The Road to Roasting: One Roaster’s Journey

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by Candice Madison, Notes Coffee Roasters

It’s early morning—well, early-ish—and I’m sitting drinking a v60 of Kamwangi AA Lot #032 from Kirinyaga, Kenya. This new-crop coffee is one of many I have had a hand in buying for our roastery. I roasted the pre-shipment sample on a Quest M3, devised an appropriate profile for filter, highlighting the characteristics I favored most, test-roasted it on a Loring 15-kilo Merlin fluid-bed roaster, production-roasted about 100 kilos a week (and am still doing so), and brewed it myself.

There is nothing remarkable about the previous paragraph, unless you consider that about four-and-a-half years ago, I was a yoga teacher and considered chain-store beverages to be the height of coffee sophistication. I knew nothing about coffee as an organic product, and favored my morning cup flavored with caramel syrup, overly-burnt milk, whipped cream, and crunchy toffee on top. I didn’t know where my coffee came from, and I didn’t care. It didn’t even occur to me that it was an organic product that might stale, or that there could be endless variables from seed to cup which could and would influence every aspect of the drink that ended up in my hand.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I get two very distinct reactions; there are those not in the industry, who look bemused and are generally very vaguely positive about my chosen career, not really having any idea what I do. Conversely, there are those in the industry (depending on how long they have been in specialty coffee, it seems) who become incredibly excited and starry-eyed about the prospect of talking to a roaster—but still mostly not really having any idea of what I do. So when the latter group asks me how one becomes a specialty coffee roaster, I tend to be incredibly blunt in my honesty. I start with my exceptionally exclusive public school background in England and my time gaining a degree from an Ivy League college in New York—a prohibitively expensive education I don’t ever use—and go from there.

I tell those who enquire that a small-batch roaster, working in a small, single machine roastery, as I do, spends about 5% of their time doing all the really fun stuff people imagine we do day in and day out. We cup new coffee offerings, buy new-crop coffees off the table, decide on new espresso and filter profiles, spitball about which flavor notes to include on our packaging, talk to green buyers about exciting new lots coming up, and arrange client cuppings, amongst a myriad of other tasks. The other 95% of our time we roast. And roast. And roast. We scoop endless kilos of green coffee into buckets and hoppers, we follow profiles set at the beginning of a season, to the degree, day in and day out. We cup everything we roast, which means, the day after a 30-batch roast day, we cup 3 x 30 cups of the same coffee, looking for any minute deviations or defects. We exhaust our palates, our bodies, and our minds. And (I guess this is the kicker), we are honestly all the happier for it!

The role of the specialty coffee roaster has become almost mythologized in a way that leaves me distinctly uncomfortable. Roasters do not belong to a secret club that admits only the rarified. I want to shout from the rooftops that, no matter the perception of glamour and exclusivity, this is job that anyone can do. Whether you’d want to or not—well, that is the actual $64,000 question!

There are as many paths to entering this position as there are individuals in the industry. There are, however, commonalities that seem to be extremely important to our ilk: an excellent palate, a preternatural interest in quality, an insatiable curiosity, a determined desire to excel, and an obsessive attention to detail. That being said, those qualities need to be balanced out with a healthy lack of ego and a relaxed approach to making mistakes and working out how and why things go wrong with a roast, as well as to coffee in general. The interactions I’ve had with some of the best roasters in the world, who have these qualities in spades, have spawned conversations that are rewarding, elucidating, and fun.

I came to coffee late, after a myriad of different careers and endless globetrotting. I became a yoga teacher, and promptly realized I’d have to do more than teach a class or two a day to support my frankly ridiculous coffee habit. After a trip to Melbourne introduced me to the fact that it was possible to have good coffee no matter the outlet, I returned to London and immediately sought out a job at specialty coffee cafe. There I was provided with with an immersive coffee education, trained to make great drinks, and kept in the coffee-consuming style to which I had become accustomed. Working at several very well-known and respected cafes and coffee carts in London provided a springboard to my coffee education. I worked hard. I cleaned floors, filled sugar jars, washed dishes, carried steaming pots of soup across crowded floors, polished silverware, wiped tables, and, most importantly, asked endless questions, went to every community event, and talked to whomever I could about whatever they would let me, no matter what their standing in the community. I turned myself into a sponge and soaked up all the knowledge and advice that I could. And then I realized that as much as I loved coffee, I really didn’t see myself in a cafe. I loved baking and cooking and challenges, so I applied, with no experience, to be a production roaster. And got the job.  I’ve never looked back.

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The Newbie

But there are many other stories that make up the path to roasting. Ingri Johnsen is the brand manager of coffee at Solberg & Hansen in Oslo, Norway. With that job title you’d never know she was a budding roaster. Before she even got into coffee she was given some excellent advice after the WBC in Denmark by Geoff Watts: “He said taste coffee every day. Set up your own cuppings and taste at least

10 coffees every single day.”  After working as a barista and moving on to S&H as a brand manager, Ingri had a chance to work with their head roaster and enter this year’s Norwegian Roasters Challenge. “I might be able to get a job as a roaster now because of that competition, but if I didn’t work there, I wouldn’t have had our head roaster as a coach. I think the most important factor is the interest and eagerness to learn everything about how your choices as a roaster affect the taste. And if you work as a barista there’s always a chance that if you ask, you might be able to visit the roastery and ask questions. My ambition when I started with coffee was to learn as much as possible as fast as possible.”

The Head Roaster

The passion to learn is one shared by all the great coffee folk I know. Talor Browne, head roaster at Tim Wendelboe, came to this dream job with some trepidations. “Wendelboe was in the office and said to me, ‘So, you want to roast or what?’ I never endeavored to be a roaster; I actively fought against it for years, stating ‘I don’t think I would be a good barista or roaster if I had to spread myself between the two roles.’” But her fears weren’t about the job itself, rather, “the knowledge of the years of work that others had put into the brand before (her).” Having tasted the fruits of her labours, I know she has nothing to worry about. Talor started as a barista in Australia before becoming a barista at Tim Wendelboe, “I worked at a place in a mall during high school and got unbelievable pleasure from making people really great coffee. I knew almost before I began that it was what I wanted to do.”

The role of a barista is very different from that of a roaster, however, both must love what they do. Every great professional in any career shares that fascination, that passion and love for what they do.

The Roast Master and Quality Control Professional

Chris Kornman of Intelligentsia says “I took my first job in coffee in 2004, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as a barista. The shop had a small roaster in the back room, and it fascinated me, but I didn’t have the chance to roast on it. After joining Intelligentsia, my interest and talents in the nuance of flavor and extraction spurred progress, first as an educator and later as an assistant in the quality control lab, where I learned to roast on a number of different sample and small production roasters. An opportunity to have a more hands-on effect on the quality of production roasts opened in late 2008, and I joined the roasting team as a trainee. The work is rewarding, and I quickly learned to respect the danger and power of the machines, and to appreciate the tight-knit community of roasters whose knowledge and experience shaped my growth as a craftsman. I’ve since moved into quality control full time, but my experience roasting coffee with knowledgeable colleagues and on impressive machines is a cornerstone that continues to shape the trajectory of my career path.”

To be honest, however, the most important turning point in my own career, and the most serendipitous relationship/mentor I came across was Tracy Allen. I happened to take an Advanced SCAA Cupping Course with him to see whether I’d actually learned anything in the two years I’d been in coffee, and left with a Q License. An example of those who are the best in the business, Tracy has encouraged me, pushed me and tutored me. He told me I could do anything I put my mind to and that if I wanted to roast, I could roast.

Both James Hoffmann and Peter Giuliano, two professionals I have an incredible amount of respect for, have recently written helpful and encouraging articles on how to advance in the coffee community. I agree with almost every word written; I suggest you seek these out.

What I would add to the very relevant advice they both give is: jump in with both feet, get really uncomfortable, put any and everything in your mouth and engage all your senses as well as your mind to assess them, try, fail, try again, fail again, keep doing those two things until you succeed—and you will succeed. Keep asking questions; keep an eye out for that job that takes you closer to the roaster. And remember, this is coffee; you will never be its master as it will always have something to teach you.

If I could leave you, dear reader, with one idea, it would be: learn and keep learning. Learn all you can from whomever you can. Be prepared to be a long-term student, but, if and when you can, volunteer your time to teach and train others. Share and spread all the knowledge you gain. Everything you learn about coffee makes you a better roaster, and you learn even more through teaching. Really, it’s a win-win situation.

Ours is not an industry with well-forged career paths that lead you to your perfect job.  Ours is an industry of pioneers, of those who draw outside the lines, of those who reach for what is beyond their grasp and find others who happily support them in getting to their goal. Keep an open mind, an excited palate and a willingness to work hard. Oh, and if you really want to roast, work out—those bags are 60-70 kilo each. How did you think they get moved about?!

Candice Profile PicCandice Madison has been working in the specialty coffee industry for almost five years. Starting out as a barista working in some of London’s best cafes and carts, she is now putting her Q Licence to good use as the head roaster, quality control manager and assistant green buyer at Notes Coffee Roasters. Candice is currently a WCE judge and serves as a Roaster Subject Matter Expert (SME) for the SCAA’s Professional Development (Pro Dev) Committee Roasters Guild Certificate Committee (RGCC). 

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