Saturday, July 16, 2011

What Is an Espresso Coffee Bean Roaster?

For most people in the game of roasting espresso coffee the answer is:- someone who takes green coffee beans and turns them brown. And because the underlying assumption is that roasting espresso coffee is simple, anyone can become a roaster. The explosion of the espresso coffee roasting market all over the globe in the last several years has proven that that is indeed the case.

With no real barriers to becoming a boutique roaster or commercial coffee roaster (apart from financial restrictions) there has been a plethora of new espresso coffee brands entering the global coffee market. Obviously the number of roasters per capita is lowest in underdeveloped or emerging markets, and higher in highly developed or saturated coffee markets. Nonetheless, each market has experienced a rapid growth in the number of espresso coffee roasters and espresso coffee distributors.

Whilst a great many individuals have relatively recently joined the 'club' of roasters, the strangest element to this industry is that, paradoxically, every roaster claims to be a consummate 'expert'. Mathematically, statistically and practically this is impossible for any industry. And speaking from experience, there is more to coffee roasting than meets the eye.

So I should start by stating what exceptional roasting is not:

Roasting is not just about exceptional green bean choices.

Nearly every coffee roaster waxes lyrical about '....travelling the world, sourcing the best beans...' etc. etc. Most simply buy off a green coffee bean brokers' stock list, so there is hardly any travel involved in that! Great choices in beans are important, but it is more important to differentiate their quality based on intended use. For example, the Single Origin bug which is so pushed in the Australian and New Zealand espresso market was a movement which originated in the United States to provide better quality to a filter coffee market.

Ninety nine percent of the worlds coffee supply infrastructure -from growers, to international tasters, to green bean brokers etc - is trained and geared up for filter coffee markets. As I travel to various origin countries rating coffees with other expert tasters via the traditional cupping method (another system of classification beneficial to filter coffee style) I have come to realize that there is a huge gulf between what is appropriate for filter coffee and what is appropriate for espresso coffee blends. My observation is that the majority of roasters follow a line and tempo set by the dominant coffee markets such as the USA, Japan and North Europe and they follow this enthusiasm without question. So when coffee roasters in the USA speak of single origin, which is ideally delivered and tasted as a filter style coffee, others who roast solely for espresso markets adopt the idea. This is not a criticism except to say that very few single origin coffees in the world are any good as an all-rounded espresso.

This is but one example of the lack of precision or scientific knowledge.

So what else?

Roasting is not just about developing the green coffee bean; it is about not destroying its integrity.

This one is probable the most difficult statement for most roasters to conceptualize.

There are a great many chemical compounds in any coffee bean of any quality mark. The aim of the roaster is not to butcher them or miss-time the roast (either under or over) leaving those chemical compounds 'un-triggered' - leading to diminished flavor and aroma development. In order to minimise the 'damage' done to the integrity of the coffee beans during the roasting process there needs to be a great deal of calibration equipment available. Suffice to say that not one coffee roasting machine fresh off the production line is any good without extra modifications to achieve a minimum 'damage' impression on the coffee beans.

When I ask roasters to tell me their convective/conductive heat ratios, their radiant temperature grid, their spreads, their endothermic reversal point, they just stand there and stare. This is not just gobbly-gook to satisfy my ego. Quite the contrary. Without knowing these concepts, any roaster is simply 'flying' blind and does not understand the 'science' behind green bean roasting. Whilst passion is good, scientific knowledge and how to apply it is king. And to have that scientific knowledge requires years of trial and error, waking up every day with the determination to 'kill yesterday's sacred cow' and start afresh mapping out a new approach. Mapping out requires hard data collection which is then calibrated to several espresso tastings of the same coffee - each with a different development of the 12 key chemical compounds we know are linked to flavor and aroma development. To measure these differences a roaster also requires capital investment in an array of heavy hitting calibration and measuring equipment which could make the idea of purchasing a roasting machine 3 to 4 times more expensive. Most 'roasters' and new entrants do not have the knowledge, the gumption or the capital to implement the requisite setup.

Lacking scientific knowledge or the scientific/calibration equipment to execute that knowledge simply means that more damage than good is done to the coffee in the roast. The most simple way to understand this is when simple commodity coffee can be roasted in such a way as to defy the depth of flavor, development of character, and longevity most roasters attach to it.

Roasting is about understanding the end consumer and delivering what they like, not telling them what they should like!

Sour/Acidic espresso coffee is touted by a great many roasters as a favorable characteristic of espresso coffee blends. It is not. Certainly not in markets which then add milk to most espressos. Milk is acidic too, and combined with the acidic espresso create a very astringent, thin bodied and lacking coffee experience. Unfortunately, it is so common out there that the end consumer does not know any better. That is, of course, once they taste an alternative.

As an example, I once was told by a broker that a particular country (a whole nation) of consumers preferred their coffees acidic. Admittedly, that was all one could find being supplied by roasters in that country. I then suggested that we get several focus groups together and let them try acidic coffees (the main boutique brands in the market) and a sample coffee blend I had created for the occasion - which was neither acidic nor bitter. In fact, it was sweet and rich in flavor and body. The end result was that the consumer chooses what they like, and in this case they preferred non-acidic tasting coffees. You know what you know until someone shows you something different!

Roasting coffee does not make you a retail expert.

Roasters are relied upon quite heavily by retailers, cafes, coffee shops, coffee distributors and franchise chains for ensuring the success of these end businesses. The only problem is that the overwhelming majority of coffee roasters are not retailers, never have been, nor would not know the first thing about successfully generating sales in a retail environment. Endless rounds of coffee training and excessive package deals will not help a retail business which is structurally unsound and in need of a complete overhaul in order to succeed.

There is a pervasive myth in the marketplace that coffee roasters or coffee distributors can help retailers, cafes, coffeeshops etc resolve all their financial woes simply by concentrating on espresso training. Whilst it is true that coffee training can lift sales, without remedying the root of the problem a roaster (and his/her trainers) is soon bereft of ideas. Growing the sales of a retail business is best left to professionals who specialize in applying a broader strategy utilizing a diverse array of 'weapons' designed to grow sales. Unfortunately, coffee training is but a very small part of the overall success equation, and any small business, cafe or coffee shop which believes their roaster holds the keys to their future security is grossly misled.

George Sabados is the worlds leading motivational speaker to major coffee retail and franchise chains around the world. He can inspire and, most importantly, instruct coffee focused businesses in how to generate explosive sales growth and profitability in the shortest time possible - his 3 levels of mastery guarantee massive change in 12 weeks! First and foremost, George is a retailer and knows how to focus a business on being a stand out to customers, resulting in instant local market leadership.

Rather than simply a "voice" without experience, George has been a leading figure in the global espresso movement from successful international barista, successful retailer, international roaster, international cupper, writer, public speaker and most importantly, coffee entrepreneur. He is without peer in experience and outside the box thinking within the international coffee industry.

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