consistently Incredible”, “Old World”, “New World”, “American Ingenuity”, “Elegant”, “Super”, “Unmatched”, “Highest Quality”. “One of a Kind”, “Next Generation”, “Advanced Features”, “Carefree Roasting”, “Award Winning”, etc..

I find two things hilarious about this exercise.

    • First, I looked at the websites for 3 manufacturers to compile this list and the next 5 I visited all used the same words. So that’s a thing.
    • Second, I keep wondering why if all of these machines have been so perfect for so long, why is it so easy to find lousy coffee? I mean, if all it took was a gimmick to pull off great coffee, why is so much coffee so bad?

The obvious answer is gimmicks do not get you great coffee. What gets you great coffee is the work of commercial coffee.

The work of commercial coffee is largely an experiential thing. In the same way that you can’t learn to ride a bicycle by reading a book, the only way to learn roasting is by roasting.

To build a local, scalable, and sustainable quality differentiated specialty coffee brand, you need to learn how to do three big things:

First, you’ll need to develop some sort of professional sensory and sensory analysis skills.

This means some sort of a formal introduction to the art and science of cupping and the development of a library of descriptors to reliably identify and categorize flavors. Probably off of the SCA Flavor Wheel or an equivalent industry-calibrated source. Your training and practice with these descriptors will allow you to access your brain’s sensory memory to detect and evaluate flavors and the intensity of flavors in coffee.

Second, you are going to need to develop the skill of roasting machine control.

The requirement for roast flavor profiling of coffee is that of planning, executing, and repeating very precise application of heat over time to very precise temperature and time targets. Something like over the course of a 12 or 13-minute roast hitting your green/yellow transition, first crack, and time to finish temp all within a couple of seconds of planned times with maybe less than a 1F degree variation in temp.

In practical terms, this means you will need to sample roast a coffee, evaluate the flavor quality, and plan and execute another roast. You’ll cup both roasts blind, pick a winner, and repeat. The next iteration of this roast profile will be exactly the same, but to a slightly higher finish temperature. Same time, different temp. You’ll probably bump your finish temp up in 2F degree increments a couple of times and cup all three against each other blind. Pick a winner and start on development time from first crack to your preferred finish temp. If your coffee is “vegetal” add 15 seconds for the first roast and add an additional 15 seconds to the second. If it’s “roasty”, subtract 15 seconds. Blind cup and, again, pick a winner. If you still aren’t getting what you consider to be the “best” in that coffee, maybe add or subtract 20-30 seconds from your first crack time.

You can work your way back all the way to the charging temp this way. Typically, this method will get you to a high quality salable coffee within 5 or 8 roasts. Easy right?

Sort of, if you can taste the difference and if your machine is actually designed for precise control. It also needs to be installed in a way that doesn’t degrade the performance.

It’s easy to buy a roaster and roasting is so hot right now that the industry is commoditizing the equipment. The problem is these are highly engineered systems. Installations matter. It’s not enough for them to merely look right. For peak performance, they actually have to be right.

The bigger problem is that talk is cheap. Lots of manufacturers claim to know this stuff. Most of them are copying this right now to convince you that they do. Roast targets like this are precise enough that there really aren’t any shortcuts. To produce consistently excellent coffee, you really need a machine that’s designed and installed in a way that makes the work possible.

Third, you have to sell enough coffee to get good at this.

That means regularly roasting to specific targets about 5-10 hours per week and cupping maybe 2-3 times per week. We teach these skills and I can get you to “good” coffee by the end of a weekend class. After a year or so, your coffee will likely have gone from “good” to “great.” Basically, you’ll get about as good as you are willing to do the work.

Roasting high-quality specialty coffee is a skill you can learn and a craft you can only earn. Roasting on a quality machine is easy. Coffee is the wildcard. You’ll be learning a lot more about coffee than you’ll be learning about roasting.

The marketing hype offends me because it feels manipulative and exploitative. I want your business too, but I’d rather earn it than trick you into it.

Questions? Comments? Drop me a line or give me a call.


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