Roasting Philosophies – A Survey

2010 February 16
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All serious roasters of coffee have a written or unwritten philosophy of roasting. While amateur roasters may have so little experience and knowledge that they are essentially random experimenters in the craft, professionals have come to firm conclusions. The fundamental “truths” that govern a roasting philosophy differ greatly from roaster to roaster. I use the term “truths” to acknowledge that these are subjective truths rather than absolute truths. People can tend to become quite moralistic about subjective truth and this cause a host of problems. In this survey, I will point out some of the prevailing “truths” and the attendant roast philosophies.

Our Consumer is Price Driven

Roasters who have positioned themselves in this market segment hold as “truth” that their customer buys mainly on price, given acceptable quality. The roasting philosophy is “buy the least expensive coffee you can, then use fast high-yield roasting to a relatively light color and blend out defects as best you can”. Why? If cost is the driving force, you must start out with inexpensive coffee. During the roasting process, you want to minimize the weight loss during roasting (conventional roasting will result in a 13% to 18%) and the amount of energy consumed, hence roast times well under 5 minutes. This does have adverse effects on flavor development. Clever blending of poor coffees can then improve the overall flavor to the acceptable range. Sadly, this is probably the largest market segment for coffee in the US.

A poor country variant of this is to buy worse coffee yet at an even cheaper price and roast very darkly. As coffee is roasted more darkly, it loses many of its varietal characteristics which are replaced by roast flavors of carmelization. Dark roasting also roasts out many of the defects in very low quality coffee, making it more palatable. The reduction in weight due to dark roasting is offset by the lower price paid for inferior green coffee.

Our Customer is Looking for a Broad Selection of “Gourmet” Coffees at a Reasonable Price

This is a huge market segment, also. I use the word “gourmet” to indicate a nebulous term indicating some focus on quality and taste. Roasters who ascribe to this truth are generally larger, regional roasters and astute in business. The roasting philosophy is “we roast to customer preferences and source coffee and set roasting standards accordingly; however, we will not buy coffee below a certain quality level nor cut corners in roasting”. Such roasters offer a wide variety of varietal coffees and blends roasted to various degrees of roast. They would think nothing of doing a double French Roast, if there was a market for it. They are are fine with Fair Trade coffee, if there is a market for it. They are market driven. In roasting, they use  high volume drum roasters (roast times in the 12-15 minute range)  for the most part and most do not cut corners, such as water quenching (can pre-stale coffee and add back some of the weight-loss). Roasting is largely automated, but most have well qualified roasting teams and a QC lab. I would put Starbucks in the better end of this roaster group and Millstone Coffee as typical.

Quality First: Interventionist Variant

Roasters in this category believe that (1) always focusing on quality throughout the process, rather than price, is best and (2) the role of the roaster is to lend house style to the inherent characteristics of the green coffee. The roasting philosophy is “we focus in quality at all steps of the process; we see the role of our roastmaster as creating our signature coffee(s) from great green coffee”. Such a roaster will be exacting in the sourcing of green coffee, roast it meticulously, package it properly, and attempt to educate the consumer. They typically spend much time in research and experimentation to get the details right. They will roast reasonably darkly if they feel that balance and complexity are enhanced and consider the “input of the farmer” and the “input of the roastmaster” to be on equal terms. The best are similar to a Champagne house (link is to Bollinger, one of my favorites) where various wines are blended to end up with the “house style” or there may be a single vintage. One of the best roasters in this category is Illycaffe of Trieste, Italy. I recently asked them to tweet their roasting philosophy: “the most critical stage in our coffee production & we strive to achieve a balance between acidity & bitterness in each roast”. Another smaller firm is Mr. Espresso of Oakland, CA and their roasting philosophy tweet: “in one word: balance. old world verus new. tradition vs. progress. quality vs. growth. light vs. dark. fruit vs. choco.”

Quality First: Non-Interventionist Variant

Roasters in this category believe that (1) always focusing on quality throughout the process, rather than price, is best and (2) the role of the roaster is simply bring out the inherent characteristics of the green coffee. The roasting philosophy is “we focus in quality at all steps of the process; we see the role of our roastmaster as revealing the characteristics (expression) of great green coffee”. Much of what is done is identical to the Interventionist Variant, the main difference being that the goal of the roasting process is the revelation of the potential of a green coffee without adding roast induced caramelization and other roasted notes. The idea is that such notes mask or obliterate the underlying, more subtle notes. Balance is not a primary goal in the roasting process. One of the finest roasters in this group is George Howell of Terrior Coffee in Boston, MA. George was kind enough to tweet me his roasting philosophy: “bring out intrinsic flavor of each terroir and variety & allow each to speak w/o being smothered by caramel from roasting”.

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