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.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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Blogs, websites, social media, and publications like Roast Magazine—there are plenty of resources out there for someone interested in learning to roast coffee. When I was starting out, I read anything and everything I could find about roasting. I contacted other roasters and asked their advice. Over time, I noticed common themes and ideas emerge, and began to explore them more deeply. I also learned that SCAA and the Roasters Guild offer a professional development curriculum and a Roaster Certificate Program, designed to help plan a path, both hands-on and theoretical, toward learning how to roast coffee. There are classes on cupping, sample roasting, green grading, coffee genetics, roast concepts, and more, designed to help you become a proficient coffee roaster and a well-rounded coffee professional. These were a huge help in adding to my understanding of the craft of roasting, and all that it entails.

Classes and online forums are good resources, but nothing beats actual engagement with your peers. There is a lot to be learned by talking to other roasters—as opposed to talking at other roasters. In order to learn, there must be a certain level of humility; listen to what others have to say. Who knows, these interactions, however brief, may lead you on your own journey toward finding something meaningful and rewarding. Every coffee roaster is a potential source of new information, regardless of how long they have been doing the job. Sometimes mentors are found in unexpected places, but the importance of mentorship cannot be stressed enough.

It is also important to stay relevant and keep up on what else is out there. It is easy to become insulated, and disconnect from what is going on with the rest of the coffee community. I always like to sample coffee from other coffee roasters. Start a roaster exchange with other roasters in an effort to learn and grow, and have a dialogue exchange with the roasting community. Ask lots of questions and consider the answers. Some of the answers you get may not be good, or what you were looking for, but is important to consider all of them.

While asking questions gets ideas flowing, it is also important to put in the time and find out for yourself what those answers are. Learning the mechanics of roasting takes repetition. They say that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. I think it took me close to 200 hours of actual time behind the roaster before I felt confident enough to start learning to roast coffee with a purpose. Every time I roast a batch of coffee, there is still something new to be learned. When learning to roast, set clear parameters for yourself and don’t be discouraged if the results don’t go the way you planned. Log your data, taste your roast, make notes on how it tastes, and repeat—that’s how you learn. Sometimes you need to make some bad coffee to understand how to make good coffee; or in the words of the Little Prince, “[We] must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if [we] wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.”

I have learned the most about roasting and about myself through the act of teaching others, and taking an active role in the roasting community. Passing along the torch of knowledge to others out there who may need a little direction, or guidance, or patience, or context, is both a good way to reinforce what you know, and to open yourself up to learning something new. Along the way you may meet someone who might just change the way you think about things—and recharge your own sense of wonder on a new path to personal discovery.

steven leeSteven Lee began his coffee career in 1996 as a barista at Peet’s Coffee in the San Francisco Bay Area. After spending a number of years in the Training Department of Peet’s, he moved on to help open the roasting and QC Department at Intelligentsia Coffee’s Los Angeles Roasting Works, where he developed his love for the craft of roasting. Since then he has worked on a number of consultancy projects, and is currently the director of coffee quality and education at Groundwork Coffee.

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