Compared to the highly social job baristas have—what with the nonstop stream of customers clamoring for cappuccinos—coffee roasters often spend long, solitary hours turning green beans brown, only occasionally lifting their voices to shout over the roar of the machinery. (Small talk ain't easy 'round these parts.)
What is it that draws folks to spending more quality time with beans than with the folks that drink their juice? I asked Counter Culture Coffee roaster Jeff McArthur to shed a little light on both his coffee and his craft.
A soft-spoken but heavily bearded Oregon native, McArthur roasted his first batch of caffeinated stuff in the "remote realms of Southeast Alaska," where he worked with the US Forest Service after graduating college. "I studied natural-resource management and forestry," he says. "[It was] my ticket to the work in the woods, where I liked to play." Though he's not in the woods anymore, he is still propping himself up behind a coffee roasting machine every morning—these days in Durham, North Carolina, where he's a member of the roasting department at Counter Culture Coffee.
After three months of working on the production floor—sorting, bagging, and shipping coffee to wholesale customers—McArthur began a roaster apprenticeship with CCC in July 2008, accepting a full-time position early the next year. Nervous during his apprenticeship ("Somehow the possibility of destroying the coffee or setting fire to the place becomes an overwhelming likelihood," he says), he soon learned to love the "physics and art of coffee roasting: "I didn't get it right the first time or the next, but I loved trying it again and again, searching for the right smells, sounds, colors and physical development of the beans."
Like with any skill, practice makes perfect—but it's always heartbreaking to a coffee lover when perfection is elusive for a batch or two. "I made lots of mistakes, some big ones even," McArthur says. "But that's part of learning the craft and getting better."
So what exactly does a roaster's job look like? Well, first he's got to get the beans. "When green coffee arrives [at Counter Culture], it usually has a limited shelf life—say two to three weeks before it meets the fire and steel," McArthur says about the first steps in a coffee's journey. Once he arrives at the facility (typically around 5 a.m.), he and the other roasters fire up the machines, make a report of the day's orders, and start breaking down the day's batches to assign them different roasting machines and operators.
No small task, when you start to figure how many pounds get cooked in a day: "An average this time of year is about five thousand pounds of roasted coffee. [Our] biggest day on record is nine thousand pounds." (That translates to a lot of macchiatos, people.) Though the actual firing of the coffee normally wraps up at around 2 p.m., there's still tasting, quality control, and the blending-and-bagging going on throughout the roastery's production floor.
As for the roasting process itself, it's a delicate mix of machine power and intense concentration. Green beans are loaded into the equipment and are exposed to very high heat (depending on the bean, roast profile, and machine, temperatures could climb past 450°F) for, say, 15 minutes or so (again, depending). "The finishing moments of the roast are the most critical ," McArthur says.
"If a roast is allowed to carry on a few degrees more than desired, you can rapidly move into a completely different flavor profile. The same can be said for dumping a roast prematurely [into the roaster's cooling tray], when flavors may not have had a chance to fully mature." During those essential final moments, McArthur extrudes a small sample of the beans mid-roast, checks it for color and aroma, and pops it back into the machine to finish up. Once he senses a batch is done, he finishes the process by dropping the whole shebang into a cooling tray, where the beans are rotated using a large mixing paddle to allow air to circulate around them and stop their internal cooking process.
And then? The process starts all over again. And again, and again...
"You learn to respect the equipment as well as the coffee," he says, Zen-like. "To this day I'm learning...making mistakes, improving my skills, and understanding coffee's interaction with fire."
And as long as that helps the latte-loving people of the world understand and respect coffee's interaction with our daily 3 p.m. energy crash, we'll be forever grateful to you and those like you, sir.