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Profiling Practices/Mastering the Fundamentals

At a recent class on roast profiling, it was apparent that new roasters as well as old need to learn / remember the fundamentals of roasting before going forward to try profiling a coffee. In this article we will discuss both the fundamentals as well as the strategy involved in getting a profile set up for a coffee.

BACK TO THE BASICS

Roasting involves two basic skill sets: Machine Manipulation and Cupping. In order to be a great roaster you must master both of these skills. Controlled manipulation and evaluation will allow you the ability to understand your results and repeat them or adapt them as needed.

For inspiration on mastering the basics, let’s turn to the NBA. Arguably one of the best players of all time is Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. He was not great because of some uber-talent, but rather a focus on and dedication to the fundamentals.

“Bird’s success started in high school when he would shoot 200 free throws every day before school.  Then when he went to college he was the first one to the gym for practice and the last to leave. This solid foundation in the fundamentals of his sport gave him a technique that he was able trust throughout his career.” – betterlifecoachingblog.com

You need to be the Bird of roasting. Knowing your roaster requires hundreds of roasts. Knowing your result requires hundreds of hours spent cupping. Both require detailed record keeping. These are all done together to make up your ‘technique’. So let’s go over each one and get a game plan for becoming great.

First, please realize you don’t know it all. Being humble and willing to learn and adapt will make you great. If you have been roasting for 5 years, it does not mean you are great. It means you have created a product people like, which has allowed you to continue in the craft. But are you the best you can be?

BASIC SKILL 1: Machine Manipulation

Before you turn the machine on, take a good look to see if it is clean. If you are going to be making consistent roasts, you need to start with a consistent airflow. If your impeller wheel is built up or your stack is getting choked, you do not have consistent airflow.

Next, follow a preheat routine that is the same every time. A solid 15 minutes or more is a good idea. You know from experience that end of day roasts are different than the first roast. Lessen the difference with good warmup time.

Now pull out your recording system. For some it is a piece of paper with a stopwatch. Others use some sort of automation for recording; from a system as simple as a spreadsheet, to one as complex as an online cloud-based system that will record several parameters. At the high end you can get some automation that will not only record what you have done, but will repeat that result for you in the future.

Lastly, before you start, approach the machine with a plan and an intention for roasting. This plan must include WHAT you are going to roast as well as WHY you are going to roast it. Is this a roast to create a perfect pour-over of a Panama Geisha or is it to achieve the best restaurant blend that will be consistent year-in and year-out? What to do you expect to get out of the coffee? Acidity? Body? Balance? Once you have the plan and coffee, you execute your roast.

You should not only document the time and temperature settings, but other things as well, like changes made while roasting and why. Did you change airflow? When? Why? Did you adjust the heat? Was the crack uniform and loud or was it soft and long? Keep all of this data for EVERY roast. This will allow you to see both what worked and what didn’t. Preserve this documentation forever. A good strategy is to file it under a particular lot of coffee or under a blend file. Whatever your method, it needs to make sense so you can retrieve this data easily.

BASIC SKILL 2: Cupping

The only way to know if you achieved your plan is at the cupping table. The truth is on the tongue! You do not have to go and get your Q-Grader certificate to do this (although it’s not a bad idea). The key is consistently cupping the same way every time. Check your water quality, water temperature, grind setting, coffee-to-water ratio, steep time, etc. A consistent approach is the only way to get useful results.

Use a form like the SCAA Cupping form or one of your own creation. It can be paper or electronic, but either way it should get stored in your system with the roast record. In order to get calibrated with others around you, cup together often. This group could be your quality control people, vendors, or even customers. Cup often and you will be like Bird and his free throws: able to easily identify success and failure in an effort to improve.

Cupping forms should be more than numbers. They need to include descriptors as well as the intention of the roast and whether you feel you achieved your desired outcome from your plan. A year from now, you should be able to ‘relive’ the coffee from reading your notes.

Profiling on Purpose

When you master the above basics you will be able to refine your plan to see how you can manipulate the coffee in the roaster. A good strategy for a new profile build is to control one variable at a time. Do multiple iterations with that variable and cup the results to find what is best for that coffee’s plan. A really detailed plan is to get four examples of each variable: Color, time, ramp rate (roast shape), and airflow. By the end you will know the best answer to get your desired result.

If you have concentrated on the basics, approached with a plan, manipulated single variables, cupped your results and recorded everything, you should be well on your way to getting the championship ring because you mastered the fundamentals.

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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