Why I’m not a roaster

Whoever is doing the PR work for the position of production roaster deserves a bonus. I can’t think of another position that is as widely coveted within our industry. Roasting seems so creative, so romantic, so artful. We talk about hand roasting, or small batch roasting, or emphasise the craft of it all the time. Roasting is often seen as the pinnacle of the coffee industry, or certainly up there with being a buyer.

Personally I would think an accurate description of coffee roasting would be food manufacture.

Whether you see the roasting process as being transformational and an act of creation, or you see it a necessary step that shouldn’t hinder the transparency of the raw materials qualities – what makes a great production roaster is the ability to pay attention to detail, to be focused, and to do exactly the same thing time after time after time. A great roaster should be working to replicate a desired roast curve, and only deviate once feedback from the cupping table prompts a change. Consistency, not creativity, is at the root of the job description. Yes, there is cupping – lots of it. This is also a time when people basically look for flaws in what you’ve done (as well as commend great roasts). Roasting is hard on the ego if you’ve got a great group of cuppers giving you feedback.  Roasting the same coffees over and over doesn’t offer some immediate insight into coffee generally.  You still need to taste many different coffees, cup a lot and brew a lot.

I’ve roasted enough to know that I am not a great roaster. I certainly wouldn’t hire me to roast coffee for a living. 1 I don’t have the attention span, the strength of mind. I have lots of stupid ideas for experiments, and in production you can’t whimsically mess around with a roast and then pass along experiments, that may well be awful, without warning to and consent from the customer first.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m extremely interested in roasting, I want to understand the process, I want to better connect a roast curve to a cupping bowl.  I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the chemistry, and I enjoy discussions with other roasters very much.  This isn’t enough to make me good at it for a living.

This isn’t me saying I don’t believe in experimentation – but this should have its own budget and time set aside, and shouldn’t be incorporated into production schedules.

Thankfully I work with people who are great at production roasting, and I hope they enjoy what they do.  (They also have the patience to put up with my sideline dabbling/ temper my attempts at backseat roasting!)  If you know what you are in for then I think roasting can be extremely satisfying.  The best thing is that you make things: At the end of the day there are shelves full of bags and boxes of stuff that you helped make – the creation of a physical product is so wonderfully pleasing and no empty inbox or spreadsheet can compare with that satisfaction.

I think we need to be more honest at what roles entail, and what they’re like to work. It doesn’t work for employer or employee to find out after 3 months that a role doesn’t work. Time, effort, training, money are expended and it is back to square one for everyone. When the right person finds the right role then you have lasting job satisfaction, and the company and the individual flourish.

I should probably add that production roaster can mean many things – with different levels of responsibility and opportunity to provide input into how the coffee is to be roasted.

If you want to be a roaster – then maybe see if you can just hang out with a roaster who is hiring for a couple of days. Do what they do. Get some genuine insight into that process. This is also one of the reasons I think a lot of people transition to roasting from another role in the same company – chances are they have a pretty good idea of exactly what is involved.

Also – learn to like lifting heavy things…

If anyone reading this happens to be a production roaster – I’d love to hear your thoughts?

  1. You may ask – if I have nothing to do with production – exactly what is it that I do at work all day….  ↩︎

31 Comments

  1. I actually ended  enjoying roasting more than working bar. OTOH, I probably picked up COPD from inhaling green dust and poor ventilation at the facility where I learned the trade. As for the heavy things, yeah, it would be nice if coffee was packaged in something that wasn’t so difficult to lift and move around.

  2. Detailed record keeping to help achieve consistency, focused, organized, a very good sensorial memory.  Like when cooking, follow the recipe with enough attention to the changes in the environment, if you want to achieve the same flavors again and again.

  3. Understood… (I think!) There’s a place for all roles who/which contribute to my own end user enjoyment. Satisfaction from the consistency and stability of production roasting must be great. However, the magic of tinkering around (with its potential for creative success) must be stronger for me…

  4. In my opinion, thinking you aren’t very good is often what pushes you to being brilliant! Of course having people around you that are brilliant at what they do helps too!

  5. Experimenting with roasting for filter is not direct a problem, in 30 mins you can cup the coffee . Quick judgement can be made in the standard worldwide procedure called cupping.
    But fiddeling with an espresso roast can open pandora’s box. Think of the temps, pressure, wieght in weight out, flow rate… . I do it from time to time with a our commercial-retail blend. Most of the time inadvertently, small deviations. Easy to take out the component and pull (standard) shots out of it. This is the way we learned a lot.

    More feedback from roaster to origin might be interesting.

  6. Great article. I would add that so much depends on your model and I believe being personable will tie in as much as the heavy lifting. If you roast in a retail setting, with total transparency, you can at times be an interpreter for the industry much in the same way a superb barista connects customers to a finely tuned product and educates. It’s absolutely a balancing act to follow a profile and answer questions but it is by no means impossible. If a barista can develop to the point of conversation mid craft so can a roaster. This is actually a very rewarding part of the job.

  7. I feel the role of the production roaster is similar to the role of the coffeehouse barista. Basically, it starts with creative interaction with the coffee in order to develop insight and parameters to share your experience of the coffee with the customer. Then follow those parameters so your confidence in what you experienced is in line with what is shared. A good barista consistently duplicates an experience for the customer so does a roaster, but the roaster is just a part of the quality relay. Your are right, the repetition and collection of data can be very boring, which requires focus, but keeping in context the roasters role makes it worth while for me. Great post. Thanks.

  8. We get a lot of requests from staff and visitors to learn the craft of roasting, we get them to spend a day with our roasters and generally by about the 3rd roast you can see eyes glazing over. For this reason we share the tasks amongst a group each working on their preferred or ‘best’ skill. It’s a common mis understanding that roasting equates to being a rock star barista. Nothing is further from the truth.

  9. I’d imagine the risk of a new production roaster realising it isn’t for them would be reduced if the person had been a home roaster for some time. I’m sure there are vast differences in scale, precision, quality control etc, but by hiring such a person at least you know they have the bug, not to mention perhaps quite a detailed understanding of the many facets of roasting. I’m surprised the home roaster/home barista market isn’t tapped more when it comes to hiring trainees for professional work. Nobody is as OCD as a hobbyist. It reminds me of amateur Masterchef versus the version with the professional chefs. Often the amateurs are so much better by virtue of it being a passion, and with a slight change of gear they usually .thrive on the transition to a professional kitchen. “The best thing is that you make things” – this statement could save our entire country :)

  10. Production roaster, production barista, production artist, is that what we want?  The consistency I’d want is in the passion for the coffee and the processes involved. The passion drive will advance talents and limit complacency and inconsistencies.  

  11. At the roastery I work in, every new employee spends a morning hanging out with the roasters as part of their induction. I think I’m a little bit like you – They were all surprised when I asked if I could come in again, and I found it all fascinating, but I don’t have what it takes to be a roaster.

  12. I do sort of disagree on roasting being an uncreative job, though. Coffee is not a product which boasts a constant, steady supply. Crops are changing all the time, and part of being a good roaster is adjusting recipes to ensure a consistent end product. I’m not a roaster, but I do know there’s more to it than just roast curves.

  13. as a very passionate home roaster and home barista I fully agree. I sometimes expect people who work in coffee to be as passionate as myself and other home roasters/baristas I know and often I find that for them it is just a job. However: I also know many people who work in kitchens and can’t cook at home to save their lives (as though they lack the creativity) and so many home cooks who can cook up true beauty. But to be cook in a commercial kitchen you need to be able to stand up to the heat (physically/metaphorically), the timing, the precision, the consistency, and the intensity: I think this is what James is talking about.

  14. I like that you mention that roasting is a food manufacture. Talking to cooks, roasting coffee seems to be better understood by them than some coffee professionals. As specialty coffee grows I can see more and more cooks making the transition to the coffee industry. Plus, they usually have great palates! 

  15. Hi James, your description of what it is to be a coffee roaster rings entirely true with my own experience of taking up the trade.  It’s year 3 for me and still I would describe myself as a machine operator more than a roaster.  There are stripes to be earned in this trade and within a mid sized outfit that’s not easy.  It really is, as you describe, all about consistency, that and shifting heavy shit all day long, and maintaining concentration towards the end of 6 hours roasting takes grit.  Even today whilst thinking what I was going to write here I forgot to turn on the afterburner and filled the street with smoke.

    Of course it’s a great job overall, I’ve never been so happy in a job, and there’s all the cool stuff – cupping 30 roasts first thing every morning, dancing through 25 sample roasts and the sweaty palms when roasting a new coffee, but the day to day bread and butter workload is dull, heavy, repetitive and, much as I hate to say it, boring.

    Having experienced most of the jobs in the company I can say with absolute certainty that the coolest job in the whole industry is driving the wholesale delivery van.  Getting around the city, getting to know people, having your ear to the ground and putting your fingers in pies.  That’s the most covetable job in coffee.

  16. I enjoyed making coffee drinks for people, I really didn’t enjoy the endless cleaning up after others that is a large part of service work be it barista, waiter, busboy, dishwasher (all jobs I’ve done). I really didn’t find my home until I became a production roaster. I’m very much a back of the house person. I love people, but I also love production work. There’s so much more sense of accomplishment with production, and even with lifting an average of 5000 lbs a day. I hear from a lot of coffee folks who say that they’ll always consider themselves baristas, but I honestly don’t feel that way. I love production roasting, hell, I love production work. It’s easy to demonize it with the whole cog in the machine, performing the same task over and over again, but I really don’t think that’s the case. There is minutiae and abstraction that doesn’t reveal itself until you’re deep into it. I worked on the painting line in a halloween mask factory, and I’ve painted thousands of fangs on as many bobbling dracula heads on an assembly line, and I found it deeply enthralling. There is something so engaging and invigorating about working with others to accomplish a goal, especially an artistic/creative/craft one. But there’s still a sense of individuality in the task that you’re specifically charged with as well. But your point is made, the right person for the right role. If you do really care about what you’re doing, I think you find the time to work on the experiments that swirl around your brain. And while I can see your point about food manufacture, I mean, your materials are what you make of them. You’re not building twinkies at the hostess factory, you’re craft roasting specialty coffee. My relationship with the instruments and the materials makes it more than just simple construction. I did write a thing for fresh cup magazine years ago, i think Metropolis Coffee still has a link on their website to it, but it’s pretty much the counter argument to your thing here. But like I/you said, the right person for the right job. 

  17. oh, and production roasting is also all about tiny maths, all day long. That can do some funny stuff to your brain, when somehow roasting maths insinuate themselves into any other figure your working at, like how much time can you snooze the alarm for. But being sharper a tiny maths makes me feel sharper in general.

  18. so sorry, but one last point that I would make here, and I don’t mean this to sound nasty at all, but it kinda seems that your biggest gripe about production roasting work is that there is actual labor involved, that it’s a labor intensive position. again, right position for a particular sort.

  19. Actually I quite enjoy the labour side of things, I just know I suck at the focus and concentration required to be very good at roasting.

  20. I sort of agree with your point Mike, but at the same time it’s an excellent expression of what James is trying to say:
    Home roasting and home espresso brewing are (for me at least and probably for others) all about experimentation and fun and having the time to be ocd about the most weird things.
    Meanwhile production roasting and espresso in a production environment are all about control, consistency, precision and speed (although both also should require a deep understanding of the intracacies discovered through experimentation).

    I agree that home enthusiasts should be tapped as a potential expert market for employment, however bear in mind that many enthusiasts would be incredibly frustrated by the day-to-day reality of a production environment (depending to some extent on the company) and may end up hating the work.

    I have and do work both as a production roaster and barista, but have typically found that i have to make time for my experiementation outside the hours of normal work. Not all that many companies are good at or able to ($$) make available the time/resources/knowledge to enable a lot of experiementation – though the best companies typically embrace this more.

  21. yeah, that’s totally fair. I feel like the concentration comes with time. it’s just like playing an instrument, so much is about muscle memory and just feeling totally comfortable with the instrument/roaster. It’s also about rhythm. When you are in full stride and everything is clicking and you’re working batch to batch to batch really fluidly, it’s pretty invigorating and for sure things come into a better focus and the concentration becomes much easier.

  22. Well, if I may, this is where involvement with Roasters Guild, or even starting up your own regional group really come in handy. Working and learning with a larger community of roasters (or even 2 or 3 other people) makes the experimentation and understanding of the craft that much more accessible. If you can tap into a network of other roasters who can share information and experience, it also creates more opportunity as well as motivation to do to your own experimentation after hours or otherwise. Membership in a guild is a really sound investment if you’re serious about pursuing the craft, even if it’s out of your pocket. RG is an international body, but understandably some of the benefits as far as classes and retreat can become super expensive if you are not in North Amer. (we are working on starting online classes soon), but I strongly encourage you to start your own regional roasting group/guild/assoc/aliance/etc.

  23. Very true. To clarify I wasn’t really complaining that the experimentation and learning comes mostly in my own time and outside of normal work, just re-iterating that it’s not part of the  production job.
    I love my job, and have plenty of passion to pursue learning outside of production hours.
    Like James said it’s not for everyone, and it’s not  “so creative, so romantic, so artful” like we sometimes make it sound.

  24. well, i still say that that’s in the eye of the beholder

  25. Thanks Chris… At the moment the SCAA seems to have roaster and barista communities and education all wrapped up nicely. I wish we had such a clear cut framework here in the UK, but factors such as geographical scale and also market maturity mean we’re perhaps playing catch up (others will no doubt disagree). We rely a little too much on the overburdened SCAE and SCAEUK as a focal point for education, events and community, I think, and agree with you that we need individuals to start setting up local/national guilds independent of the SCAE but working cooperatively with it rather than competitively. In relation to James’ blog post, if such communities existed then the resource pool for recruiting would be larger and more skilled, with less chance of a failed placement. In the meantime I would love it if US orgs such as the roasters guild and barista guild were more acessible internationally. It really isn’t very viable at present IMO for we in the UK to fly back and forth for events, so your online classes will be very welcome. Would also be good to see downloadable ebooks since I recently found that a $35 book from the SCAA would have an additional $45 shipping cost to the UK. Maybe SCAA and SCAE could work together to offer publications and learning materials on a membership basis… would be a good way to help provide funding.

  26. great point, Mike. I will for sure talk with some folks about making RG resources more accessible in the UK.

  27. I´m pretty much right in line with Schooley here.  And concede that production roasting isn´t for most people, that´s why companies need to value and nurture the good ones that know how to stay hungry.  And the collective role and piece of the action from the back of the house is truly a kind of gratification that takes a certain world view you should take a lot of humble pride in, or else you can´t really handle production roasting for long.

    Also, production roasting isn´t too far from any job that requires rhythm and flow.  But it also requires a lot of on your toes work.  Weather conditions change, the coffee ages, the equipment acts up, the sales folks land something big and immediate, the pallets arrived and fell over, and it´s inventory time… It´s a vast multitude of familiar curve balls that themselves move around and change over time… if it´s boring, you´re doing it wrong.

  28. Whenever we do wholesale training at the warehouse for wholesale customers or new employees, I use espresso or “dialing in” as a way to explain how we roast.  While we do follow a “profile” that we’ve decided is the best way to roast a particular coffee.  Following a line on a graph isn’t going to give you consistency or what you planned on getting if you follow the same line every day for the whole time you have that coffee in every situation.  As Ryan said, things outside of the green coffee and the graph dramatically affect how the roast goes (weather, humidity, days since you cleaned the roaster etc etc.)  In the same way that a barista gets to know an espresso blend– what to do if it’s acting a certain way, what kind of adjustments to make according to days out of roast, the weather, etc., the production roaster has to know the coffee well enough to make the same kinds of adjustments day to day.  These are minute adjustments usually, but your production roaster has to care enough to pay attention each time and learn the coffee, and make the right kinds of adjustments when necessary.  In order for that to happen, you have to value and engage your production roasters enough in cupping, experimentation etc. to give them a reason to care.

    One of the biggest differences between the barista/espresso and the production roaster/roasting is the lack of interaction with humans.  With roasting there aren’t any cool customers and/or psychos coming at you every few minutes to change your direction or break up your day, or give you something new to talk or think about.  I think this can really wear on some people.  Personally, I love it.  I get to listen to whatever ridiculous tunes I want to super loud all day and smell amazing smells.  Also, all of our baristas think my customer service skills are out of whack so they’d prefer I stay at the warehouse.

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