Update on Roasting at Home

by Don Holly

Fate has a way of humbling those who think they know it all. Two days after I delivered my last article to VirtualCoffee, titled "Home Coffee Roasting", I received a Williams & Sonoma mail-order catalog and saw an item called the Fresh Roast Coffee Roaster for $150, which I immediately ordered. Five days after I received that model I received a competing brand as a complimentary sample from Hearthware. So, before my article, which recommended using hot air popcorn poppers for coffee roasting, could even be put onto the Internet, it was outdated. (It's scary when reality turns out to still be faster than the Internet.) I now offer an update on Home Coffee Roasting given the advent of two new models of units purposefully designed for such a task, which are already enjoying retail exposure.

My understanding is that a patent fight, resolved finally by the passage of time, had prevented the introduction of hot-air based home coffee roasters. Now that the patent has expired, two machines are readily available to consumers who want to roast coffee the way they want it, when they want it (well, almost). Apparently there are also several other manufacturers of home appliances that have their own versions of consumer coffee roasters nearly ready for introduction to the marketplace. The two brave preliminary players are Fresh Roast and Hearthware, whose units came on the market in September through various retail channels, including mail order, big box and specialty retailers. Through the holiday season, I estimate that they will sell at least 50,000 units combined. It may not get the kind of attention that breadmakers did several years ago, but it will probably do better as a category than did yogurt machines back in the late '70s.

So how do they work? Well, I won't repeat all the adages that I shared in my first article on this subject (it should still be available in the archives of VirtualCoffee for perusal if you missed it), but they still hold true even with machines that are engineered to be coffee roasters. It is obvious that the manufacturers focused on producing a machine that could be retailed at less than $200-a magic threshold for consumer acceptance of a small appliance. Simple and obvious features that would have improved the performance are just plain missing-more than likely a consideration of economy. As a result, these machines are amateurish devices at best and cannot produce a consistently great development of roast. However, here are two of my previously published adages that are relevant to restate:

  • Coffee that is freshly roasted by an amateur is better than stale professionally roasted coffee
  • Roasting your own coffee at home sure is fun

Several members of the Technical Standards Committee of the SCAA came to the lab of the Specialty Coffee Institute to put these two machines through their paces. We pulled out the stopwatches, thermometers, and cupping spoons, and ran four batches each through the two machines we had on hand. We used a Costa Rica Tarrazu SHB-EB coffee for all the tests, which is a good representative of specialty coffee, although it is demanding on a roaster because of its density. We also produced a roast from our laboratory sample roaster, an electric STA IMPIANTI fitted with one of Agtron's roast development controllers, to provide a basis of comparison. We alternated between the roasters' batch cycles to allow the machines to cool down between roasts. We then cupped (the professional taste evaluation procedure) samples from each of the batches to evaluate the quality of roast development. It would be unfair to the machines to reveal the opinions of the participants-we were having too much fun to be too scientific-but it is important to note that there was not a solid consensus as to which machine was the favorite. Both had trade-offs. The Hearthware roasts three ounces versus the Fresh Roast's two ounces. The Fresh Roast operates at about half the decibels of the Hearthware. Both are easy to use and clean, and both come with appropriate instructions and mediocre green bean samples, worthy only of breaking-in the machine for the first few roasts. With the built-in cooling cycles, they are an improvement over a hot-air popcorn popper.

So the question remaining is, will these machines foster a huge growth in home roasting? Possibly, although such phenomena require unpredictable forces (e.g. a Seinfeld character gets one and this event being the subject matter of a popular episode). Only fanatics will use a home roaster regularly--it generates too much heat, noise, and aroma to be operated inside a house--the rest will gather dust in kitchen cabinets. But having home coffee roasters easily available to consumers is a good thing, for many reasons, and I applaud the efforts of Fresh Roast and Hearthware for bringing their models to the market.

Don Holly is administrative director for the Specialty Coffee Association of America. He can be reached at dholly@scaa.org with questions or comments.

Don Holly Don Holly is administrative director for the Specialty Coffee Association of America. He can be reached at dholly@scaa.org with questions or comments.

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