Mill City Roasters vs Probat at CoffeeFest New York

Posted by Steve Green on

The new Probat sales guys attended our classes at Coffeefest New York last weekend. The free classes at least. Probat is a legacy brand and the world’s most famous coffee roaster manufacturer. For that reason, I thought I’d share a tiny bit of what I know about the company and their roasters.

Probat is a legacy coffee roaster brand from Germany, and they build highly refined roasting equipment for small and large coffee producers worldwide.

“Probat will now sell you a brand-new ostensibly “climate-destroying” 1920’s vintage Jabez Burns or UG series roaster.”

Coffee roasting machines were originally tilted forward or sideways to pour roasted coffee out of the drum.

Probat was granted the original European patent for the helical vane arrangement that forms a kind of Archimedes screw that ejects roasted coffee when the drum door is opened.

If you don’t know, documentation of the Archimedes screw dates at least as far back as 234 BC.

Seeking a monopoly on this cutting-edge technology, Probat purchased the US based Jabez Burns Company, holder of the US patent for exactly the same thing. To this day, Probat continues to produce ancient industrial Burns roasters boasting of completed industrial production roasts as quickly as 3.5 minutes.

From about 1890 to 1940, Probat built thousands of small shop roasters for local production of roasted coffee in Europe. In the aftermath of World War II, with the adoption of centralized mass market coffee roasting, the majority of these roasters were sold as scrap and many were routed to the US destined for US steel mills. A handful of these machines were salvaged by local independent roasteries offering a cheaper alternative to industrial scale produced coffee. Over the course of the 60’s and 70’s, enough were scrapped or salvaged that the supply of used machines became depleted.

“More by accident of history than by actual design, Probat became synonymous with specialty coffee.”

By any objective standard, these roasters were very crude. They featured leather drive belts, on/off gas control, analog exhaust temperature thermometer (usually with the glass cracked), an also usually cracked and crudded up sight glass, a single damper controlled fan supplying anemic airflow for combustion, roast and cooling air flows, cast-iron face and rear plates, cast-iron drum spider and stub shafts wrapped with two thin layers of sheet metal to form the drum, internal chaff collectors (frequently self-cleaned by chaff fires) and cast-iron drum doors.

Prior to the development of shield gas welding technology, casting was the only way to manufacture a lot of these parts. As the supply of salvage machines dwindled and used prices rose, a handful of rebuilders began producing low cost Probat analogs with shield gas welded components. The San Franciscan SF-6, for example, was an open flame, single pass, welded version of a much more expensive to produce 1920’s vintage Probat shop roaster. US Roasters eventually did something similar. Steve Diedrich produced another similar design with a genuinely unique IR burner heat source and eventually engineered around that burner to produce the modern IR series.

In case you’re wondering, we build vastly improved performance-oriented single-pass atmospheric-burner heated roasters. Every machine we build is equipped with bigger double walled drums, solid plate steel weldment construction, bigger burners, bigger fans, many more sensors and feedback loops, Our production roasters are all bundled with a specialty coffee worthy automation package and a suite of operator assist features that just make sense. My roasters are designed and built as modern industrial quality specialty coffee optimized production systems and my customers are supported by people that actually know what it takes to get a better coffee out of the cooling tray. If you ask me, we’re exactly what Probat should have been all along.


From Probat’s “US Patent Application for DRUM ROASTER FOR ROASTING BEANS Patent Application (Application #20230049983)”, it is interesting that their newest P-series roaster is of identical modern welded construction with the faceplate “made of cast iron to provide the drum roaster with a nostalgic charm.”

I agree that cast iron looks cool, but since all the front plate of a roaster does is keep seeds inside the drum and provide a convenient place to mount the drum door and front bearing, we opt for a much heavier and more expensive front plate laser cut out of 304 stainless.

Through the 60’s, 70’s, and into the 80’s, roasteries seeking the cheapest roaster they could get, bought clunky old Probat roasters. These local brands eventually became the progenitors of specialty coffee. More by accident of history than by actual design, Probat became synonymous with specialty coffee. Thus, the Probat mystique was born.

The irony of this is that during the evolution and heyday of industrial coffee, Probat focused almost exclusively on industrial coffee roasters. So much that smaller shop and production coffee roasters became an afterthought. Service and support very much suffered as they allowed this lower margin part of their business to atrophy.

For over a decade, while local production of high-quality specialty coffee blossomed worldwide, it was as nearly impossible to get a quote for a new Probat coffee roaster as it was to get an answer about a tech support issue or a replacement part.

As a result, Probat found itself very much left behind and increasingly irrelevant as the specialty coffee industry boomed.

“German companies like Probat are famous for thinking engineering can solve every problem.”

A couple of years ago, as consumers rediscovered the pleasures of a superior cup of coffee, everything changed. Specialty coffee producers all over the world launched local roasteries and the demand for high quality small batch production systems soared.

Companies like Loring, Diedrich and Geisen were building more technologically advanced machines and were spending a lot of money on slick marketing messaging “perfect coffee every time.”

Probat’s relevance to the specialty coffee industry was rapidly evaporating.

The way big companies do, they threw a ton of money at the problem.

German companies like Probat are famous for thinking engineering can solve every problem. They very predictably set about creating a new roasting “wonder-weapon.” The P series.

The P series was problematic because they adopted a pre-mix power-burner heat system similar to offerings by Loring, Diedrich and Giesen.

The new P series roaster was offered to customers who had been loyally roasting for years on open flame atmospheric burner heated UG, G and L series roasters specifically to avoid the complexity, unreliability, and unpredictability of on/off control intended pre-mix “power” burners.

The most compelling reason to use a pre-mix burner is cost reduction. Labor is the biggest expense to producing a roaster.

Premix “power” burners replace all of the fiddly time-consuming burner, manifold, pilot-light, ignition sensing assembly with a single pre-packaged component.

Similarly, touch screens replace all the fiddly expensive time-consuming wiring of switches and readouts with a single ribbon connector to the computer inside the roaster.

That’s all good until a $.30 surface mount capacitor fails on the $8 printed circuit board of either one. Then it’s 6 weeks down time and a minimum $3000 to $5000 for replacement. IF YOU CAN STILL GET THAT PART.

“Planned obsolescence” is a desirable feature to the people that sell these systems. It’s engineered in like a ticking bomb and exactly the reason I avoid them whenever possible.

“The P series is…basically the coffee roaster equivalent of the equally legendary Ford Edsel.”

So Probat built the exact machine their most loyal customers almost universally shunned.

All of this engineering glory was offered to customers with the additional baggage of a mandatory annual warranty support subscription fee and mandatory paid software updates.

Almost the only people that bought these were owners planning on paying someone else to do the roasting and/or inexperienced coffee people that believed anything with the name “Probat” on it would automatically output better coffee.

The original P series was an esthetically beautiful gift to Probat’s competitors worldwide. Basically, the coffee roaster equivalent of the equally legendary Ford Edsel.

When “superior” engineering failed, they switched gears.

Probat eventually noticed our upstart specialty coffee insurgent Mill City Roasters seemed to be significantly tapped into the specialty coffee zeitgeist.

In an effort to portray authenticity and boost sales, they’ve sought us out online searching for the “secret sauce.” Suddenly they’re talking up support, staging roast and support videos, and have even gone to the trouble of posing with the world’s tidiest cupping table on their website to convey the illusion of coffee expertise.

On the machinery side, as an alternative to fixed airflow and drum speed they’ve made variable drum and fan speed optional and have included some minimal datalogging standard on the newer P series roasters. Beyond that, nothing substantive has changed.

Next, they seized upon the typical corporate marketing version of greenwashing by touting alternative scent reduction systems that almost no real commercial roaster will ever attempt to use and paid press releases about electric and hydrogen heated roasters.

When all of that kind of didn’t go anywhere, they resurrected production of the open flame burner equipped UG series line of roasters dating back to 1920’s.

The net result of their environmental corporate cognitive dissonance is that Probat will now sell you a brand-new ostensibly “climate-destroying” 1920’s vintage Jabez Burns or UG series roaster.

The folks at Probat aren’t bad people and they don’t build bad machinery. There is quite a lot of very clever design and engineering behind their product line. They’re doing the best they can to move equipment and support themselves and their brand. It just feels like their playbook is limited. Whether to the very much long-deceased early 20th century designers that invented industrial coffee or my very much more deserving crew here at Mill City Roasters who labor ceaselessly to build better roasters and support systems for owner operators worldwide.

For the sake of the industry and their customers, I’m glad they are finally catching on to the idea that there might be a better way to do things and I’m flattered that they think we’re the one doing them.

This was clearly illustrated when they dispatched two of their young salesmen to CoffeeFest New York last weekend. The young gentlemen sat in the front row of every class with full-size notebooks and literally wrote down every word we said.

When questioned about their background, they confessed that neither had ever worked a single day in professional coffee and they were there to learn enough about roasting to sell machines.

While I applaud both their initiative and their chutzpah, I can’t help but wonder why Probat didn’t hire someone with actual coffee experience? People call me for employment nearly every day. There are thousands of pretty good coffee professionals in Chicago who’d jump at the opportunity to work with Probat. Even if only for the health insurance.

This is EXACTLY the reason I started Mill City Roasters. Probat has a terrific production engineering team, but most of what the sales team knows is only enough to convince people to buy a roaster. Language without experience is only a tactic and tricking people into buying your pitch is a crappy way to earn a living.

I care because real people run their businesses and support their families with these machines, and I think they deserve more.

Probat could have simply called me. I’m in no way inaccessible and I’ve consulted with hundreds of companies over the years. They’d have to pay me, but very little of what we do is a secret. At the end of the day, we are highly experienced and adept professional systems integrators here to help any customer that asks. Even Probat.

As the Probat sales guys have now learned, we have a ton of real-world experience and depth on the bench with just about everything related to specialty coffee. Just clueing their “venting guy” to the existence of National Fuel Gas Code “clearance to combustibles” alone will probably save someone from a catastrophic “thermal event.”

Probat, Bellwether, Diedrich, Loring, et al, if you are this badly in need of inspiration, feel free to give me a call. Maybe even switch it up by using your real name. At the end of the day, we’re only here to help. No matter who you are.

My opinions about all things coffee have been formed by listening. On good days, that still works. So, I’m still listening. I you have any questions or comments or just simply think I’m wrong about something, please take the time to share your understanding in a comment below.

Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing.


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