Coffee roasting

Home Roasting and Lean Manufacturing


On my recent tour of commercial roasters I had fun looking at their manufacturing and warehousing processes.  I like warehousing and manufacturing.  I don’t work in that industry, but I like all the processes: cool conveyor belts and forklifts and all sorts of activity.  Whats not to love?  And when its a coffee warehouse, roaster, and manufacturer just about everything I find cool is located in one place.

The roasters i toured were operating on purpose.  I’m not sure if they are formally Lean or Six Sigma or some other ‘plan’, but they are operating with thought and purpose behind their activities.  Here are some points of Lean, commercial roasting, and how the points may impact home roasting:

  • Chaff is recyclable organic material.  When I sweep my chaff into the lawn, I’m not being lazy.  I’m recycling.
  • Lean puts a lot of emphasis on ergonomics.  How ergonomic is your roasting set up and can you improve it?
  • Blend strategy impacts inventory.  You should chose your blend strategy based on flavor, but if you blend before roasting you won’t need to maintain blend stock.
    • I’m not blending but it was neat to observe that commercial operators approach blending with different strategies.
  • Consistancy.  Lean and Six Sigma want to measure and eliminate varation.  Roasters measure and track varations in their roast.  I wonder if I need to measure and track my finished products.
    • I’ve tried to use a roast log but I didn’t really know how I was going to use it.  I wonder if I can switch from a roasters log to a tasters type of log.  Track the finished level of roast and the finished taste.
  • Green storage is interesting.  Even if you are buying container loads, greens are transported and stored in 150 lb jute bags.  It seems that there are a lot of non-value added steps in this process.
  • Disaster plans: Both roasters had contigencies for disasters.  My backup plan for beans is to run down to starbucks  🙂




Recently I was lucky enough to do a coffee cupping with a master roaster for a really large commercial roaster.  It was a really cool experience.  I tried once or twice to do cuppings at home but its not as easy as it sounds if you don’t know what you are doing.

We did a finished product tasting and a traditional coffee cupping.


We tasted 5 different blends/roasts.  The neat part is two of the sampels were the same blend, roasted to different levels.  I was aware of the importance of roast in an intellectual level but I haven’t actually roasted the same beans to different levels (at least not on purpose).  The roast level was only a little different but the taste was totally different.

The challenge with home roasting is quantity.  How do I roast and taste to different roast levels of the same bean?  I only order a few pounds of each bean and I don’t want to have tons of fresh roast going stale.

But its for science.  Maybe on my next sweetmarias order I’ll order only one coffee instead of an assortment and try and set up a tasting.  You all are invited  🙂

Traditional Cupping:

After the tasting, the rest of the people I was with left and I had the cool opportunity to do a cupping with the Master Roaster by myself.  The first thing I learned was that spitting into a spittoon is harder than I thought.

The spittoon goes between your legs.  I put it off to my side at first and it was just too awkward to be sitting on the spinning chairs and trying to lean over and hit the bucket.  I really didn’t want to spit all over the floor.

The Roast Master hadn’t planned on doing a cupping with me, if he did he would have selected different beans.  The beans that we tasted were the beans that his team cupped in the morning.

As we went around the table tasting, all I could taste was coffee.  I just smiled and tried to taste but it all just tasted like coffee.  I was relieved when he told me that this was hard since all these beans tasted the same.  Shew.  I did taste a difference in the 5th sample, it was brighter than the other 4.

At Home:

As for the practicality of doing this type of cupping from Home roasting, I’m not sure.

I’m not really going to reject a shipment from Sweet Maria’s?  I think I’d be better off doing a tasting.  Roast two different beans or the same bean to different levels and brew up 2 cups in the morning.  That way when I drink 2 cups of coffee in the morning, I’m not over-indulging, I’m tasting for science!

Cooling your Beans!

For years I cooled my beans using a colander and a fan.  It worked, but there were a few flaws with what I was doing.  Among other things, I want to get more ‘professional’ in my roasting.  My cooling method was fine to show a friend, but I’d be embarrassed to show a theoretical ‘paying customer’ what I was doing.  I was hunched over on the ground trying to keep my colander balanced on the fan while using a wooden spoon to stir the beans a bit. 

I came across a remarkably easy to make contraption that works better than I expected.  You take a shop vac and connect the hose to a container.  In the lid of the container you cut a hole just big enough for a colander.  I made mine with the box that the shop vac came in and I used duct tape to hold everything in place.  As I perfect my procedure I’ll switch to a plastic container, but cardboard and duct tape are easy to experiment with (and cheaper).

To use the contraption, you want to suck air into the shop vac (as opposed to blowing air out).  In just a couple of minutes I am able to bring the beans down to the ambient temperature.  To remove chaff, reverse airflow for a bit until there is nothing else to blow away.

Now that I have a device that can consistently cool the beans, I can experiment with taste.  During one of my future roasts, I’ll pull out a cup of beans before cooling and then compare those beans with the beans that were properly cooled.


Coffee Roasting Improvements

Here is an intellectual exercise that can improve your home coffee roasting skills.  Work out what it would take for you to sell your coffee commercially.  If you are like me, you know that your home roast is better than what you can buy in your local market.  What do you need to do to sell it?

After a particularly frustrating day at work I figured I’d chuck it all and just sell beans.  I know, pie in the sky, tilting at windmills kind of thinking, but it did give me a project to play with for a bit.  I went through the marketing 4Ps to figure out what steps I needed to take.   Price, Promotion, and Place can be skipped for this discussion, but when I seriously looked at ‘Product’ I saw weaknesses in my roasting that I needed to correct if I want to create pro-quality beans.

I grew up ‘dog bowl roasting’.  I enjoyed the method, but it was a chore.  It took forever, it was boring, and it produced low volume.   My attitude of roasting became just get ‘er done.  I roasted by ‘feel’ and gradually became less and less precise in my roasting.  I upgraded to a BBQ drum roaster in an attempt to improve quality and increase volume.   However, my attitude never changed from my dog days.

If I truly want to roast good coffee, I need to convert much of the art of the roast into a repeatable science.  I increased my roast volume not to improve quality but to reduce the ‘chore’ of roasting.  I was roasting 2-3 pounds in a single roast.  The actual roast was good, but we only go through about a pound a week.  And I wasn’t actively working to improve the processes.

To do:

  • Reduce batch size –> fresher beans and more frequent roasting to improve technique.
  • Improve bean cooling technique
  • Improve roasting hardware
  • Improve palette
  • Figure out how roasting profiles improve bean flavor

Cappuccino Deconstructed

We vacationed in Seattle in early June.  I was there to run a race and visit in-laws, but I did drag people to a few coffee places.  One of the more remarkable locations we visited was Slate Coffee Bar

We ordered Cappuccino Deconstructed.  Turns out a Capp is made of milk and espresso so the deconstruction wasn’t that exciting  🙂  The brilliance of the drink was the use of stemware.

Small capps don’t need to be kept crazy hot, especially since the drinks were appropriately sized and not some venti-trenti whatever sized bucket of milk.  The stemware was a fun elegant touch that I hadn’t considered doing at home.

Contrary to Yelp reviews, the site does have chocolate drinks.  We ordered a hot chocolate for one of my kids.  Keeping with the fancy schmancy coffee bar style, it is a nice single origin chocolate bean. I liked the depth of the chocolate, although my kids prefer a more traditional kid flavored chocolate (aka Nesquick).


Hot Chocolate

Coffee Concentrate

Coffee Concentrate

The ‘concept’ of coffee concentrate seemingly will fit nicely in my coffee consumption schedule and my roasting schedule. This was supposed to be a simple and quick quest, do a little google kung-fu and then I’d have concentrate. Alas its taken me months of ardous research to develop my concentrate. Or maybe its taken me months because of other reasons …

I’ve mentioned before that now that I have a drum roaster, I can roast more beans than I could possibly drink. One way to increase the ‘volume’ of home roasting is to figure out a way to drink my home-roast at work. I’ve tried to brew at work but thats a hassle and its a little more pretentsious than I like to be. Plus I usually drink coffee because I want to get away from my office – so I make a trip to Starbucks with my laptop. I got this vision of developping a concentrate based drink that I could make and then go to a park to work.

For my roasting schedule, we flip back and forth between traditional french press coffee and espresso. I love espresso but there just seems to be a lot more romance in a micro-lot of beans from Sweet Maria’s that I don’t find in an espresso blend. So I roast ‘coffee’ for about a month or so and then roast ‘espresso’ for the next month. I figure at the end of my coffee cycle I could take the ‘coffee roast’ and turn it into concentrate. Then I’d sorta have both coffee and espresso available.

‘Intellectually’ the idea was compelling. However I had no idea what coffee concentrate was. My google Kung-fu got me several recipes which basically went along the lines of making french press coffee with cold water and then wait 24 hours. The problem with recipes that include “and wait 24 hours” is that 24 hours later I’m doing some other project. And I don’t have a huge inventory of roasted beans, I try to keep everything fresh. I can’t just grind away beans or I’ll be drinking Tea in the morning (bleah). My ability to run repeated experiments causes this simple experiment to take several months because of these roadblocks.

Experiment #1: My first concentrate recipe I found was about a cup of beans + 4 cups of water. Which is just about my normal french press recipe (should have been my first sign). I made the concoction and stuck it in my fridge. The next day I plunged it and tried some — Yum, water with a slight coffee taste!

Experiment #2: I identified the problem, I stuck the coffee in the fridge – the recipe called for setting out at room tempeture. Repeated the experiment, plunged it. Yum, water with a slight coffee taste!

Experiment #3: I knew I was doing something wrong, beans + water + some function = concentrate. I came across a recipe that gave more detailed instructions (probabably because I actually read them this time). 1 ounce of beans to 4 ounces of water. I whipped out my kitchen scale. Measuring by weight indicated I was way way low on beans – I was only using 1/3 of the beans I needed. I reran the experiment with 1/4 pound of beans and 2 cups of water. After waiting the perscribed 24 hours I plunged. A drinkable product came out! I made myself a cup and went to work. I came home and wanted to make a second drink to validate my findings. Unfortunately my wife spilled my container – it was all gone. If you ask her, I left the bottle out and didn’t put the lid on properly — so don’t ask her.

Experiment #4: 1/2 pound of beans:4 cups water. Wow, thats a lot of beans, the grinds fill up half of my large press, I wasn’t sure the water would fit. But now I have a decent amount of concentrate to experiment with.

I still have much experimentation to do on this and it will be slower going than I thought. There is about a week or two of time between each experiment. But I think I have a framework now to work with. I need to figure out the right ratio to “rehydrate” my concentrate and what the best way to serve this product. It seems to be a product that needs sugar, like a sweet ice coffee, but maybe thats because I was craving sugar at the time.

Enhancing the effect of caffeine

Enhancing the effect of caffeine

I’m not only about coffee. I also run. Like coffee, I try to take running to the extreme. I’m either all in or I’m not. I ran the 2013 Mt Taylor 50k race in Grants New Mexico -ok I didn’t really “run” the whole race, that mountain was really really tall, you try and run up that. I came across a interesting concept that I tried leading up to this race. I wanted to maximize the sports benefits of caffeine.

To do this, I decided I would limit my caffeine intake about a month or so leading up to the race. In theory, on race day
caffeine would be more effective. On paper the concept seemed sound but my routines are all centered around coffee. While pondering the problem, I realized the solution… The answer might be obvious to you, it was sacrilegious to me. Could I really do it? It would be embarrassing.

I didn’t do this at home. I didn’t have the beans, but I did do it when I went to Starbucks. For about a month I had to walk up to the counter and order decaf. I know what you are thinking, what is the point of decaf coffee? I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I drink coffee because I like the routine and ritual. Getting decaf was a whole lot better than messing with my routine.

But I discovered something interesting. Starbucks doesn’t sell a lot of decaf so many locations don’t brew it after a certain time. When I ordered, they made me a single cup by using a pour over funnel. Decaf brewed that way tastes richer and fresher than regular coffee in the urn. I’m sure Starbucks will brew you regular coffee in a pour over, but I don’t want to be “that customer”. By ordering decaf I got tastier coffee without making a “special” request.

One of the things I like about endurance sports is the planning and logistics. Ultimately my decaf plan failed horribly. It was a failure of logistics. Free travel tip for you: The people in Grants are very friendly. But if you ever visit, bring your own coffee. I wasn’t able to find decent coffee at 3-4am. I stopped at a convenience store en route to the starting line to end my caffeine fast – I should have gotten a Red Bull because the coffee wasn’t very tasty.

I’m planning my 2014 race schedule and I’ll try the caffeine “fast” again. This time I have decaf green beans so I can roast my own. I’m wondering if I should switch my house to decaf without telling my wife. Maybe that will be too dangerous.


Heat Guns

Heat Guns

In my years of dog bowl roasting I’ve gone through 4 different heat guns.  Bottom line, in case you don’t read everything is:

#1: You want a professional quality gun in order to get consistent high heat.

#2, Light weight will make roasting more enjoyable.

1 Wagner HT1000?*

Pro: Available in-store, cheap

Con: Low Power

Wagner HT 1000

I believe my first gun was a Wagner HT1000, although mine was black (sorry Wagner if it wasn’t you).  Whatever model it was, the big-boxes carried 2-3 types of heat guns.  The “cheap one”, a “digital one”, and maybe a third similar gun with another feature.  The best thing I can say about the in-store guns is they are cheap.  As I was on a tight budget this was a compelling feature.   The gun “worked” for roasting but it wasn’t very powerful.  You’ll be happier if you skip these low power guns and get a “real” gun.

Wagner HT1000

2. Makita HG 1100

Pro: Light weight, works good

Con: Melts

 Makita HG 1100 

I purchased a Makita HG 1100 in August 2005 from Amazon. I loved the increased power and was finally able to get the performance that I wanted.  After about 2 years the blue plastic near the output began to melt.  Maybe I was resting the gun while I was roasting and eventually distorted the gun?  Whatever the case, smoking and burning plastics is probably a sign that it was time to get a new gun.

Makita HG1100

3 Wagner HT 775

Pro: Won’t melt, works good for awhile, good customer service

Con: Heavy, didn’t last long

 Wagner HT 775

Perhaps plastic wasn’t the right material for a heat gun? So I found a Wagner that was all metal.

However, After 7 months the gun stopped working.  I spoke to customer service and it turns out that roasting is not the intended use for the gun and therefore not necessarily covered under the warranty.  Roasting requires the gun to be used for 20+ minutes at a time, multiple times a week, The normal use of the gun isn’t nearly as intense.  So I went on bought another gun.  And as the way things work, shortly after I bought my new gun, Wagner shipped me a brand new gun!

Wagner HT775

4  Milwaukee 8975

Pro: Light weight, works good, lasts forever

Cons: None

 Milwaukee 8975 

My 4th gun, purchased in 2008, was a Milwaukee.  Yep, went back to plastic.  I couldnt’ find another metel one that looked good and Milwaukee seemed like a good brand.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the all metel Wagner weighed a ton!  When you are holding the gun for 20 minutes with one arm and stirring with the other, lighter weight is a nice feature.  This gun is still in great shape – even though I leave it outside.

Milwaukee 8975



heat gun roaster

This looks like a real nice set up. I like the flour sifter!

The Contented Squirrel Trading Company

dewalt heat gun
One of my early favorite methods of home coffee roasting was with the Dewalt D26950 Heat Gun,
heat gun label
coupled with an 8 cup flour sifter.
sifter 2
This setup will evenly roast 1/2 pound of beans in about 10 minutes (for darker roasts).

The cool thing about the Dewalt D26950 heat gun is that it comes with fold out legs so you can easily stand it upright.
dewalt standing
While you could roast over the gun by holding the flour sifter…I built a little wood “table” that fits around the gun…
gun under table
This allows you to rest the sifter on the table while you’re busy cranking the handle.
full setup one
The Dewalt D26950 heat gun features a “high” and a “low” setting via a trigger switch…and it also features a variable heat dial to control things even further.
After setting up the equipment I like to run the gun on “low” with the dial setting at just…

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