What is The Roaster Project?

The Roaster Project is fundamentally a work of industrial art. My goal is to create the best shop-scale commercial roaster that I possibly can and then use it. I do not intend to create it as a business venture, nor do I care if it is copied, praised or ridiculed. It is my intention to enjoy — yes, savor — the process of creating the roaster. If all goes well, the project should take one year. My friend Jeff Moriarty suggested that I write a blog to chronicle the the thought process and progress of the Roaster Project, as others might enjoy it.

Why a Coffee Roaster?

Being a creative  person, I could have chosen any number of other projects, but the coffee roaster has special meaning to me on several levels.

Herbert L. Johnston

First, I believe that creativity tends to run in families and both my great-grandfather (Herbert L. Johnston) and grandfather (Edward S. Johnston) were talented engineers specializing in foodservice equipment. Herbert helped found Hobart and had over 100 patents including coffee grinders, slicers, choppers, dish washers and mixers. I have one of his 1903 coffee grinders at home and we use one of his 1934 80qt. mixers at work. His son Edward continued as an engineer and corporate officer for Hobart. So in a sense, designing food processing equipment is in the blood.

Second, I have roasted coffee commercially and loved it. After leaving my engineering career (1989), I helped start a chain of coffeehouses in the Phoenix area called “The Coffee Plantation”. We were wired to want to go as deeply into controlling quality as possible. This lead to the decision to roast coffee in the store. We started out with a used Diedrich roaster and I was the first roastmaster. Later, as the number of stores expanded, we build a roasting plant and started using a Farina one-bag roaster from Italy. I always enjoyed roasting, sensory evaluation of coffee, and the buying of quality green coffee. I would like to take up roasting again, but on a smaller, more intimate scale and train other artisans.

Third, it is complicated enough and yet practical. Making in an integrated circuit or an airliner is well beyond the ability of a single person or even a small group of people. The technology is too complicated, infrastructure too vast, and the cost is astronomical. A coffee roaster can be built with relatively simple technology, yet it is has its own complexities that present a designer with challenges. There are mechanical, thermodynamic and control system issues that are not as simple as they might seem. A person needs a good challenge. Once built, it is a practical device that can bring plenty of satisfaction to the artisan.

Who is Joe?

One of life’s big questions is “who am I”. Instead of me laying out a philosophical statement about who I am, I will let my blog posts paint the picture. Some background is helpful, though.

I grew up on a farm in Gilbert, AZ which we have now developed into a community that preserves urban agriculture. It is called Agritopia. My family and extended family live there, as well. My schooling included the U.S. Naval Academy (marine engineering) for 2 years and Stanford University (electrical, mechanical and industrial engineering) for four years. After working for 7 years in engineering, I teamed up with a good friend to start a chain of coffeehouses called “The Coffee Plantation”. After four years, we sold the chain to a Canadian firm and then helped them expand for a couple of years. Since then, we’ve been involved in the opening of Joe’s Real BBQ, Joe’s Farm Grill, Liberty Market and directing the development of Agritopia.

I’ve been married to the lovely and intelligent Cindy for 25 years. She has the perfect talents and personality to deal with being married to a creative sort. We also have two sons, James and William who both got married in 2009 to Becca and Ashley, respectively. They all live in Agritopia and work in a family business together while attending college.