Further Explained: Sharing Our Roast Profiles

Posted on August 13th, 2013

By: Joe Marrocco

In today’s Specialty Coffee Industry, an inventive idea tends to become a ripple that affects us all. We all witness banter back and forth between industry professional. Some of these discussions have led to breakthroughs; others have petered out into oblivion. The introduction of our roast profiles has inspired some productive discussion, and I would like to elaborate further on our direction.

Recently we, at Café Imports, began including our internal production roast profiles on some of our Beanologies. Our hope in this is to peel back the curtain on what we are already doing, and provide further insight into the coffees we are proprietors of; supporting our clients who are buying and roasting these lovely coffees that find any sense of community, comraderie, or help from this information. This comes after countless requests from our clients for this kind of collaboration. Mostly, the feedback has been resoundingly positive.  However it has also been met with critique from a few, and even negativity from fewer still. Some feel that this part of the life of our products is simply none of our business. The assertion that these profiles are only for the newbies, or the less artistic or capable is not accurate.  Many of our clients who are supportive of this venture are long time roasters who are highly respected in their field.  When new information is shared, good or bad, and contextualized correctly, with proper discussion surrounding it, we all win. 

To argue that providing our personal roast profiles is like giving a loaded gun to an inexperienced shooter is not fair to anyone who has traded  blood, sweat, and tears for getting their roasting operation started.  We believe that more credit is due to the type of people choosing to buy high quality coffees from a company like Cafe Imports.  Just because a roaster isn’t from a well known coffee company, doesn’t mean they can’t understand the importance of playing with coffee in the roaster, or fully grasp that their roaster and bean probe read-out is different from ours (some of the main points raised against this).  Our customers understand that our profiles are our profiles, in our roaster, in Minnesota, during that given day.  They understand these are not plug and play recipes, but rather a peek into our methodology and approach to a coffee given very specific circumstances.

Historical Context:

When I interviewed for Café Imports, Tim Chapdelaine, sat me down and discussed my possible role within the company; mainly focusing on topics related to my sales position. Toward the end of this conversation, he asked me a rather interesting question: “What else would you like to do or be involved in while here at Cafe Imports?”

“What? You are opening the door for me to do things beyond what would already be amazing job at this already amazing company??”

I thought for a moment, and I explained to Tim my passion for education. “I want to learn as much as I can and bring as much of that information to others.” In this thought was the idea that I needed to get more information out to roasters. When searching for help beyond the walls of my former company, I found precious little and I wanted to change that.

I was already an instructor for the SCAA and a Chapter Representative for the BGA, teaching strapping new baristas the ropes at the espresso machine. But, at Cafe Imports I have the opportunity to go beyond this and dig into origin, sensory analysis, deeper into roasting, sample roasting, and more. My background in coffee before Cafe Imports involved production roasting for an amazing coffee company in St Louis, where I was extremely fortunate to have worked alongside of one of the SCAA’s top roasting instructors, Andrew Timko. His knowledge was an asset in my development, and he has put this to paper by building workshops for the SCAA. So, of course I believe roasting is one of the most important skill sets that we on the production end of coffee can invest our time into. I was fortunate to be in a situation where I was coached by Andrew, and the other outstanding roasters there. However, not every roaster has this opportunity.  But, this should not take away our perception of their viability or craftsmanship.

All of the links in the chain of coffee play an important role in carrying the legacy of quality from seed to cup.  With such a void of readily available in depth coffee roasting training, specifically as it pertains to profiles, I believe there is a chunk of that chain that is missing. I believe that as companies collaborate on how they are roasting coffees, and discuss their profiles and outcomes, we can formulate much more reasonable profiles. I know that roasters want this. 

How do I know this? At Café Imports we are in a very unique position. We are on the phones and in email conversations with coffee roasters all day, every day. This is what we do. We have candid conversations with roasters of all sizes ranging from containers a month, to a few broken bags. The number one thing we hear is that roasters are kind of the in weeds when it comes to building profiles. There are tools to teach a roaster how to build a profile,  but this requires a lot of trial and error, and often the information is not clear, or basic (and vague). (The SCAA has classes on how to build profiles,  but does not have a position on what a good or bad profile looks like. It leaves this open for roasters to continue working out of trial and error, since no “best practice” has been decided upon.) many other sources use industry terms like “city” or “full city” are used and a good start, but what do those really mean? From what I can find, these are not a concrete way at looking at even the end of the roast, muchless any kind of road map of how the roaster got from A-B. 

The sentiment against helping these folks (from those in disagreement) is two fold:

1)      We had to pay our dues as new roasters without anyone throwing us bones, and so now it is your turn.

2)      They simply won’t or cannot understand the complexities of the roaster, profiles, and the craft of roasting

Why are profiles so hard to come by? Historically, roast profiles and blends have been a proprietary trade secret. I know that it has been said that this is really not the case. However, I very strongly disagree. When asked by customers, roasters may be a bit more inclined to share a profile. But, put it online for the world to see and critique? Even those roasters who have been brave enough and progressive enough to try it have been met with hard hitting and usually unsound, loud critique. They have stopped.

Where does this culture of tight lips come from? Roasters for many years were roasting very similar coffees; Kenya AA, Colombia Supremo, Brazil Strictly Soft 17/18 Screen Size, etc… and these were the selections that the really high end companies would be using for single origins, and in their signature blends. With the similar coffees, roast profiles and the ratios of coffees in a blend were really the key separating factors that one company could distinguish itself from another. Fast forward to today and it is obviously a totally different situation. We have a major roasting publication, the Roasters Guild, and a few forums for roasters to share information.  In addition we have an unprecedented amount of separation and proprietary ownership of specific micro-lots of coffee, processed differently, grown at different altitudes, the list goes on. Roasters are now not as focused on the proprietary nature of their roast profiles, but rather their coffee and sources. Sound roast profiles of these coffees can then, of course, add a deeper level of differentiation.

Proprietary ownership, private back of the house meetings, and secret recipes have long been discarded from the barista culture. Information within this culture flows freely. Brewing recipes, extraction rates, drink recipes, water quality, grind setting, every detail of the process of producing a cup of delicious coffee has been publicly fleshed out over and over. Training procedures, information flow within companies, leadership roles, job descriptions, even pay rates have all been put out there on the World Wide Web.

To say that roast profiles are much more difficult transition from one machine to the other is simply not true.  Variables in brewing methods, water quality, grinder settings, socio-economic variance in which different companies operate, altitude, machine idiosyncrasies… These all vary greatly. Yet, baristas have found a way to take information from one another and apply it in a way that works for their setting. These data  have not gone on to the web without complainers saying it shouldn’t happen, but they went out nonetheless; and I would say, we as a community are better for it.  If someone would have just said, “No, no, they could never pull a shot like this at high altitude, so lets not even share the information because most likely they can’t handle it,” where would we be today?  Similarly, does everyone who brews an aeropress of your company’s coffee have to use your recipe?  No.  Us sharing information is not a mandate, it is what worked in our lab, and our customers can freely take it or leave it.  

Another apt analogy is baking. An excellent baker understands the concepts of great bread making. This craftsperson can apply general information, look at recipes, look at past history, feel the dough while kneading, and apply aesthetic input unique to their desired outcome all the while not feeling as though their art has been infringed upon by the audacity of someone else having written out and shared their recipe.

Another clear issue that people have taken with us presenting this information is that we are an importer and this is none of our business. It has even been said that this would be a great plan executed toward bringing new roasters into the industry, inferring we are trying to build clientele of less seasoned roasters. This would be a very shortsighted goal for us. We want partners that represent the coffees we source well, not simply the largest client list.  We are not the type of broker that is just flipping containers, or wringing new roasters out before they fall away. We are focused on sourcing with intention, and selling coffee in a way that honors the producer and the hard work he or she has put into the coffee.  Without coffees being done justice in the roaster and behind the bar, all the work we did to get the top coffees to market is for naught.  We want to work with roasters who are going to be successful. I am not speaking of simple financial success, but success in the ability to skillfully present the lovely coffee that does justice to its journey. This is our business. Roasters are our business. Being a roaster myself, and being in a place of freedom and afforded the opportunity to share with our clients all that I know and don’t know, I, along with others who are willing, can kick this conversation off.

It is time. It is time that roasters join the ranks of the other culinary artists who are sharing information freely. Systems like Cropster have been built for this kind of information exchange. Roasters are linking to each other to begin sharing this kind of information. However, there is still a sense of fear that if roast profiles escape the roaster’s doors into the public arena, the proprietary ownership of that coffee has been compromised, or the artistic expression of a roaster is now less valuable.  We are not selling roasted coffee, have no gain in holding our roast profiles secretly in a drawer, and can use them as the first trial for roasters, or at least a jumping point for conceptual approaches to coffees.  We are simply sharing what worked for us, in our lab, on our roaster.  While this information isn’t 100% applicable for every situation, our customers can at least see what we tried.  A roaster can look up one of our profiles, see what is different or the same as another profile, see what changed in the nature of the sensory experience with this coffee due to this curve, and launch from there into their own artistic expression with that coffee (or a similar coffee). We will be filling in more and more detail into these profiles: taste notes, percentages of weight loss, Agtron scores. And OF COURSE there is the freedom to simply disagree with us, which is great too!  These can be taken or left, used or not used; we just want to open the curtain for those who wish to see inside. 

James Hoffman, one of the most eloquent coffee bloggers and gifted coffee professionals of our time, (someone who I personally have a great deal of respect for and have learned a lot from) recently wrote a blog in which he shares his feelings about our project. He is exactly right when he says that roaster equipment varies greatly. This is why I want to be very clear in saying that if you follow the exact profile, gas pressure, temperature chart, etc… that I am hitting on our Probat L5, you will likely have bad results. This does not, however, render this information worthless. We are not claiming to be presenting to our customers a magic bullet that will solve all of their roasting issues. This is a tool. Value lies in seeing the path I took from green to brown. Simply giving the destination of City+, Viennese, etc… is great and helpful, but we believe that seeing how I got there is so much more valuable. Seeing when I applied heat, dampened the airflow, and dropped the coffee, along with every other point of interest along the journey is additional supporting imformation to our clients. It is imperfect, fluid, and only a point of entry for further discussion on those particular coffees. This is not a prescription for success.

Keep in mind,

We do not want to tell you, our clients, how to roast. We do not want to tell our partners who are growing coffee how to manage their farms and process their coffee. However, we do want to be your partners and help in any way we can to set you up for success. We do not wish to insult you, or unveil any trade secrets. We want to encourage communication and collaboration to spur on innovation in coffee roasting. We want you to see the intent with which we approach turning these green beans brown internally and the power of sharing experiences and building community.  This is meant to be collaborative and start discussion.   When there is an abundance of resources providing a color scheme or customer support surrounding roasting in our possession, and we have the ability to share it, we will.  We hope that you will be open to receiving it. We hope that you know us by now, and know that our intentions are to continue to push the boundaries in the craft of specialty coffee.

-Joe Marrocco  

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