Roasters Rock: the Right Way to Roast

There are two reactions to the title of this article. The first is, “Finally someone is going to tell me the answer!”  The other is, “What is this idiot going to claim is the right way?”

This article is specifically going to address both of those reactions from roasters and why they might exist. Hopefully there will be a dose of reality dispensed to all readers about the science and art of our craft.

As little as 20 years ago there was no such thing as roaster training. At best there was an operations manual coupled with mentorship from someone already in the industry. Fundamentally you were on your own to get the job done and improve your craft. There was no peer to peer collaboration. It was also just the beginning of cupping standards and green coffee standards for Specialty Coffee.

Then the SCAA and more specifically the Roasters Guild addressed the hole in the industry as being an organized education about roasting fundamentals. The Guild started creating classes. Over the years this has snowballed into tons of complex classes that end in certifications. It is a totally different thing to enter the industry today.

This has created an interesting dynamic however. Some new roasters are so into the education that they never actually start roasting and developing their own style because they can’t seem to find the answer to how to roast ‘the right way’. With so much education there is a growing feeling that if I don’t learn it all in the classroom I might do it ‘wrong’.

The coffee education industry is happy to have these students. They can spend as much as $10,000 apiece to get their education. New classes are being invented all the time.

Contributing to the idea of there being a right way is the invention of roasting competitions. Obviously the person that wins is doing it the right way so people are paying good money to learn from the champions.

Books are being written now that have contradictory advice on the right way to do things. Only one author can be right. Right?  You may also notice that none of the authors actually claim to have the right answers. There is always ‘wiggle room’ like saying “most of the time” or “with the coffees we used”. They know that there are few absolutes in the process of roasting.

If this veracious learner describes you, it is time to relax and start roasting! You will learn more by doing than by reading and listening to others’ opinions on the right way.

Now for the other group of readers that think, “Nobody knows more about roasting than me. I ain’t never taking a class!” You have the practical roasting experience and are selling your coffee to happy customers. But in the back of your mind you are thinking you might be able to do better.

It is very common for those that self-learn to be nervous about taking a class and finding out you are not ‘doing it right’. It’s like teaching yourself to golf, getting to a low handicap, and then taking a lesson from the golf pro that changes everything that you are doing so you do it their way.

Well rest easy.  You will find that there is always a way to improve on what you do. Some things you might learn in the class will reaffirm what you are doing and others will challenge you. If you keep an open mind as you read roasting books and take classes you will grow as a roaster getting a more refined style that is unique to you.

So if there is no ‘right way’ to roast, how do we measure if we are improving our craft? That is really the interesting question. Perhaps there is a right way to learn!

Measuring Changes in Craft 

Education stretches your thinking about roast development. It often does not make the real world connection to the question, “So what?” Does learning this improve the cup quality? Will it help you sell more coffee? Will your existing customers even notice the change?

There is a saying in the industry that puts all of this in perspective: THE TRUTH IS IN THE CUP. Let’s explore how this could help us see the benefit of changes we make to our roasting based on the education we receive.

In order to be an exceptional roaster you, or a team around you, must be exceptional cuppers. This means that you have worked at the cupping table consistently enough to be calibrated to yourself. In other words, you can answer the question, “Can I even tell if my change made a difference and if so, what was the change?”  If you can’t, then your first education should be to build your skill and confidence in cupping. It is your evaluation tool. If you don’t have confidence in the tool it would be like an architect not confident using a ruler.

Now when you hear somebody’s new theory on how to roast you can decide for yourself by trying it. Set up experiments to prove or disprove the theory. Make small changes of one variable at a time and cup the results. This will make you a better roaster because you will have your own personal experience and not some author’s or teacher’s word.

So what is right? There is a theory of needing to dehydrate the bean to start Millard reactions.  There is another theory to leave the moisture in as long as possible to get better heat penetration and elongate the Millard reactions. Do your own testing and the truth will be in the cup.

To recap: If you are a perfectionist student, you probably have learned enough from the book and it is now time to go roast. If you poo-poo roasting education as silly and you only truly learn from doing then it is probably time to pick up a book, take a class and hear some opposing viewpoints.

You will find your own RIGHT way to roast!

Rocky Rhodes is an 18 year coffee veteran, roaster, and Q-Grader Instructor, and his mission now is to transform the coffee supply chain and make sweeping differences in the lives of those that produce the green coffee. Rocky can be reached at [email protected]

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