Mill City Roasters Vs. Bellwether

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If you are reading this, you probably like coffee. A lot.

We love coffee. We love the process. We love the artistry. We love the craft.

Most of all, we love the customers we serve and the co-workers we serve with that make our coffee community special.

The only thing that’s better than sipping an amazing coffee for the first time is sharing that coffee. The best thing about sharing coffee is connecting with a kindred spirit.

This is all to say, I love coffee and that’s the biggest problem I have with Bellwether.

I am profoundly disinterested in gatekeeping. I don’t care how you roast, what you roast, or what you roast it on. I only care that you and your customers are satisfied with the result. And if I’m successful, someday Mill City Roasters will have helped to bring a lot more people into specialty coffee by helping them learn to systematically and intentionally roast and sell a lot more better coffee.

On paper, digital or otherwise, the Bellwether roaster is amazing. No venting. No labor. No emissions. Touch screen controlled and plug and play into any nearby 240V 50 amp electrical circuit.

Simple. Sustainable. Equitable. Accessible. Automated. Incredible.

Literally, incredible. As in not to be entirely believed.

Someone once said, “There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers.” In the case of Bellwether, the easy answer is an illusion. The simple answer is that real coffee people know there are no shortcuts to quality. Roasting is relatively simple, but coffee is complicated.

The Bellwether roasting system is the Nespresso machine of the roasting industry. Not inherently evil, but sold very much less on actual performance than convenience and confirmation bias. The system is inherently limited in terms of heat transfer, cooling, and productive use. Although coffee roasting is a sensory driven process, the design triumphantly removes the senses. There is no tryer, no way to hear either first or second crack, no way to smell the coffee as it develops, and very little way to develop any skill whatsoever beyond sheer trial and error.

Theirs is a vision of automation that boasts about eliminating the person in a people business. It appropriates “making” by faking craft. That might be modern, but it isn’t progress.

Bellwether and the SCA

Equally incredible is the fact that Bellwether was recognized by the Speciality Coffee Association as ‘Product of the Year’ a few years ago. This seems nuts to me because I spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars training and testing to be a SCA Certified Roasting Instructor. Like many others, I spent thousands of dollars more for equipment and fees to certify our facility as an SCA Campus authorized to teach the SCA Curriculum. Every year, the SCA promotes and profits from National and International Roasting Championships. Every year, the SCA organizes and promotes and profits from the SCA Expo, Sensory Summit and Roasters Guild Retreat. For several years, my company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars volunteering for and sponsoring these events.

However absurd, the SCA made the determination that a machine made by a company purporting to eliminate the need for all of the education and training the SCA sells to their members was such a good idea they named it ‘Product of the Year’.

If labor reduction is the goal of specialty coffee, Nescafe should have submitted pumpkin spice flavored Taster’s Choice instant coffee and we could have eliminated all of those pesky baristas too.

I’m not roaster shaming. I’m SCA and Bellwether marketing shaming.

Bellwether. What is it good for?

There is a tool for every job and there are jobs Bellwether is ideally suited for. These include locations where venting isn’t possible because of architecture or scent.

There are also cafe locations where space is so limited as to make it worthwhile.

I know there are a lot of good and respectable people trying to make Bellwether work for more than just the professional investors that are funding the company. I’m only pointing out that coffee quality isn’t as easy as their professional marketing types make it sound.

Folks can work the Bellwether and get good coffee out of one. The machine is limited, but not THAT limited. I’ve had excellent coffee out of Bellwether roasters from Sump in Nashville, Clarity Coffee in Oklahoma City and Kinder Coffee of St Cloud, Minnesota. People that are dedicated to learning their craft will eventually figure out how to get something good out of it.

I’ve also ordered coffee from something like 20 other Bellwether equipped shops. All presented as burnt, baked or stale with processing defects stemming from amateur greens selection and amateur roast planning.

Ultimately at least six of them attended our roasting class in Minneapolis and ordered 6 and 10kg roasters.

If the Bellwether system is the seed you need to start your roasting program, I applaud you. Only be aware that absent venting or space showstoppers, there might be a much less expensive and much more profitable way.

Education

If you haven’t developed the professional roasting skills of greens evaluation and selection, sensory analysis, and profile planning and production iteration, invest the time to attend our roasting class.

Most of roasting is a physical skill and we can get you from clueless to saleable coffee in about 3 days. At the very least, we’ve developed a system ideally suited to people that need to earn as they learn.

Getting you on track is not a problem, it’s just a job. Given half a chance, we’ll provide you with enough of an understanding of the basics to help you produce better coffee, no matter what you’re stuck roasting on.

Installation

We’ve practically reinvented roaster installation and operational support.

Don’t be buffaloed by the idea that gas or venting or maintenance is an enormously complex, expensive, or insurmountable problem. We literally do this for a living and we’ve helped launch thousands of roasteries. Along the way, we’ve developed the infrastructure and the tools to smooth your way through the unfamiliar and the unknown.

It might seem scary, but we’ll make it boring.

Productive use

Based on 16 ounce bags sold for $12/lb (wholesale) with a cost of goods sold totaling $7 (greens+shipping, label, bag):

  • At 3 roasts per hour, the productive capacity of the $65000 Bellwether roaster is $55.44 per hour.
  • At 4 roasts per hour, the productive capacity of the $19000 MCR-3 is $73.91 per hour.
  • At a purchase price of $19000 the MCR-3 pays for itself in 257 hours. Over the first year, less than 5 hours per week.
  • At a purchase price of $65000, the Bellwether pays for itself in 1173 hours. Over the first year, that’s 25 hours per week to recover the cost of the machine.

Even at Bellwether’s supposed 3 minutes of labor per batch, the labor for 25 hours of carefree and careless roasting is 3.75 hours.

If the $25 savings that extra 1 hour and 15 minutes represents seals the deal for you, you might seriously need to consider another career path.

Emissions. It’s the carbon, stupid.

Bellwether loudly and incessantly claims to be the world’s first “green” roaster with “zero emissions” and a “98% reduction” in CO2 over a conventionally heated roaster. Unless you are powering your roaster with a bicycle, this is absurd.

Currently, over 60% of electricity generated in the US is produced with natural gas (38.3%), coal (21.8%), or petroleum (1.3%)

The CO2 emissions per natural gas kilowatt hour puts the Bellwether system at over one half pound of CO2 emitted for every pound of roasted coffee. That’s nearly a 2:1 ratio of coffee to carbon. It’s closer to 1:1 on coal.

Our 3kg roaster consumption of 10000 BTUs of natural gas per roast exhausts .18 lbs of CO2 per pound of finished coffee.

The 3000 watt hours per roast the Bellwether consumes are responsible for almost 3x the carbon per pound of finished coffee as my MCR-3.

It turns out that “zero emissions” requires a lot of energy. If you are concerned about the environment enough to do the math, the relative inefficiency of the Bellwether is an epic fail.

The claim of “zero emissions” is greenwashing on a grand scale.

Conclusion

I’m a coffee guy and it is my belief that the single most important flavor note in coffee is truth.

For as famous as a substantial sum of modern internet marketing money has made Bellwether, they don’t have many reviews. Like, basically none. As in, if you find one that’s not one of the eight on their website, let me know. Landing pages and paid placements galore, but no real organic presence. If you have to oversell your machine and manipulate your customer’s emotions like this, something isn’t right.

I’ve designed and built machinery for over 35 years. I know that machines are only as good and capable as the people that build and support them.

Exactly the same as great coffee, when the product is as good as the people, it sells itself.

I’ve published this to spark a real discussion about the direction of the specialty coffee industry. I’m very much willing to hear and consider alternative points of view.

Please comment with your thoughts and feedback below.

As always, if you’d rather, I can be easily reached directly at 612-886-2089 or steve@millcityroasters.com.

Steve

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Comments

  • From consumers, to baristas, to roasters I find the lack of education in specialty coffee very concerning. In my case, thanks to my MCR-1500, I really learned how to roast (came from another brand roaster and the roasting dynamics were very different). It took many hours and beans for me to get it right, but it was worth it as the product is now what it should be. I won’t settle for anything less for my own consumption, let alone my customers! Thanks for sharing!

    Daniel Brenneise on
  • Thanks for providing some opposition to the marketing, Steve. Good to get a bigger picture, and a well-reasoned argument against BW. Recently made a purchase of a brewer whose presence and marketing is quite similar. Biggest mistake, and one of our biggest purchases, thus far in running our cafe.

    Andrew Taylor on

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