Cafe Imports and Roast Profiles

August 13th, 2013

I seemed to spark a little discussion on twitter 1 when I said that I didn’t like that Cafe Imports were starting to publish roast profiles for the green coffees they offer.

I’d like to reiterate, here at the start, that I said I didn’t like it, not that it was wrong, or bad or stupid.  I said I didn’t like it at all.  I’d like to explain why, and hopefully take into account all the reasons people think they are a good thing.

Roaster to Roaster

Probe type, probe placement, probe depth in drum and percentage of full load will all yield different temperatures on a display for roast’s actual temperature.  We call them bean probes but that’s mostly a lie.  They very rarely are giving us an accurate picture of the bean temperatures – you can get pedantic and argue that all roast graphs should start with the bean temperature at room temp, instead of having a 60-80 second period of decrease before it bottoms out and starts to increase again.

Even the general shape of a profile – something you could argue is mappable from Cafe Imports’ roast profiles – will be different on different roasters.  I don’t really know how to translate the profile from a full batch 5kg Probatone to a Loring running a half batch, let alone to something like a Sivetz fluid bed roaster.

This is why I think that giving someone roast profiles is completely different to giving coffee brewing recipes.  In an espresso machine, with a properly machined basket, at 9 bars and at ideal temps, a brew recipe for espresso should produce a repeatable and desirable result. (Unless your grinder sucks).  I can say with some confidence what will work and what can be replicated easily, and measurably.

Profile to Profile

Profiles are very rough guidelines in my experience.  People don’t really talk about this much but exactly replicating a roast profile does not produce an identical result.  You will see variations (though relatively small) on external and internal colour, as well as roast loss and variations in the cup.  It’s maddening, and most roasters (as in individuals) don’t really want to talk about this as many feel confused, frustrated and somewhat worried that this might be their fault or something that they’re doing wrong that everyone else obviously does right.  This isn’t really a super important point, but one that I felt appropriate to bring up.

The contentious point

Cafe Imports are providing a service that lots of their customers are asking for.  Firstly, I hope that if you’re buying interesting and delicious coffees at a premium, that you are doing so because when you tasted the coffee something in it appealed to you.  You had a vision for how you wanted to present that coffee to your customers.  This aesthetic is something I’ve written about before, and something that I think is very important to the health of speciality coffee.  You could give the same coffee to various roasters and they’ll present it differently.  Heart have a different aesthetic to Stumptown, Tonx to Tim Wendelboe, Counter Culture to George Howell.  No one roaster is right about how to roast a coffee.  They like the coffees they present, and grow legions of fans who agree with them, to whom that particular aesthetic appeals.

The demand for roast profiles makes me a little sad.  It is a stark that people are buying coffees just to fill holes in offering lists.  They just need a Guat, or El Sal.  They want one that is traceable, with a good, saleable story (nothing wrong with that, I should add!). They want a shortcut to make sure they get reasonable value for money, but in many ways it is an admission that cup quality isn’t the most important thing.  You might even be more successful working this way.  Focusing on selling a story, a product, a service rather than just focusing on the experience in the cup.

The coffee industry suffers because its largest workforce (baristas and service staff) are often employed by the least experienced in the industry.  We make it very easy for people to start cafes simply because they want to, rather than expecting them or demanding they at least know the basics of what they do.  I worry we continue to set the bar too low to enter the commercial roasting business.  I’m all for people being passionate about their product.  I’m also passionate about people investing their energies in developing their skills before they try and leverage them in return for people’s money.

I’m willing to have that finger pointed back at me.  Looking back at the start of SQM I would consider us relatively inexperienced, but we could both cup critically and analytically and we were willing to throw away a lot of coffee in order to try and understand how to achieve what we wanted in the cup.  That process (sadly, including the waste and mistakes) continues 5 years later.  At no point did it cross our minds to ask the people we worked with on green coffee to tell us how to roast.  It wasn’t their job, expertise or responsibility;  it was ours.

Speaking of that responsibility, I don’t think I’m being controversial if I say that it is in Cafe Imports’ interests to increase the number of people who buy green coffee (i.e. people who roast).  Roast profiles may well tip those on the fence who lacked the confidence, experience and perhaps cupping skills to roast competently. These people may already have cafes and be buying interesting, and well roasted coffees from established roasters and are now looking for a point of difference.  Whether this is good or bad for the long term sustainability of speciality coffee is up for debate. This isn’t really criticism, as I think it is good business sense.  I expect to see the argument waved back at me that I’m just protecting my own interests, that I am trying to decrease competition by discouraging people from roasting, or trying to discredit good information somehow.  I assure you this is none of the above.

However, we’re drifting off topic and I should come to the final point:

Education and Sharing Information

Most of the responses I got were that it was good that someone was willing to share.  There is a painful absence of information regarding roasting coffee available.  There is nothing of value in books, or online bar a few interesting home roaster discussions.

Most of the best roasters in the world have gotten there through a process of trial and error, guided and accelerated by their ability to taste and to be self critical.  These profiles are reasonably intentional, but I would argue that no roast profile from any great roaster could or would be considered proprietary information.  I certainly wouldn’t treat any one of our profiles as proprietary or something to be secretive about and we regularly share them with customers who ask – mostly to be open and transparent.  However, in the past when I’ve shared profiles on the internet in various forums, it has been frustrating to be met with comments like “those temperatures are clearly wrong!” or “those roast times don’t seem possible to get fully developed coffee!”  Sharing like this just generated confusion and frustration, hence my reluctance to continue in the past.

For the reasons above I don’t consider a roast profile to be particularly educational, without a few critical factors but most importantly it means nothing without cupping the roast that generated the profile.  I happen to consider Joe Marocco, he who is producing the roast profiles,  an experienced and talented roaster who rubs his excellence in further by being an all round splendid chap, and exceedingly pleasant every time I’ve encountered him.  At no point am I criticising what he has published or questioning his skills or intentions.  I just think a much more effective way for people to learn from him would be to roast and cup with him.  That’s difficult, time consuming and expensive.

I suspect that these profiles will have the effect of bringing a few folks back from strange and isolated places in their roasting.  I’d be more comfortable with a publication of a general profile development plan.  It will prevent certain car crashes and people doing very odd things.

  1. I would say controversy but that makes it sound more interesting than the truth  ↩︎

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