What to Know When Starting a Coffee Roasting Business

When you are starting a new business of any kind, you must have a vision. There is a reason you’ve decided to start a coffee roasting business. Maybe you love coffee so much you want to make your living off of it. Maybe you see an opening in the market that you want to fill with your own innovative brand idea. Whatever it is, you need to make it as specific as possible while still allowing room for flexibility. You may envision producing only lightly roasted single-origins to supply to independent specialty coffee shops and then find that your reach (or your profits) are not big enough.

A good first step for your business planning is to get to know your contemporaries (also known as your competition) in the coffee roasting business. You may already know who they are and what they do; they may be the reason you’re starting this venture to begin with. George Howell Coffee was founded by a coffee veteran and influencer with a focus on coffee sourcing. That company has an offshoot company, Terroir Coffee, that focuses even more specifically on the influences of regional characteristics and farming techniques on the coffee crop. Stumptown Coffee, from Portland, focuses on roasting the freshest coffee possible. They don’t forget about sourcing, of course, focusing on the coffee crops found right at the equator in unique microclimates; but, they make roasting an art. Their tagline is: “coffee roasted daily.”

Know what you want to do and develop your brand. Every batch sourced by Terroir Coffee and roasted/sold by George Howell is labeled with the Terroir Coffee seal and all of the Terroir information relevant to that batch. Maybe you want to be the coffee roaster that gives the world a robusta bean that coffee purists won’t scoff at. Maybe you don’t think you need an actual coffee shop attached to your roastery but down the line you find this might be the next best logical step for your business.

One way to help you navigate all these questions and decisions is to assemble a strong team. Find people who know things that you don’t, who are excited about things you’re excited about, who are creative, who are organized, who have experience in coffee or marketing, and who bring strong ideas and a collaborative energy to the table. Find mentors in the coffee business, network with roasters and wholesalers and shop-owners and customers to see what people are talking about about coffee. As a roaster you’re going to be buying from someone (or someones) and selling to someone else; fostering relationships ahead of time gives you insight into the business and a leg up on necessary business connections.

You need to know where and how you’re going to get your raw coffee. Are you going to be the roaster who goes directly to the farms, shops around, finds the perfect batch of beans after weeks of trial and error? Or are you going to contract yourself to coffee shops who do the sourcing and then roast-to-order to meet their needs? Some combination of both? Or are you looking for the cheapest, largest quantity beans that you can blend and roast and sell on a mass scale? Are you looking for a classic coffee flavor, or dynamic, complex flavor profiles and a rotating product offering. If you’re going directly to farms, research the regional characteristics to determine which regions are most likely to give you the coffee of your dreams. If you’re going through a wholesaler or wholesalers, make sure you know where and how they get their coffee, to ensure quality from physical characteristics to flavor profile.

Knowing your coffee vision is not only important for marketing, it’s also important when it comes time to invest in equipment and space. If you’re going the small-batch, specialty coffee route, a hole-in-the-wall and a small roasting machine should suit your needs, at least at first. If you are super new to the business, meaning you are learning and growing and developing your brand as you go, you don’t want a machine that is too large. Large machines aren’t conducive to experimentation because you just end up with a lot of waste. If you have customers lined up you should crunch the numbers, calculating roasting time and daily output with the estimated needs of your customers, plus any new customers you’ll be adding. Unless you know you’ll be doing a large volume right off the bat, start with a 1-5kg roaster; for the most part, one of those should serve your needs until your business grows and you can afford to invest in something larger. Starting out, too, a smaller roaster gives you more control in general. The type of machine you get is also going to depend on whether you’re using gas or electric, and that’s mostly dependent on space (if it’s gas accessible). Some roasters go high-tech, new-age, latest model and some are committed to the third-wave hipster aesthetic and seek something retro and/or stylized.

I recommend asking the people in the business that you know and admire for advice on commercial roasting machine purchasing. Do some online research as well, comparing prices, but also looking at reviews to get the idea of what machine will best serve your needs reliably and without costing your entire first year’s profits.

As a roaster, you also need to know how to cup coffee. While you do not have to do this with customers or the public, you’ll need to be able to cup so that you and your team can taste and perfect your roasts. Cupping is a very specific method for tasting coffee batches, testing the roast for aroma, flavor, uniformity (does every cup taste the same, how does time affect the brew) and any defects. And if you’re interested and willing, cupping is an excellent way to network and foster a community around your roastery, procuring new customers and those that are loyally returning. Other events you can host for the coffee community include latte art competitions, educational classes (like roasting 101 or the history of coffee), and even art or music shows that showcase your space and your business in an artsy, positive light. The coffee community is one of your strongest resources, especially as a new business; if you don’t feel ready to host anything at your new space, get connected and attend other companies’ events so you can learn how it’s done and have a guest list prepared for when you’re ready to do it yourself.

Learning how to roast and roasting your coffee just right takes time and experimentation. As with any business, you have to spend money to make money. You have to buy equipment (roasting machine, cupping cups, trays, storage containers, packaging), a space, get the right permits. You also are going to have to buy a lot of raw coffee to practice roasting and perfect your roast. If you can invest in a smaller roaster for experimenting, that might be ideal. Just remember that the smaller roaster will produce different results than a larger one. It may be a good idea to invest in some cheaper coffee beans while you’re perfect your roasting technique. This is also an argument for going small before you go large; it’s better to roast multiple small batches than to ruin one huge batch. You’re always going to want to experiment with new beans, and having a small machine is the best option for that. You don’t want to buy that super rare single-origin only to burn all of it to ruins.

Most people recommend buying as much in cash or with your own money as you can; this includes your machinery, space and raw coffee. You want to do your best to get some cash flow as soon as possible. Try to have at least one big customer before you open; ideally you’ll have more than one, but sometimes it can take a while to get people on board. This means you’ll want to have your machine up and running as soon as possible so you can get samples out to coffee shops. A strong strategy is to find a coffee shop that is willing to feature your roasts; not only are they your customer, but they’re helping advertise so you can get more.

Whether you’re doing the roasting yourself, or you’re hiring a roasting master/roasting team, make sure you know what you’re doing and that you do it well. Roasting becomes an intuitive talent with time. Roasting a good batch of coffee is as much about intuition, smell, and sound as it is about science and math. Knowing your customer, vision and brand will dictate the darkness of your roasts. Most specialty shops focus on light roasts, especially with rare-sourced coffees. Espresso blends, however, tend to be darker; but, there’s an art to dark roasting without burning the beans to a bitter crisp. Practice and sampling make perfect.

Create a brand and a product you believe in. If your passion and knowledge are evident on your packages, customers with trust you, they’ll come back and they’ll bring or send their friends. You want a truthful, informative label for each product that’s true to your company’s vision. Whether it’s poetic narratives about the coffee source and roasting process or succinct and specific descriptions of the flavor profile, PBFY.com can give you customizable labels and packaging that will keep your coffee fresh and your brand fresher.

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5 Comments

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  1. That’s how it always is. No one in the business world started their business as big as they are now. Everyone starts from scratch, but what’s important is you have passion in what you’re doing. In my opinion, you can make the most out of your business if you treat every day as though you’re just doing your hobby. I love coffee, but I don’t think I’ll be making it a business. Maybe these pieces of advice on this blog will be useful for me when the time comes…

  2. Of course, it is important to choose a business that is driven by passion. When it comes to coffee business, it becomes more important because it needs dedication and the drive to come out as one of the best products in a market that is highly competitive.

  3. Absolutely correct, no one is big in business from start, everyone has to begin from scratch… Whether its a coffee business or any other, passion is must… One of my friend is looking to start a cafe, this blog could be of great use for him. Thanks for the informative post!

  4. Start small when you’re starting your business from scratch. Start big when your brand is already known and has loyal customers. Prepare a comprehensive business plan. Create a brand that has its own style and uniqueness. The secret ingredient to having a successful business is your dedication and passion to things you like to do.

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