Trying to explain the process of roasting coffee is a little like trying to explain how to grill a steak. At first glance, it might seem like an odd analogy. However, the similarities between the two processes are uncanny (roasting coffee is, after all, just the act of cooking an organic product in what is essentially an oven that rotates on an axle).
Like grilling a steak, the concept of roasting coffee is simple. And, just like grilling a steak, the actual process takes an eye (and palette) for quality, attention to detail, patience and repetition to do well. At Tony’s, roasting coffee successfully is a three-step process.
1. Start with a great product.
No matter how good we get at coffee roasting, how precise we think we are being, if we don’t start with high-quality coffee, it won’t matter. We look for the finest coffees to source from across the world, whether it’s buying Fair Trade coffees from Africa or travelling down to Honduras to buy directly from farmers. Constantly searching for great coffees is the first step to ensure a great roast. Our Director of Coffee, Andrew Bowman, both sources our coffees and has final say on how to roast them, making the initial roasting step a seamless process.
2. Don’t get in the way.
Once we get a great coffee to start with, the next step is to find the best way to roast it. As we roast, we record times and temperatures, and log the information. We call the collections of these records roast curves. We roast with the understanding that every coffee has a sweet spot, a roast curve that highlights the sugars, acids and other flavor compounds that are already intrinsic to the bean. We aim to find that spot and let the great coffee speak for itself. So much of the actual process of roasting is interacting with the coffee, trying to pick up what it’s telling us. As the coffee roasts, we smell the scents it gives off, we check the color it is browning towards, we listen for when and how strongly the coffee cracks (yes, coffee actually cracks, or pops, while roasting. It is similar in sound and process to popcorn kernels popping in a popcorn machine). We use this information to find the roast curve that best suits the coffee we’re roasting. The flavor potential is already there, we just have to get out of its way.
3. Taste, taste, taste.
Any chef worth her salt will taste and approve the dishes she intends to serve to her customers before they go out. We operate with the same principle in mind. Every morning we cup the coffee we roasted the day before (cupping coffee is a method of checking both the smell and taste of each coffee), making sure that it passes the high quality standard that we have set. We take samples of every batch we roast, taste them, and approve them before they go to our customers. Cupping is a vital part of roasting—the final step in the process. Cross-referencing our roast curves with the way our coffees taste on the table is the best way to ensure and improve the quality of our product.
We hope this gives a little insight into the coffee roasting process. It is a simple process, but like most simple processes (like grilling a perfectly-done steak), it takes hard work and love in order to consistently present a great product. We take pride in our roasting and see it as one of the many important links in the chain from cherry to cup.