The Skillful Roaster
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 predominately as a coffee roaster we are focusing on the 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 times 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 predominately 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 recognise that people process information differently and they should ultimately do what works best for them in therms 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 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.