Analog coffee is still very much alive. You may have felt it in modest ways, in the plunging of your press, or the lazy circling with your kettle for pour-over, or the aeropressing of… well, you can appreciate the point. I certainly get it when hand grinding beans, in the crunch and explosion of smell. In the end, coffee still gets down and dirty and roasting is no different, though of course the stakes are higher, and the nose has to be better.
Coffee has taken on somewhat of a lab aesthetic over the years, right down to the interior design of some coffee shops. More importantly, it has the more rigorous process to go along with it. The benefits of being more scientific with every element of coffee production are well known, right down to why it’s better to weigh your beans at home, rather than scoop them. That said, simply relying on numbers for something you taste has its limits. Happily there’s still lots of feel involved in perhaps the most rewarding aspects of the process.
Watching Brian roast is a mix of numbers and feel; on the one hand there are logs, on the other scribbles. There are digital read outs, but also mechanical levers to be nudged. All the while, like any good roaster, there’s a lot of listening, smelling and tasting. Suppliers may offer ideal temperature profile line graphs recommended for the beans they send over, but roasting is not done on paper; there are many variables that complicate the process of roasting, and no setup perfectly matches that clean ideal. Roasting in a warehouse on a humid summer day is not the same as on a cold dry winter night, and the humidity of the beans aren’t identical either. Machinery is moody, and your first batch is not the same as your last.
Developing a feel to compensate for these factors is crucial. To some extent, Brian threw his lot in with relying on feel for roasting when he elected to purchase his not perfectly youthful Probat. He readily admits he has still got a lot to learn with the idiosyncrasies of a machine best characterized by advice on maintenance he got from the very experienced head roaster at Equal Exchange: “don’t be afraid to use a hammer.” This isn’t to say the machine is crude, it’s a gorgeous beast of invincible, timeless design. Probat has been making coffee roasters for around 150 years, and in keeping with the reputation of German engineering, they are well respected, long-lived and widely used. Brian's is especially pretty, with gorgeous patinas on wood and brass, contrasting against the bright orange metal body panels. A partially-occluded burnt porthole gives us crucial glimpses of the beans as they spin inside so you can watch the color develop. It thrums insistently but with ease.
While many modern roasters are automated and come with a monitor which can be used to program roasting profiles: precisely dictating temperature through every second of the roast, Brian’s Probat requires and rewards constant attention by its human dance partner. Its roasting thermometer is a digital barnacle spitting out accurate bean mass temperatures, but otherwise at times the thing has the feel of an impressively engineered steam engine. Brian has a big orange ship of heavy cast iron and steel, and it doesn’t respond to steering immediately, so he has to anticipate to hit his temperatures target. As needed he makes early minor adjustments instead of any major course corrections later on that might affect flavor. In addition to regulating the heat via gas, hitting his desired roasting profiles comes down to controlling airflow, sometimes as simple as opening the door to mix some cold air in. It’s reactive, but it isn’t haphazard.
The whole process becomes very focused at first crack: the point when the beans have lost so much of their moisture to roasting that they begin to audibly crack. While the entire process of roasting is of course important, this stage is essential. The two to three minutes after first crack are where the flavor really develops. If you come into it hot, the beans will finish roasting in too short a period of time and never really develop any sophisticated flavor, too cold, and you never get there.
When we get close to first crack, Brian ceases to be chatty, and moves from a casual seated posture into a power stance, legs spread, moving frenetically as necessary. Brian pulls the trier (a little scoop that catches beans in the roasting chamber) repeatedly during this part of the roast, waiting for the fullest expression of flavor without going a second further into the badlands of burning. “Searching for the white whale” he says, of the elusive perfect roast. He speaks fondly of the times he has caught a glimpse of the perfect roast, which most recently was with a batch of single-origin Sulawesi. If you’re smart enough to be on subscription, you can attest this was uncommonly delicious.
This isn’t some new-age communion with machine though. Feel is paired with the reproducibility of record keeping, and to continue with the oceanic theme, Brian says “we’re going to need a bigger binder.” Brian keeps good notes of all of his roasts, so that he knows what works, and what doesn’t. Logs chart both the mechanics of what went on during each roast, when he introduced air, as well as the temperatures at each interval. They also note the characteristics of the results when cupping, which are often far from the snooty notes you may have seen on a bag of beans. Here it’s about using an internal language, whatever conveys a desired flavor he got when nailing a roast such that he can smell for it next time works. Sometimes the internal poetry is inscrutable. One note reads “makes me want to say ‘damn!”
There’s more than just professional pride and his desire for perfection at stake here, although they quite clearly are driving him through his 13 hour roasting days. There’s also his personal cup. It’s the chef's prerogative. He of course took some extra of that Sulawesi, and more recently a Costa Rican for his personal stash. It’s not always good though. He drank through pounds of bad decaf he refused to sell in a practice of admirable penitence for a bad roast.
As frenetic as the process can be, there’s one final sensory experience. At the end of a long day of roasting, the machine is turned off. Brian all of a sudden is alone, in an eerie quiet space, absent the thrumming and rolling of his orange companion.
About the Author: Alastair Cairns is a known loiterer at farmers markets. When not managing accessibility services for the deaf and hard of hearing, he is also a freelance writer. He has written on e-sports for gaming publications, canoeing for outdoor magazines like Adirondack Life, and writes for Providence Monthly and The Bay about things that are tasty in Rhode Island and the people that make them. This article was brought to you by broken pekoe Assam, as well as a lot of Borealis Nicaraguan and Sulawesi.