Rumbling, “authentic” machinery; exotic, mountainous faraway lands; the element of fire. Can a life in coffee involve all of these things? Sure, but they are by no means the sum of a roaster’s experience.
Any coffee roaster knows there’s a whole lot more happening behind the scenes — much of it completely at odds with the romantic image of an intensely focused roaster carefully lifting a tryer from a hulking mass of vintage steel machinery to her or his nostrils, keenly sensing the live changes in the beans that she or he has so lovingly nurtured to this point.
To clear up some of these misconceptions people may have about the working life of a full-time roaster, at the third annual Golden Bean North America event that took place in Portland, Oregon, last month, Daily Coffee News took the opportunity to gather a six-by-six snapshot of the life and times of a roasting professional, asking six general questions of six randomly selected roasters in attendance. We were fortunate enough to chat with:
- Rio Prince of Corvallis Coffee Works, based out of Corvallis, Ore., winner of several bronze and silver medals in various categories both this year and last.
- Golden Bean pourover/filter coffee Bronze Medal roaster Stacey Lynden, who’s been at it on Vancouver, BC-based Pallet Coffee‘s 15-kilo Joper for almost four years.
- Mike Perry of Klatch Coffee, whose 21 years of roasting have culminated lately in a three-time Golden Bean top prize streak, among other distinctions.
- Rhys Gilyeat, who’s rounding his first year roasting for Groundwork Coffee and used the company’s 2-kilo Primo sample roaster to snag multiple medals this year.
- Will Andrews, roaster for Press Coffee out of Phoenix, Ariz., a Golden Bean gold medalist this year in the coveted Straight Espresso category.
- Last but not least, 2017 US Cup Tasters Champion Steve Cuevas, the head roaster for Ukiah, Calif.’s Black Oak Coffee Roasters who has been manning a 15-kilo Probat and took home the title for Overall Champion Roaster at this year’s Golden Bean.
For our first question, we asked what people mean when they describe roasting as an art. For the second question, we asked, “What’s the greatest coffee you’ve ever roasted?” Our third question focused more on bloopers than highlights related to green coffee sourcing.
For the fourth of these six questions, we asked:
What is the biggest public misconception about roasters, or about the profession of roasting?
Will: When people are looking to get into roasting, they have this beautiful, romanticized idea of what roasting is. And it is incredible; you do get to work with incredible coffees, and turn this green coffee bean that was sourced from across the world where people worked incredibly hard to get it to you. You get to turn their work into this incredible finished product. It’s great, but it’s also stressful. There’s a lot of variables outside of your control.
Especially in Phoenix, Arizona, in the desert, we’re just in a warehouse… You have to forget about the art of what you’re doing and see it’s 40 degrees hotter in here than it was two months ago, and my coffee isn’t going to be as good because it’s sitting hotter… Fighting with these variables that are beyond your control, people don’t think about the frustrations of roasting, and then also when you’re just sitting there for eight hours a day, watching, plotting numbers, manually which is how it started, or just watching a line progress on Cropster. You have to have a certain kind of personality.
Stacey: The general public, a lot of the time when they think coffee they think it’s your university job, like, “Well, what are you gonna do later?” No, no, this is it; this is what I’m doing from now on. I might not have gone to university for it, but I put in my time, for sure.
Rio: It’s got a rockstar persona, but really it all just comes down to a lot of hard work.
Steve: To everybody it’s a glamorous job. It’s like, “we’re roasting, we’re roasters, we’re the coolest thing at the coffee shop…” It’s not a glamorous job. it isn’t the coolest job. I’m doing crazy hours. I’m doing sample roasts. I’m doing tons of cupping. The amount of caffeine that I consume for work is a lot. I tell people, “This is an adult job. You can’t be late; you can’t be sick; you are responsible to show up every day…. The amount of time you want to put into your craft, your passion, your career, a lot of people don’t want to put that time in. As soon as I let them know you’re going to have to be here, here, do this, do that, they just drop off, and then I don’t hear any more questions about “hey, how do I become a roaster.”
Rhys: People have a fairly good understanding of what coffee roasters do, but maybe not on the specialty coffee level, knowing how much knowledge and art we put into it. The intricacies and how much we dive into the science behind everything. [They think we] just turn it on “burn” and walk away. Maybe they forget that we’re watching that bean for every single second of that roast… We’re total data nerds; we love all the data we can find. That’s one thing that I guess people don’t quite understand yet — that we love our gadgets and data.
Mike: Some people think that the travel side is luxurious. That’s a misconception. Airports are not fun; planes are not fun. The people are great, but a lot of times you’re in a really dinky hole in a wall, in rooms that you wouldn’t feel safe in. It’s not the luxury travel that some people may think. It’s also not the dangerous travel that “Dangerous Grounds” and Todd Carmichael made it [seem] at one point. It’s somewhere in between. The people are great, but the travel is tough — a lot of beans and rice.