Why I’m not a roaster

January 7th, 2012

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….  ↩︎

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