Roasters Rock

There is a dramatic difference in what roasters in Asia are doing and what is done in the United States. It all has to do with the perception of the term Production Roasting. A discussion with roasters on either side of the Pacific yields very different results.

In the United States, coffee roasting evolved into massive commercial roasters spewing forth brown water called coffee. For generations we accepted this as the way coffee was supposed to be. It was consistent, cheap, and we had it every day. After all, it was so cheap that our bosses gave it to us for free in the office.

What is interesting about this ‘evolution’ is that it was not always that way. Coffee was roasted at home in the 1800’s, and in small shops in the early 1900’s. It was the mid 1900’s that saw the demise of the little shops roasting their own. So in the late 1900’s the coffee industry ‘devolved’, in a manner of speaking, into an additional market segment called Specialty Coffee. This movement created the micro-roaster and small batch craftsmen.

The movement came alive when the Roasters Guild formed and started the propagation of roasting education and best practices. People that enjoyed the craft also enjoyed each other’s passion and willingness to share trade secrets. Sadly, there was something missing: the barista. In the early part of this century, the barista really took what the roaster was doing and presented the public with true differentiated tastes. The art of shot pulling and hand crafting coffees took off and the roaster’s craft continued to improve with single origin offerings and espresso blending.

One of the business realities of roasting coffee in the US is that if you are roasting for just one shop then you are probably having a hard time making a go of it and feeding your family. This is where the roaster starts looking for other coffee shops, restaurants, and offices that want to improve their coffee offering. There is a wholesale component to most US roaster businesses that facilitate the cash flow needed for survival.

Blending for consistency throughout the year has become just as important a skill as finding the sweet spot in a lot of Geisha. Although we WANT to only roast the beautiful stuff, we pay the bills with the bulk roasting and blends.

This is NOT what is happening in Asian countries.

This author has visited shops in Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong. Everywhere they served coffee, it was kick-ass unbelievable craftsmanship and stunning presentation. Not only is the coffee spectacular, but the presentation and the knowledge of the barista is like a coffee person’s dream come true.

Overstatement? Not really. You see, the coffee industry evolved differently in Asia. Where we went from commercial to craft, they went from tea to craft. As a matter of fact, you couldn’t get (until just recently) a ‘take away’ coffee, much less find a coffee shop open before noon.

Coffee in Asia, as with tea, is meant to be a shared experience among friends or business associates. It is not the secret elixir of productivity. The thought of a ‘Venti’ almost causes heart palpitations to most baristas in Asia. The saving grace as a traveler is the Americano where at least you can get a full cup of something hot.

At a recent teaching of the SCAA roasting Level 1 classes in Taiwan, the difference in roasting styles became shockingly clear. When asked what machine they used to roast, the LARGEST one was a 1 kilo roaster. (or 2.2 pounds!) The other reality is that almost EVERY coffee house roasts their own. This means that every day they roast the Kilo or two of Grade 1, 90+ coffee they have in stock to provide their clients with the best coffee flavor possible. They happen to often serve in what amounts to a shot glass and the customers LOVE it. They sip, savor, and discuss the coffee.

The ‘third wave’ experience in Asia is EVERYWHERE. Of course that is a gross overstatement, but it is easier to find great coffee in Asia than in the US. The challenge they face is the shortage of true 90+ coffees. They are participating fairly fully in the direct relationship model by flying from country to country looking for good sources of beans. They pay top dollar and they get rewarded for it at the coffee counter.

What this environment has produced, however, is a generation of Asian roasters who have yet to find the second crack! You are more likely than not to be drinking sample roast coffee so as not to diminish any of the enzymatic byproducts while pushing up the sugar browning. They are experimenting with different burners in their 1 kilos and getting fantastic control over their roasts.

Translation is often a difficult thing. When trying to explain the need and desire for coffee roasted into the second crack, it was as if you were explaining quantum physics to kindergartners. They knew something was being explained, but it made no sense whatsoever. They just don’t wholesale there. They have no need for shelf life, consistency of blend flavor and find that any hint of carbon is just an admittance that you could not find the good stuff in the beans.

They have truly taken the best practices of the third wave and improved upon them. They are artists both at the roaster, the pour over station, and the espresso machine. But when you try to explain how the rest of the world roasts, you are met with, “Wait! WHAT? There is a SECOND CRACK?!?”

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

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