2010 January 1
by Joe Johnston

Starting out a challenging project always stirs excitement and trepidation in me. I know it will be a time of personal growth in creativity and knowledge, but there is that initial awareness that I do not have a clue what I am doing. However, having done large projects before, I sort of know how to get to the end. If broken down into pieces, a project starts to seem manageable.

The first thing I have to consider is what I don’t know. For instance, I don’t really know anything about gas burners except for having seen many of them and having used them in our backyard bbq and our stove. Well, nearly all shop roasters use gas burners (that is not to say that the roaster will, let’s not jump to conclusions too early!) so I will need to obtain a reasonable knowledge of gas burners. I’ll have to determine how much I need to know, as I learn more about burners. However, I won’t need to know as much as an engineer who designs burners for a living. It is comforting to know that in each case, there is a limit to how much I really need to know to accomplish my goal of building a great coffee roaster.

It is also comforting to know that I can lean on the expertise of others, so that I don’t have to take the time to develop depth of knowledge in their field. I hate math, so I plan on farming out serious calculations on the effects of heat on materials to Cindy’s cousin, who does such calcs daily in his aerospace job.

Thinking about breaking down the project into smaller pieces, narrowing down the scope of knowledge that I need, and farming out highly technical parts of the project reduces my trepidation considerably. That just leaves the excitement of the challenge!

7 Responses
  1. Joe Coffee permalink
    January 9, 2010

    While Mr. “R” word may in fact have some experience as a sensationalistic writer, it should be painfully obvious he doesn’t know beans about coffee. His articles are full of contradictions that successfully reveal a domestic misconception that all Robusta coffees are bad. He advocates “not jumping to conclusions” yet jumps to many. He speaks of balance, then uses the “R” word in contempt.

    A little history would be helpful; Italy is the undisputed center and creator of today’s coffee culture. As a young new associate of the then mail order company Starbucks, it was a trip to Milano that inspired young Howard Schultz to transform Starbucks into its current form.

    As there are good and bad arabicas, there are also robustas that are of exceptional quality (i.e they are washed, cleaned, and in some cases, even polished.) Are arabicas typically the better of the two classifications; most definitely yes. Are all robustas bad; yes if you ask a sensationalistic style writer, who “can’t even believe he is typing the R word.” In the real world of coffee, no!

    Consider this; there are over 200,000 coffee bars in Italy, a population of 58 million (Starbucks ended 2009 with approx. 16,000 stores (?) worldwide.) Italy is also one of the world’s premier culinary cultures, (i.e home of the Slow Food movement) where the average coffee drinker takes 4 – 5 coffees per day and MAYBE one of them, first thing in the morning, has a little bit of milk in it; the rest of the day Italians drinks espresso shots, no latte! These palates are not likely to be fooled!

    There are thousands of small Italian coffee roasters and 8 – 10 very large international players, of which LavAzza and Mokarabia are two. Italian roasters usually offer 3 to 4 blends, some as many as 6 or 8. They all offer their own 100% arabica blends, and though regional taste preference are present in some areas, RARELY if ever are the 100% arabica blends the best sellers. Fact is that the robustas used by the most distinguished Italian roasters add balance, distinction and many other desirable qualities…

    Try doing some homework, Mr. “R” word!!!

    PS Pay more attention to Mr. Casale…try listening!!

    PPS Yes, you are dead wrong!!!

    • January 9, 2010

      Dear Joe Coffee, it is quite possible that I am a misguided buffoon. You may have misread my post in that I am suggesting that I should review my position on robusta, something few in the US specialty coffee industry would want to do.

      I don’t think I should be accused of being ignorant of the Italian espresso tradition. Having been (1) the FAEMA espresso machine dealer and service agent in AZ, (2) roasting a lot of espresso blends using a 1 bag Farina roaster from Italy, (3) running an espresso bar at Liberty Market which uses a 1965 FAEMA E61 and classic Italian drinks, (4) using a FAEMA E61 espresso machine at my home espresso bar, and (5) having travelled extensively in Italy, tasting espresso everywhere I went. I have great respect for the Italian tradition.

      That being said, there is a lot bad espresso in Italy. There is a lot of bad coffee in the US. In fact, many people in both countries drink lousy coffee/espresso and are quite satisfied with it. Folgers is probably the best selling coffee in the US and it is lousy. I suspect the best selling espresso in Italy is lousy, because most people shop on price. Dr. Illy, who in my opinion is the finest coffee scientist ever, did all arabica blends for a reason.

      I agree with you that I should try some top quality robusta and play around with it. Let’s see what I found out. Cut me a bit of slack, though!

    • Jason Casale permalink
      January 10, 2010

      I am Jason Casale the person referred to in the article for the record I spent to years perfecting a quality italian blend of espresso coffee considered by many the best espresso they have had since the coffee they experienced in Italy. My preference has always been to use high quality washed robusta from Josuma coffee sourced by the famous Doctor Joesph John. Doctor John is a espresso and coffee expert in his own right and a nuclear physicist.

      Often I would pay very close to the same premiums as quality speciality grade arabicas and had no problem doing so. I questioned most people that bought coffee from me if they thought there was robusta in my espresso I never got a yes answer from anyone.

      Clearly indicating to me high quality robusta in 10 to 15 percent total volume is undetectable to regular coffee lovers and coffee experts as well. I prefer robusta in a espresso blend for several reasons it combines the arabica flavors together in a cohesive unit that makes the blend very distinctive taste wise from other arabica only espress coffees.
      Think of an orange the skin of the orange keeps all the little sections of the orange together in one cohesive unit. the robusta to me is like the peel of the arabicas.

      The second reason is I find that robusta adds overall balance and structure to a blend
      that uses some brighter acidic sometimes thinner less structured coffee in blends. Columbians Panamas Costaicans Guatamalans fruity natural processed africans idido misty valley yirgacheffe comes to mind.

      Robusta can add that structure that off sets the acidity fruit and sometimes even sour flavors from these coffees. I love to use a classic italian combination of 4 parts sumatra 3 parts brazil 2 parts guat african or costa 1 part panama then 10 to 15 percent robusta based upon combined total volume of arabicas.

      Brazils are neutral and sweet in the cup nutty sweet cinnamon hazelnut Sumatra adds some structure to a blend earthy soil centrals and africans are bright crisp then clean clear defined transparent think sweet fruit tart cherries hints of chocolate nutmeg floral aromas and flavors pineapples.

      Although this blend could possibly be sufficient on its own robusta counter acts the brightness of the centrals and africans and and smooths out that acidity and combines all the flavors together think balance counter balance.

      Blends roasted light at the beginning of second crack or slightly before can be complex in the cup but sometimes really tart tangy and sour even if you have a small amount of centrals or africans in the blend.

      Robusta significantly helps harmonize balance and cohesiveness in a blend this is especially valuable in blends Italians call normale or medio referring to the roast level. This a light to medium light roast no oil coming out on the beans which range in light brown in color satin or dull no sheen or shine to to slightly darker brown and I do mean slightly darker brown to a semi gloss beans still dry no oil but barely a shimer or shine reflecting off them.

      This literally is the difference between right at second crack and just a tad before second crack in a roaster that cools very quickly.

      Sadly in America we fear what we do not know or understand I have invested a great deal of my life investing in learning about espresso culture and coffee roasting in Italy and the traditional coffee regions included in there best espresso blends. I know costa rican columbian Guatamala Brazil panama Ethiopian Africans Indian and robustas like I know my hand.
      Why because these are the coffees used in traditional Italian espressos.

      Most of our coffee in america is roasted dark for espresso we think it taste fine we don’t need robusta it taste like burnt tires. Sadly even a good local roaster in tempe arizona that uses single origin coffee light roasted brazil fails predicate to sour espresso how sad.

      While I have had excellent all arabica blends Inteligentsia chicago black cat comes to mind Stumptown Hair bender, I prefer the high quality Italian robusta blends caffe umbria seattle cafe darte seattle victrola seattle all use robusta in there blends.

      This is just my personal preference however there is alot of evidence that seems to back up my experiences as well. The Robusta contention perhaps the most fierce argument in speciality coffee existence today. while cheap steamed vietnamese robusta taste like crap so does cheap steam dried arabica folgers maxwell house.

      Robusta can be an enhancement in dark or light roast coffees however it seems light roast has alot to gain from robusta it offsets acidity and cohesive flavour direction and overall structure and enhancement.

      My theory is that a great deal of espresso is roasted to dark in america italian roast and roasters may see or taste no direct result that it provides or the quality and processing of the sourced arabica is in question. This is just a guess or hunch or they still think it will make there coffee taste like rubber tires which is just largely ignorant. There is nothing I can do to charcoal roast to enhance it ie millstone espresso roast really italian roast how sad.

      I with bias admit to liking light to medium roast way better than most dark there is exceptions cafe darte and some others how ever few they may have been. I really do not like crazy roast flavours in my espresso if they are blended and complimentary to the other flavours they can be very pleasant to me but not usually. Or I should say not to my palette.

      I also believe my Italian ancestors used robusta for the above stated reasons that I have discovered and not because it was cheap filler. I also feel it is no coincidence that alot of medium to light roast espressos in italy and some here in america use high quality robusta.

      Would I drink it straight as drip or espresso no the flavor alone even the best of the best robusta is not a flavour I care for on its own all though not horrible definitely not drinkable on its own. But for the above reasons it works well in espresso.

      Here are my statements and compelling reasons for using robusta in an espresso blend however as stated I have had very good all arabica espresso I just prefer the robusta blends. That is an opinion not a statement of fact.

      Take this all for what it is worth try some high quality washed robusta in your next espresso blend if you don’t like it fine it isn’t the end of the world. Some will prefer others wont. Better yet try some high quality washed and natural or dry processed robusta and see what you think as I have yet myself to try dry processed or natural processed robusta of high quality and would be very open to doing so.

      I tend to get alot of baloney reasons why barista’s coffee roasters say they don’t like robusta or don’t use it.I have never had one dissenter say to me I do not really care for the the unique flavour enhancement it adds to espresso or what it does to the flavour profile of my arabicas. I perfect legit reason not to like it.

      Okay I have done it I have said my peace.

      • January 10, 2010

        Thanks, Jason. See, I told everyone that you had good reasons to back up your support for quality robustas. I am going to give it a try. Thanks for challenging the mainstream thought in the US about specialty coffee.

  2. Teri permalink
    February 16, 2010

    Hi Joe,

    Just out of curiosity, what made you wish to develop your own roaster? What did you feel was lacking in the eqt already available? You probably address this later on… I am just beginning the study of your blog… I am embarrassed to report…

    • February 17, 2010

      Thank you Teri, for your comments. I wanted to develop the roaster mainly is a piece of industrial art. Why does a painter paint? Creative people need to create things. As you know, a person is both compelled and enjoys using their gift. I see you using yours all the time.

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