2018 Australian Roasting Champion Ben Toovey on the most important link

Ben Toovey

Coffee is an incredibly complex product, with many links in the chain from the origin that it’s grown in, to the final beverage we consume. You may hear some people say that the producer has “the most important role, because without them there is no coffee”. Or maybe you’ve heard that “it’s the barista that is the key, for without their careful preparation and customer service, all of the farmers’ hard work can be in vain”. I’m a roaster, so you may expect me to say that we have the most crucial task of reaching the full potential of the green coffee. The truth is, you probably won’t hear me say much at all, because I’m a coffee hermit, hiding in the roasting room and at the cupping table. 

In all seriousness, everyone in the process of coffee production is equally as important. I believe that only when each individual performs their role to the best of their ability, as part of a somewhat disconnected yet collective team, are we able to experience a truly special cup of coffee. 

The career path of a coffee roaster can be relatively isolating at times, compared to other potential paths within the coffee industry. If you want to be a great coffee roaster, there are certain attributes that will help you to excel. This article is aimed to share my thoughts on a few of them, so that people can have a more informed idea as to whether or not coffee roasting is the right career choice for them. 

  • To start with, you must love coffee. This seems obvious, but it bears mentioning. I hear people say that they love coffee, but that for them it’s more about the people, the connections that they make, and sharing in the experience with others. I get to do some of this in my role as a green coffee buyer, but when I’m focused primarily on roasting it’s not so much the about the people. I actually find people somewhat distracting. When I’m roasting and tasting, it’s just me and the coffee. I try to block everything else out so that I can be as connected with that coffee as I possibly can. 
  • Having a roasting and cupping team is great, because sharing opinions and ideas means that you can grow and develop much faster, especially if you are working with someone who has equal or more experience than you. However, I think that the roasting and tasting should be done alone and with pure attention. Only afterwards can it help to discuss and share observations with others in the team, comparing what you found and then tasting again. 
  • You must also love coffee in the literal sense, because you will be required to taste it a lot. For a coffee to be truly “specialty” from a roasting point of view, it must be tasted, preferably more than once, and with different waters and different brew methods. Be prepared to taste coffee for a big percentage of your working week. These days I probably spend the same amount of time, if not more, tasting coffee than I do roasting it. 
  • You must have an analytical mind. “Big picture” people may struggle with coffee roasting. There are endless variables at play. Monitoring, analysing, and interpreting the interaction of those variables is the only way to achieve any form of consistency. Disciplined and meticulous collection of data is a big part of being a coffee roaster. There is a nostalgic concept of the “artisan” roaster, who roasts by feel, intuition, and using the human senses. I’m not saying that there is no merit to these tools as part of the overall arsenal, but we have come a long way since those days. 

Now we have many advances in hardware and software that can provide much more information and help us to understand and control the roasting process a lot better than in years gone by. The tasks required to roast and perform quality control can be very repetitive. However, they must be strictly adhered to in order to be able to make informed decisions as to what, when, and how to adjust and modify the results. The saving grace is that even when you eliminate as many of the variables as possible, the coffee will still change. I think you need to be someone who derives satisfaction from investigating what the cause of the change may be, and experimenting with what the most appropriate course of action might be. 

There is one rule: there are no rules.

This article features in the MICE 2019 showguide: A coffee lover’s guidebook.  To see the FULL article, pick up your copy of the showguide at MICE.

Ben Toovey of Genovese Coffee is the 2018 ASCA Australian Roasting Champion.