2½ years ago, I would never have imagined becoming a coffee roaster. Yet today, that is exactly what I am.
I was always passionate about coffee, but about two years ago, my enthusiasm turned into an obsession. Until that point, I was in the Australian Army with a battalion known as the 6RAR (6th Royal Australian Regiment). However, I was injured during service. On returning to Australia, I was stationed at my battalion’s café, and it was here that coffee became more to me that just that kick that got me through the day. It was here that I decided coffee had to be my career.
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It wasn’t an easy career change. Coffee is an unpredictable beast with endless amounts of information and a rich history that shifts every year as we learn more about it. It was honestly overwhelming when I first began to explore it. There were times I thought of giving up.
Yet part of the appeal of coffee was the challenge; it was going to take years to learn about it and what I knew might become obsolete at any moment. Learning about coffee was something I could do for life. In the words of Nolan Hirte, Proud Mary Founder: “If someone thinks they know everything about coffee, then I’d say they know nothing at all.”
Now, I am so glad I didn’t quit—and I’m here to tell you the basics that you need to know to become a coffee roaster yourself.
Love at first sight: a classic probat roaster. Credit: Matt Biddulph
What Does It Take to Become a Roaster?
This should be at the top of every aspiring roaster’s list. It drives you to push through the tough times. Don’t be disheartened if you haven’t experienced this feeling yet; go out and explore coffee, talk to baristas and shop owners, and go to coffee cuppings. Passionate people love sharing what they have picked up along the way so ask questions—and be prepared for some intense conversation!
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It was through these conversations that my own interest in coffee went from curiosity to excitement. Until this point, I hadn’t any idea just how incredible coffee was and how much it connects people all across the world. I still cherish these experiences; I’m sure you will too.
Cupping: a great way to meet other coffee nerds and learn all about coffee. Credit: Cristian Bortes
2. People Skills
Establishing and maintaining relationships with others in the industry is essential. The biggest growth and success of my own company, First Fruits, was due to these kinds of professional relationships. As more and more cafés start to use your coffee, you will learn that it’s not just the product you’re buying—it’s also you.
How Do You Start Roasting?
Now that we’ve looked at the qualities you need, it’s time to look at operational aspects of roasting. You’re going to need both equipment and knowledge, so for this I think there are two clear options:
1. Use Someone Else’s Roaster
Remember what I said about building good relationships? This isn’t just important for making sales; it’s also useful for learning about coffee. As a roaster, I began by using a highly sophisticated piece of roasting technology: a popcorn popper. I bought some green beans off a local importer and went at it! It was great fun and though obviously a long way from a professional coffee roaster, it was still a great way to learn about different origins and roast profiles. Yet what really helped me was when, as improbable though it may seem, that same green bean importer allowed me to come in and play with their drum roaster. This was what really allowed me to develop my roasting skills.
If you do this, I definitely recommend doing a roasting course to learn the theory. I completed the Basic Roasting Course run by Wolff Coffee Roasters, but I also recommend Anne Coopers Roasting course at Proud Mary Coffee. On top of this, a must-read is Scott Rao’s The Roaster’s Companion, which I still frequently use. However, learning the theory isn’t enough on its own. If you don’t have a roaster lined up to put your newly acquired knowledge into practice, all that hard work will quickly be forgotten.
Roasting can be an intimidating game at first but, when you finally start nailing roasts, it’s very satisfying indeed. Credit: Coffee Post AU
2. Contract Roasting
This option is a much more cost-effective and hassle-free way of beginning a roasting business. Usually a roaster will develop a blend in correspondence with you or you can use one of their existing blends. You can also have it rebranded in your own packaging that can then be sold retail to customers or wholesale to accounts.This allows you to earn an income while learning how to roast and, more importantly, it can provide you the capital you need to eventually purchase your own roaster. Be aware that most roasters won’t want to teach you all about how they roast as, eventually, you’ll likely turn into a competitor. Don’t let this discourage you— rather, take it as a chance to learn what you can and develop your own style.
Are These the Only Ways to Become a Roaster?
Of course not! As roasting and setting up a roastery are not something you can learn about at university, you can make your own pathway into this career.
The two avenues I’ve talked about are common, and they provide an affordable transition into running your own business. Having experience in café or hospitality in general is something I’d strongly recommend too. A small business course at a community college won’t hurt, either.
What Else Do You Need to Do?
Once you’ve decided that this is the job for you, register a business name and get a website url as soon as possible. If nothing else this will make it a little more real in your own mind—and secure that awesome name you’ve come up with.
Ready to hit the shelves and hoppers of local cafés. Credit: Coffee Post AU
Also… be prepared to work your butt off! In a small coffee business you’re the roaster, marketer, administrator, spokesperson, packager, delivery driver, sales rep, and more. It’s a business and as much as you might only want to roast, if you don’t find a way to take joy in every aspect of it, it might not be a very successful one.
Loading up the hopper between roast cycles. Credit: Coffee Post AU
Are you a roaster? Or dreaming of roasting? I wouldn’t be where I am without the help and support of everyone else in this industry. If anyone out there has questions or recommendations for me, I’m only too happy to talk. Let us know your experiences in the comments or on facebook.
And good luck!
Written by D. Smith.
Feature Photo Credit: Matt Biddulph
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