July 31, 2013

Where Artisan Craftsman meets Crafty Science

In 1991, this small boutique roastery opened the front doors of a Sydney terrace to expose a 4 kg air roaster and a three group espresso machine. JoAnne and Dan Fitzsimmons quickly developed a Sydney University following that saw the footpath frequently blocked with coffee drinkers sitting on upturned milk crates. 22 years later, they have roasteries in Sydney and Brisbane. Café Culture takes a closer look at the foremost proponent of air coffee roasting in Australia.

What was the catalyst for The Coffee Roaster 22 years ago?

My interest was piqued back in the late ‘70s during my Seattle computer job, when I coded a small inventory profitability system for the original owners of Starbucks Coffee Tea & Spices. Back then, many of the products on their shelves gathered dust. Of course, coffee was found to generate the most profit.

Fifteen years later, living in Australia, frustrated by our inability to consistently obtain good coffee, JoAnne and I decided to take a year off to travel the world researching the coffee industry. Backpacking around Europe and the U.S., we soaked up the coffee culture, learning about coffee roasting techniques.

You chose air roasting; how did that happen?

Nine months into our quest, we met Mike Sivetz, the inventor of fluidised air bed coffee roasting. Mike was a world renowned coffee expert, having written several coffee text books and one of the very few to be presented the SCAA Lifetime Achievement Award. Sadly, Mike died last year at the age of 90.

When Mike spoke, we, as did most people, listened. We were easily convinced that air roasting was elegantly simple, easily measured and provided bulletproof batch to batch consistency.

In 1991 we started with a manually operated       4 kg Sivetz roaster. The roastery moved in 1995 and upgraded to a programmable logic controlled 15 kg Sivetz model. It was much easier, but still required the occasional switch to be thrown or dial to be turned.

How do your roasteries in Sydney and Brisbane differ from those early years?

Our Chinook® production air flow roasters are profile recipe controlled and fully automated. This allows all of our roasting operators to easily and consistently produce customer specific blends.

Each roastery has a Piccolo Chinook sample roaster which roasts batch sizes from 500 g to 2 kg. This appliance is used for providing our customers with unique single origins and creating new blends.

Finally, our Agtron roast colour analysers provide the information required to explore differing roast profiles. This instrument is like x-ray vision for blend development and quality control.

The Chinook Air Flow Roaster is your take on the Sivetz roaster. How did that evolve?

Well, Mike’s equipment was too manual for my liking. So we set about designing our version to be fully automated and computer controlled. During the 12 year development process, we have built 10 roasters that continue to roast coffee from the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand to Adelaide.

You mention the Chinook is fully automated with recipe profile control. How do you deal with changing coffee variables like moisture content?

Flavour development during the roasting process is directly proportional to the temperature path of the coffee. Our air flow roasting method is able to accurately measure the bean temperature ten times per second during the roasting process.

While changes in green coffee moisture will present minor changes to the roasting elapse time, it will not affect the temperature path. Hence, our control produces accurate flavour development.

What is your view on the pre-blend/post blend debate?

We roast and sell many single origin coffees. However, the bulk of our coffee is blended prior to roasting. Our processes are driven by the need to consistently arrive at a specific flavour destination. We agree post blending will work; however, we choose pre-blending for convenience and efficiency.

The Coffee Roaster has had a respectable showing in the last four Golden Bean competitions, with three silver and ten bronze medals. What is your approach to choosing and preparing your entries?

There are thirteen people at The Coffee Roaster, eight of whom roast, taste and blend coffee. All of us develop potential entries individually and/or in collaboration. Then we choose and enter the coffees.

At this year’s Australian International Coffee Awards we entered newly created blends and single origins. Happily, we were awarded GOLD for Champion Milk Based Coffee plus 2 Silver and 6 Bronze.

What noteworthy changes have you seen in two decades of coffee business?

Firstly, the average quality of green coffee is continually improving. Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance organic coffee have improved in both varieties available and quality. Programs like Cup of Excellence provide attractive and novel coffees for the espresso bar to use in conjunction with their main coffee blend.

Secondly, decades ago there was only one multi-boiler espresso machine. Today, modern design, new technology and price performance are exemplified by many manufacturers producing high performing dependable multi-boiler espresso machines. Some of which are very cost effective.

Finally, many of our new customers are requesting custom blends which can include attributes like Organic, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, unique origins, etc. Additionally, they benefit from our ability to accurately tweak their blend and profile to achieve the best results on their espresso machines.

Is it possible that increasing the coffees you source, number of blends you produce and the variety of roasting profiles you use can result in too much complication and affect quality control?

Absolutely. Quality control is a paramount nontrivial issue. However, we are lucky that all the equipment we use to convert the green coffee bean to a roasted product is calibrated using directly proportional metrics. The coffee temperature varies in a directly proportional way with the flavour development.

After roasting, we use an Agtron E20CP infrared roast analyser to determine the roasted degree of each batch. We determine the degree of external and internal roast by measuring the infrared reflectance of the beans and the ground sample, respectively.

We use all the above metrics during the development of a blend and the production of the blend. If we find significant divergence, we identify the cause and resolve it ASAP. In this way, we can achieve consistent reproducibility in all blend and roast variations. This closed loop quality control system assures the wholesale or retail customer’s consistent satisfaction.

How do you build your brand?

Taken as a whole, our online sales represent our single biggest customer. We find once we receive an order from a new geographic area, three or four new customers appear online in the same area. This referral growth is consistent and represents new customers who are very resilient.

Most of our wholesale coffee is sold under the end user’s name. We purchase very few footpath barriers, umbrellas, etc. Sometimes our customers request us to cobrand to leverage our name, coffee awards, etc.

So we don’t have a brand in the same way that branded providers do. Initially, that meant slower growth. Now we are finding that second or third time business operators are seeking us out as a result of our online presence or word of mouth.

They frequently want to improve coffee consistency over that provided by their name brand. Or, they recognise their retail consumers are becoming more sophisticated and they want to escape being perceived as just an outlet for a name brand.

How important are your roastery espresso bars?

They are very important, especially as we host tour groups at each facility with the Sydney roastery welcoming up to four groups per week. The espresso bar is the final gathering point while they watch the roasting finish and have a coffee.

Because the Chinook Roaster does not have the same temperature management requirements as a drum roaster, we can be flexible with the tour start time. Roasting can begin when the tour shows up with two or three taps of the touchscreen.

While having a coffee, the attendees watch the green beans changing colour behind the roaster window. Fifteen minutes later, they see the roasted coffee cascade into the cooling tray. At the end of the tour, having watched the temperature graph evolve and the coffee turn brown, they get it, coffee roasting is easy.

Any last words?

Visit us in Sydney or Brisbane. Have an award winning beverage while we show you how to roast coffee; you can even operate the controls. Then go home and update your CV… “Coffee Roaster Operator”.

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