Roasting Revolution: A Change in Dynamics… Not the Thermo-kind

The ability to automate a roast is nothing new. For decades, industrial roasters like Scolari and Brambati have been utilizing bean probes and curve automation. However, the business of bringing automation to smaller batches and even home roasting is a bit new and has been growing every year. Cropster was one of the early bids to upgrade any roaster into an automated operation. With this innovative software system, you could retrofit a vintage small-batch roaster into an ongoing production roaster that hits its marks, starts and stops automatically and logs every roast.

Roasting coffee has been a skill and tradition that dates back centuries. It was always valued and coveted knowledge. It was a position that involved an apprenticeship and a transfer of knowledge from master to student. This, along with the equipment cost, created significant barriers to entry. As in many other industries, the benefits of modern technology bring those barriers to entry crumbling to the ground. YouTube has democratized filmmaking, Legal Zoom has put legal documents in laypeople’s hands, and Instagram has made us photographers. Companies like Ikawa and Bellwether angle to do the same for coffee roasting. They have taken the learning and transference of knowledge out of the equation with a plug-and-play roasting machine that comes with roasting curves and a controlled cooling cycle.

These machines are cleaner and more environmentally friendly as they are electric and do not require gas or a vent. Bellwether looks like a mix between a refrigerator and a laundry mat, while the Ikawa seems to be the spawn of a toaster and blender. They can both be operated by an iPad app and require minimal supervision. With these machines and their software, anyone that can use a microwave would be able to manage a roast program for a café or small wholesale business. This changes the dynamics of the industry in a new way. No longer is the small chain or individual café beholden to the available wholesalers in their area. Suddenly small businesses have the opportunity to form their brand, signature blends, seasonal blends and personalized menu. The minimums are at their discretion, and the freedom of choice is endless.

The Bellwether only roasts six pounds per batch, while the Ikawa roasts fifty grams with a new option that cooks one hundred grams per batch. The Ikawa is meant as a sample roaster or a fresh roasting solution for a home roaster. There have been home roasting machines in the past, the first being a pan. However, a home roasting machine has never been as sophisticated and easy to use as the Ikawa. For the home roaster, it is a revelation of ease, convenience, and a game to play. Using the app, you can roast your morning cup with a curve provided by Tim Wendelboe, which will replicate it exactly. Ikawa is a handy tool for anyone who wants to explore the flavors of coffee and expand their pallet with limited roasting knowledge. The only downside for someone learning is that you do feel disconnected from the process of controlling the roast. Even though you can plot out your roast curve and have control over it, having an iPad or smartphone interface removes you a step from the actual process. Of course, you could make this claim about any automated system.

There are many different approaches and philosophies to roasting. Some of us gravitate to the mechanical aspects of it and like to nerd out on their machines’ maintenance and constant repairs. Others want to indulge in the repetitive nature of roasting and strive for perfection over and over again. Finally, some of us still are guided solely by our pallets and view roasting as a means to an end, a necessary step to achieve our vision of flavor development. For the latter, the Ikawa and the Bellwether can serve that means. Through pallet development, experimenting with different curves, and cupping the results, a roaster could refine their coffees and target a flavor profile of their preference. In addition, a home roaster could take a real journey of sensory discovery if they were feeling both adventurous and meticulous.

The romantics are not going to connect with either of these machines. Like many makers, roasters do not like to stand idle, and these machines remove the necessity to do anything once the drum is loaded. Like any automated machine in any industry, this will marginalize the coffee roaster’s role and value. We see similar effects with super-automatic espresso machines and the diminishing role of the barista.

This change is sad and hard to watch for some; our traditions and rituals are seemingly drifting from our industry. I learned to roast on a vintage Vittoria roaster from Bologna (with no bean probes and no visual of the roast curve; just sight and smell as my guide) and then moved on to an Ambex with two bean probes and a roast log. Next, I learned a Diedrich three-bagger (full automation) and an IR-12 (no digital curve). From there, it was a Scolari three-bagger, a US Roasting Corp sample roaster, a Loring, a Brambati, a Quest sampler, an Ikawa and a Probat P-12. They all had their pros and cons. Each roaster did its job if you knew how to work it. The difference between them is that the Ikawa knew how to do its job without knowing how to “work it”.

Amazon Prime had been poking me repeatedly to rewatch Downton Abby, a series that takes place in a transitional period at the beginning of the twentieth century as the industrial revolution had begun slowly replacing prominent hallmarks of their world. One day they would ride a horse, and the next, a Model T. A valet would be hand stitching a jacket, while the next day, they would use a sewing machine. Of course, I couldn’t resist, and I rewatched the series but this time through a different lens. The mechanization of many laborious tasks put thousands of people out of a job while simultaneously freeing thousands of time-sapping impediments. These industrial leaps allowed for an antiquated caste system to be lifted and created the opportunity for social mobility.

We are at a similar transitional stage, except our revolution is a digital one. Even in the last few years, AI, robotics, and automation have made enormous strides. Coffee roasting was undoubtedly not the first to be subjected to this evolution; however, indeed, it will not be spared. It is an exciting time for futurists and those that value consistency over creativity. There will always be those who value something handmade over something machine-made, so there will always be those who roast in the old ways. Those that keep the flame of technique, discovery, and craft alive. Those that live in a fashion to continue the thread of our ancestors and stand as a living story of our history.

We are no longer in a caste system in the traditional sense; however, there has been a caste within the coffee industry where coffee workers often get pegged into one position, and upward mobility can be difficult. The knowledge of roasting, cupping, and sensory development have been hoarded and protected for many years. There are often trenches between green and roasted and brewed professions.

We are entering a new era with new tools that open the world of coffee and show the way to people that didn’t know there was one. These tools shorten the learning curve, reduce the financial burden, and set the stage for the next generation of coffee professionals. Coffee has always been a home to people of diverse backgrounds, and these tools shall widen the gate even further. Baristas will roast, roasters will become café owners, and green importers will be our industry’s sommeliers, so the significant reshuffle continues.

by Jake Leonti

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