5 Things to Understand About How Coffee Is Roasted

updated May 1, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: star5112)

If you just grab your beans and go, most likely you don’t have a relationship with the roasting process of your coffee. But nowadays it’s not so odd to spot a coffee roasting machine. A lot of specialty cafes are also roasters, which brings the coffee roasting process front and center.

Ever wondered what that coffee roasting machine does, and what happens to the coffee beans when they’re put in it?

What better people to teach us about the roasting process than the professionals?I asked Brett Donahue of Counter Culture Coffee and Jim Kelso of Stumptown Coffee Roasters to help us better understand the ins and outs of roasting.

As Kelso says, roasting is “one of the most complex aromatic experiences that you can undertake. It is also one of the simplest, while simultaneously one of the most complex, activities I’ve ever encountered.”

That just made your daily cup a whole lot more intriguing, didn’t it? Here are five things these two pros think you should know about how your beans are roasted.

(Image credit: Anna Brones)

1. Roasting coffee is a technical process.

Ever seen a coffee roasting machine and wonder what it does? Donahue gives us the rundown: “The roasting process begins when raw coffee is dropped into a rotating drum with a strong current of heated air moving through it, reaching upwards of 400 degrees. The coffee goes through innumerable chemical reactions and physical changes, notably Maillard (think toasted bread) and sugar browning, until the coffee has developed the right aromatics and sweetness. A door on the front of the roaster opens and drops the hot coffee beans into a cooling tray, where they are stirred until they reach room temperature.”

2. Roasting is also an art.

When you cook or bake, it’s not just following a recipe that makes for a good final product; there’s an art to making good food that involves a combination of knowledge, experience and instinct. Roasting coffee is the same.

“One misconception that I’d like to clear up is that data-driven roasting approaches are a cure-all. The best roasters I know operate according to their senses and use data and tech only as a backup to their instincts,” says Kelso.

3. The roast you buy may change how you want to brew it.

While perfecting a good cup of coffee is more about grinding and dose, you may find that you have a preference for a certain roast when brewed in a certain brewing device. “I would say that some brewing devices are better than others with lighter-roasted coffees (any type of filter brewer, Chemex for example). I personally like softer, sweeter Latin America coffees with a French press, because so much of the syrupy quality is left intact,” says Donahue.

4. Coffees from the same region can roast entirely differently.

Just because two coffees are from Ethiopia or Costa Rica doesn’t mean that they should be roasted in the same way. “There are many factors that determine how a coffee will roast, among them variety, elevation, and processing. Two washed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffees will likely roast in a similar way, but a washed and a natural Yirgacheffe will have some major differences. Even coffees from higher parts of a farm can roast differently than coffees from a lower lot of the same farm,” says Donahue.

5. Buy coffee from roaster who knows their stuff.

“Poorly roasted coffee can taste like ash if it is over-developed, like cereal or hay if it is underdeveloped,” says Kelso. Which means that you shouldn’t just be concerned about what the coffee is and where it comes from. “A high quality raw coffee can still taste awful, if roasted without care,” says Donahue.

Do you have a favorite roaster who roasts coffee just the way you like it? What do you look for in your roasters?