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Why does a beautiful roast matter?

Five Senses CoffeeDamien Steponavicius 15 February 2019

My last article explored the topic ‘What is Roast Development?’ and sought to blow away the cloud of misconceptions which veils the roasting process. This article was intended to be the companion piece, the ‘how to’ to complement the initial ‘what’. It was supposed to explain the minutiae of roasting and explore the myriad variables, challenges, tools and decisions involved. It was going to be laden with science-y terms and industry-speak.

But as I trundled on I realised that, although illuminating for those with a vested interest in roasting, it would be heavy going for most others. Because like almost anything, if you don’t understand the ‘why’, you rarely care about the ‘how’. Background is important because therein lies the key to investment and engagement. There is no resonance behind, “Luke… I am your father” without first hearing, “But I was going to Tosche station to pick up some power converters.” Well, something like that…

And in coffee, an industry heavy with questions and concerns around its human cost and environmental impact, building engagement with and investment in these questions is paramount. A lot of work goes into creating a beautifully roasted cup of coffee, but unfortunately the cost/benefit ratio is currently looking increasingly unsustainable, particularly at the producer level. I quickly understood that if I wanted people to care about the challenges the industry is facing, I needed to build value around their daily coffee experience. I realised that before outlining ‘how’ we set about achieving the perfect roast, it was more important to first highlight ‘why’.

Roasting-WA

The roaster occupies a critical space in the life-cycle of a coffee. We are given a raw product (green beans) and need to construct a roast profile which delivers the perfect level of roast development (RD) to ensure the final cup of coffee reaches its true potential.

Get the roast profile wrong, and even the best barista can only hope to provide you with a coffee that is underwhelming or (at least for us in specialty coffee), gasp, ‘generic’.

‘Big deal’, I might hear you say. ‘It’s only coffee’.

True. Like anything else, depending on your point of view, coffee can simply be seen as a basic commodity, a beverage with no more significance than the small part it plays in your morning routine.

But here’s the thing.

Photo: @brewtheory

When a roaster gets it right, coffee is an experience which resonates far beyond the physical walls of our roastery or your local café.

A beautifully roasted cup of coffee does justice to a legacy inherited from the grower which is then passed on down the line, intact.

When prepared by an attentive barista, each little sip becomes one of the final few steps in a journey that arcs continents and communities; a fusion of flavours and textures forged half a world away, crafted by many hands. And an experience that makes you stop and sit back, savouring it for even the briefest of moments, just thinking ‘yum’.

Yes, it’s ‘only’ coffee, and it only forms a small part of your day. But there is a subtle, unadorned beauty to routine, as repetition slowly helps build memory and meaning. Over time, you become used to the simple joy it brings and you find yourself looking ever more forward to that humble little cup of liquid gold.

Now, there’s something quietly wonderful about that, isn’t there?

Which is why I feel it is incumbent upon every roaster to do their utmost in crafting a roast profile which does justice to the original beans. Once exported, producers no longer have any control over how their millions of tiny green beans – the physical embodiment of years of hard graft, toil and investment – will be consumed by the world. Their livelihoods, and by extension those of their families and even communities, can become somewhat contingent upon how successful their roaster is at harnessing and showcasing the latent flavours and textures in their coffee.

If we do an amazing job at representing their coffee, more people are likely to enjoy it. And the more it is enjoyed, the more your local café will look to order. And the more your café orders, the more we will look to source from the next harvest. The time-worn flows of demand and supply can help build ever-deeper relationships between us and our producers, providing more support and resources for them and their communities as time moves on.

Now, I don’t want to be accused of overreach or delusions of grandeur here. A roaster is not king-maker when it comes to coffee, or the fulcrum on which the industry balances. The coffee industry is a ridiculously complex behemoth and I don’t want to oversimplify the enormous, multifaceted challenges it faces or claim to posit potential solutions. But I maintain that the responsibilities – and opportunities – of our particular role are significant. I would never assert that a roaster who aspires to do their best will change the world for the better. But I do wonder what unforeseen harm we might cause if we don’t. Butterfly effect, and all the rest.

I commenced my first article with the suggestion that roast development is “Quite simply… one of the most important concepts in the coffee world. Its scope and nature determine the very flavours, colours and textures of every bean in every cup.” And indeed it is, I couldn’t agree with me more.

Roasting, and the building a roast profile which truly does justice to the efforts of the grower, takes a lot of time, analysis, research and thought. As we shall see in the next article, there are myriad challenges, variables, tools and decisions which can impact every single roast, potentially undermining our entire venture. But I wanted to outline here just why all that ongoing work and energy is worth it. I wanted to gesture to the humanity behind the science, examine the benefits underlining the procedures and to explore the shadowy silhouette of Meaning which dances elusively behind The Process.

I find it is this Meaning that helps me wake up each morning. It provides me with the motivation to do the best job I can and provides my family with a living. There is also something warming about knowing that my good work might one day help others and their families, even if we’ll never meet in person.

So, carry this warm blanket of Meaning with you as we look towards the next article, in which I will explore how it is woven into the colder, scientific fabric of the actual roasting process. As we shall see, it is science which holds the key to not only better coffee experiences, but also to delivering a sustainable, ethical future for the entire coffee community.

Having said that, I know that describing rational, methodical processes does not make for an automatically engaging article. Terms like ‘mitigating variables’, ‘microclimate’, and ‘data analysis’ hold less excitement than a slightly wobbly bar stool. I know you’ll start drifting off, no matter how meaningful they are (or how inevitably brilliant my writing shall be).

That’s why I’ll be using memes.

See? It’s looking better already. I look forward to your company then.

 

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