November 17

Roasters Rock: European Roasters, Same Roasting Passion – Different Borders

Passion for coffee crosses all borders, oceans and continents. The differences come in style of roasting but not passion. European roasters are no exception.

On a recent romp through several countries in Europe on a tour to visit roasters young and old, big and small, consistent observations could be made. This article will explore some of those.

Information in the roasting world is travelling at the speed of the internet. 

Thirty years ago there were no opportunities to take any classes on roasting. The only way you improved your craft was by doing. Then the Roasters Guild(s) formed and people exchanged ideas. Now you can learn about roasting on YouTube and other media vehicles.

There seems to be a downside to this as well: EVERYBODY has an opinion about the BEST way to roast. Often these opinions contradict each other from post to post and video to video. This has left students around the world wondering, “What is the right answer?”

In Europe is found an attitude that is a little different than say Asia. They have decided to just figure it out! The attitude on roasting is much the same way a teenager learns to drive; “Thanks for the training. I’ll take it from here.” They may have a few fender-benders along the way but will be doing things their own way.

Everyone wants to perfect the craft.

While the Europeans on the whole are learning by doing, there is still a desire to validate what you are doing with others. This has driven the growth of the Roasters Guild Europe as well as regional events like the Nordic Roasters Forum.

What is interesting to observe in Europe is the trust level between roasters. In the US we have adopted the concept of “whatever I can do to make another roaster stronger makes me stronger as well” and support each other eagerly. The Europeans are getting there but still have cross-border uncertainty. Often ‘we Americans’ think of Europe as being one country with several states. It most certainly is not! This can understandably lead to sensitivities when sharing knowledge.

The guilds and forums provide a neutral area, a UN of coffee if you will, where ideas are shared not only by the participants but by ‘outsiders’ that come in to lecture. At the Nordic Roasters Forum last month they heard from a grower in Costa Rica about the pitfalls for both buyers and sellers on Direct Trade. The roasters all got to compete against each other with coffee from that farm. In this way they learned about different roasting styles for the same coffee in a way that supported an ‘outsider’ thereby reducing concerns about sharing ‘secrets’.

The desire to collaborate is driving the success of the guild and making European coffee roasting some of the more interesting in the market.

There seems to be a need to differentiate by being ‘bold’.

There are thousands of roasting companies in the world. It used to be that just by roasting you were differentiated in the market. In many markets that is still true. Often to us in the industry roasting is ‘common’ even though the majority of the consuming public still does not know that coffee starts on a tree much less that roasting makes a difference in taste.

New roasters in the market are trying to make a name for themselves by doing something different. This is true in Europe as well.  One of the trends is to stick with lighter roasts and celebrate single varietals. This is an awesome advance in differentiating in Europe. After all, what do you think of when you think of French Roast or Italian Roast? DARK!  Now you can sit at a sidewalk café in France and sip a carefully crafted natural processed coffee from El Salvador brimming with orange and chocolate flavors.

But for some, this is not a BOLD enough difference anymore. This is where innovation sometimes trumps logic or even taste buds. An example is the drive to be “The Lightest Roaster” in the country. They often view the first crack as something to be avoided and that the taste of cardboard should be celebrated. Luckily market forces play an important role in weeding out the ridiculous from the quality roasters.

That being said, when you travel to the Nordic countries you can find these Uber-light roasts that have actual flavor development because they are actually innovating in the area of elongated pre-first-crack roasting. But they do it to both improve on quality AND to differentiate.

Fame often trumps experience when looking for mentorship. 

A disturbing trend in coffee, as well as other industries, is believing that being famous somehow makes you the authority on a subject. Europe is filling up with roasting, brewing, and barista championships. The winners of these events really ought to be celebrated. They work hard and accomplished something others did not.  This does not, however make them expert in anything other than winning that competition. If they are expert in their area it is because they have studied, practiced, and continue to perfect their craft.

Social media plays an important role in Europe’s roasting community. It does all over the world really, but with new roasters in emerging markets it seems to have an especially heavier weight. It seems a common mistake that if someone has 10,000 followers they must know what they are doing. Perhaps. But perhaps they are really good at getting ‘likes’ and should spend more time learning how to roast. The point is to be extra skeptical about learning from internet celebrities. They MIGHT be experts, but then again they might just be famous.

More than other parts of the world, Europeans tend to have a deeper sense of skepticism that serves them well in this area.

So European roasting is alive and well with passionate people doing creative things. This new wave is dispelling the common vocabulary of French and Italian roasts as they find flavor in lighter coffees. Their collaboration is tentative but working. This will make the entire continent a place to find great coffee.

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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