Note: A few years ago, I wrote a post addressed to grinder manufacturers. I was frustrated by the lack of innovation, and I think my complaints resonated with a lot of people. I bring this post up because I believe there are parallels to roasting machines. I think manufacturers underestimate the demand for better – something we’ve seen very clearly when it came to innovations in espresso grinders.
I am embarrassed. Not by the coffee we roast, but by the machines we use to roast it. They are beautiful, vintage machines that were crafted with skill and care 50 years ago from materials clearly built to last. However, they highlight the utter absence of innovation we’ve seen from roasting manufacturers in the decades since.
Coffee roasting proudly describes itself as an art, as a craft, as a multisensory discipline of small batch manufacturing. This is one of the two ways it has hidden itself from a truth: We are not acceptably consistent in our roasting. For a long time we also managed to hide this behind coffee brewing. Cafes struggled to brew in a consistent way, and brewing was such a complex black box of variables that it was hard to really pin the blame for a disappointing cup of coffee on the roaster and not the barista, or the grinder, or the machine, or the water etc etc.
Roasting coffee is a deeply frustrating business. The inconsistencies in coffee roasting do not often come from a lack of care or effort. Roasting teams around the world work incredibly hard to do the best they can, to cup and QC their product, to improve their roasting curves and knowledge, and to convert the potential of the green coffee they work with into something excellent, transparent and enjoyable. Despite this, I think every roaster would agree that they aren’t able to have every batch turn out exactly as intended. It might only miss by a little, but a roaster with high standards would likely confess that it wasn’t exactly what they wanted that batch to be.
The fault lies with the equipment. A drum coffee roaster built today is really no different to a drum coffee roaster built in the 1960s. (This was true of espresso grinders for a similar period of time…) While some level of automation is now possible with new small batch roasters, mostly there is similar level of data capture and guidance offered by adding a third party product such as Cropster to an older roaster.
A trite definition of madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. For a very long time we’ve known that exactly replicating a roast profile with the same coffee does not necessarily produce an identical batch. We dismiss the cognitive dissonance by waving it away with the excuse that coffee is an agricultural product, so… what can you do?
Yet we know the data we get from a roaster is bad data. Sticking a small probe into a drum full of churning coffee beans, and expecting that to tell us the bean temperature is ludicrous. Here’s the most obvious example: We seem to ignore the fact that we’re all ok with a probe clearly telling us lies for the first minute of the roast.
The temperature of the coffee is not dropping at the start, all we know is that the probe is dropping in temperature. It’s not useful data, yet it is something every roaster around the world has to trust and make decisions upon. We have no control because we have no insight.
The world of coffee brewing is changing. Consistency and control in brewing are going to start applying increasing pressure on coffee roasters to up their game. I believe they lack the technology to do so. I believe commercial coffee roaster manufacturers have failed to innovate in a meaningful way. If 7 out of 10 cups of coffee drunk around the world are roasted on a Probat – where’s the incentive? We keep buying the same old technology, at high prices.
I’m not dismissing innovations from Loring, primarily around emissions control and environmental impact, alongside things like ease of cleaning. However, I don’t think roasting companies with Lorings are producing more consistent coffee than someone with a new or old Probat.
I’m proud of the coffee Square Mile roasts. I also believe it is important to have very high standards, and that you should live in a constant state of dissatisfaction with your product. I think lots of other roasters should be proud of their product, and I’m not claiming we’re an industry of charlatans. I do think, however, that roasters the world over are deeply frustrated by their equipment. No one wants to talk about it, perhaps because it involves an admission of imperfection.
There is an opportunity here. It would require R&D spending, it would require experimentation and resources. I believe that there is a very large audience out there looking for something better and willing to spend sensibly to achieve that. This is an industry ripe for disruption.