We Are Explorers: A Personal Journey of Roasting Discovery

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by Steven Lee, Groundwork Coffee

“Anything essential is invisible to the eyes. It’s the time that you spent… that makes …(it) so important.”—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Over the years, I have been lucky enough to have very generous people invest time and energy into my coffee education. Some have played a more active role in shaping my views and attitudes than others, but to each I am grateful. That sense of community, and the knowledge that there are individuals out there willing to help, along with a plethora of other resources, keeps me optimistic about my ongoing education as a coffee professional.

The roaster’s role has evolved a lot in the last decade or so. Previously, roasters simply executed the process of roasting coffee. There was very little context given surrounding the end user. There was not much need for roasters to cup coffee or understand roasting concepts. Production roasters usually followed set profiles, were given parameters to follow, or targets to hit, and that was it. How those profiles and parameters were determined was not their concern.  How the end product tasted was someone else’s department—usually QC. Today, a coffee roaster is expected to be well-rounded and well-versed in many aspects of coffee, such as inventory management, sensory evaluation, processing methods, how roast profiles affect the cup, how to handle different cultivars…the list seems endless. So if your goal is to learn to roast coffee, where do you start?

In my experience, I have found that a little bit of planning and direction can go a long way. We cannot truly understand unless we search for meaning ourselves.

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

In the classic children’s book, The Little Prince, an airman gets stranded in the African desert and meets the mysterious little prince, who challenges his ideas and sends him down a path to personal discovery. One metaphor de Saint-Exupéry uses to make his point is the difference between an explorer and a geographer. A geographer is a “scholar who knows where the seas are, and the rivers, the cities, the mountains, and the deserts,” but doesn’t go out to see them for himself—“he never leaves his study.” Whereas, an explorer is one who goes out and experiences the world around him, but doesn’t record or learn from his experiences. I have found the road to roasting to be akin to this theme in the book; to be a roaster, one needs to be a bit of both geographer and explorer.

Roasting coffee is a romantic notion.  The act of taking raw material and creating something beautiful is like an artist’s work. Understanding heat transfer and thermodynamics enough to carefully manipulate the myriad of chemical reactions required to produce delicious coffee takes the fastidiousness of a scientist. As with all art and science, there has to be a degree of understanding, a mastery of the basics, and a high degree of patience to be able to produce something worthy of discussion—something enjoyable.

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