Technology advances affect every aspect of our lives. And, of course, that includes coffee. I want to take a look at how technology is advancing specifically for the art and craft that is coffee roasting.
The third wave of coffee, the specialty coffee craze, and the age of the Internet/smart everything have all created a need in coffee producers and consumers alike for transparency, transparency, transparency. The focus on quality, the environment, the ethics of trade and health have us all scrambling to know as much as possible about what we purchase, and especially what we put in our bodies. It is the internet and smart devices that has given us the expectation that we can get answers to any question we have in a snap. It is also the internet and smart devices that are allowing us to generate and share more information than ever. They have created the demand as well as giving us the tools to meet it.
Profiling software has been created specifically for coffee roasters and the coffee community to compile and analyze roasting data. Applications like Cropster allow roasters to register information about their roasted batches in sharp detail. Once that is done, it also allows you to also note cupping details alongside that information. What this does is make the data accessible to whoever needs it. It also encourages consistency across the board; you can look at all the details and replicate them. These results can be shared throughout the coffee community which also means that you can learn from others’ experiences.
On a smaller scale, this type of application allows you to achieve stability and consistency within your business. Most likely, you don’t have just one roaster at your facility; each of your roasters will be able to consult this data to ensure optimum results every time. And even if you do have only one roaster, that person will be able to verify (and verify quickly) that they are adhering to the standards agreed upon by your team every time. This may seem like it takes some of the creativity and intuition our of roasting, but consumers are looking for a brand they can rely on. If you can give them that through consistency and high quality products, you’ll have room to experiment and get creative. In fact, having such data on hand may help steer your creative and experimental processes, providing a foundation of knowledge to launch off of.
Something else that I find exciting about this type of technology is the potential for even more knowledge about our coffee. If we can collect a big enough data set about terroir, processing, roast and cupping results we can begin to understand how these elements affect coffee positively and negatively. Most of us believe that terroir has an effect on coffee characteristics, but there is, as yet, no conclusive evidence as to what that effect is. With this type of information sharing, we may be able to do that and to tailor our specialty coffee (and even non-specialty coffee) to its optimum form.
Cropster was originally intended to collect origin data and roasters have taken it over. It will be important and exciting to see if it, or programs like it, allow the type of data collection and analysis that could answer our questions about coffee and help us continue to make it better and better.
Next, we’ll move away from cyber advances and toward advances in our chemical understanding of coffee. Scientists recently studied the volatile compounds that appear once the coffee is roasted; volatile organic compounds are ones that easily become gaseous. These are the culprits behind those distinctive cracks that accompany coffee roasting. This type of specific study has not been done extensively with coffee. Something they discovered, which is somewhat intuitive for anyone who has more than a pedestrian-level knowledge of coffee preparation, is that different varietals release these volatile compounds in different patterns.
Researchers were able to distinguish Arabica from Robusta based on higher mass volatiles; this could give some insight as to the distinct differences between the two primary parents of coffee.
This type of detailed monitoring doesn’t yet have any real implications for daily roasting practices; the distinction between compounds, their time and pattern of release, and the variety (as well as terroir, process) could presumptively allow for much more specification in the roasting process. It could also, I can imagine, lead to tailored, haute couture coffee. On an essential level, it could help roasters perfect their roasting processes.
Beyond science and technology, the changes in the coffee roasting world are also occurring on a business level. Each time I write one of these blogs, I imagine that my audience is the aspiring micro roaster, someone who caters to the local scale; or, at least, that isn’t as massive as whatever roaster Starbucks uses. That wouldn’t be the case if I were writing 10 years ago. Micro roasters used to be considered out-dated and an automatic business failure. These days, they have a market, especially with a generation that is constantly looking for one-of-a-kind niche things. And those giant coffee roasters are now seeking out micro-roasters to work with: either improving and expanding them, or benefiting from the success of their uniqueness. If you are a small or big roaster, you may find yourself creating a synthesizing relationship with another business. The small benefits from the reach and budget of the large; the large benefits from the niche of the small. It can be a win-win, especially if the integrity of the small is held intact.
Before the 2nd wave of coffee production, everyone roasted their coffee at home. That was the first wave of the mass production of coffee; the subsequent wave saw mass-produced pre-roasted coffee. Now, in the third wave, in the specialty coffee movement, local roasters, and roasting at home are re-emerging. This movement moves toward haute couture coffee; your coffee is something not many other people have access to.
What the home-roasting trend means for you roastery owners is that you should cater to those clients. They need machinery, they need raw beans, they need the know-how that your roasters can offer, and they need a community to talk about the failures and successes of trying to roast coffee at home. You can provide those things, ensuring that your professional business doesn’t fold to at-home amateurs. Host events and classes, either paid for or free, to foster community and share insight. Those types of events will garner loyal business. Sell roasting equipment, have your team be knowledgeable about at-home roasting techniques, and sell raw beans. You could also foster a relationship with your raw bean supplier; if you recommend people to them they may be able to give you a discount, or something of the like.
Some are calling the next wave, the fourth wave, the wave of coffee flavor. The third wave focuses on the highest quality and increased transparency; the fourth wave will focus on distinctive flavor profiles, uniqueness and aesthetic pleasure. This will also be a wave of increased experimentation with coffee, in regards to brewing, blending and roasting. The 4th wave roasters are the ones who will perfect the cold brew roast and, perhaps, discover the best roast for nitrogen infused cold brew as well. We’ve already seen the increasing trend toward scientific influence on coffee. This includes coffee processing and roasting, using, for example, highly specific data for preparation, as mentioned above. This also can be seen in brewing device designs that reflect chemistry sets much more than they reflect your parents’ automatic drip machine or your grandparents’ percolator. We’ll also be considering terroir and genetics a lot more when we choose and grow our coffee; as a roaster, your knowledge of these factors will help you choose the best coffee and create the most unique, flavorful blends.
Knowing your coffee trends, be a part of coffee conferences and competitions, will help you stay ahead of the market curb, bring true uniqueness to your business and your clients, and create the best coffee possible. Know your technologies, know your trends. Whether it’s the latest in digital scales, infrared roasting, or it’s a data app for consistency or a research paper for the best roasting time and temperature–never assume you know everything. Especially with third and fourth wave customers, you’re going to be expected to have as much knowledge as possible as a professional in the coffee world.