In the spirit of Rachel Elliot’s article on Stereotyping Coffeehouses, I’ve decided that it is just as important to learn how to distinguish good roasters from the bad without trying the wares. Stereotyping a roaster is quite easy once you know how to size up an operation. Let’s look over some of the clues that indicate that a coffee roaster is turning out a poor product.
Just like a cafe, any roaster that lists flavored coffee above varietals is sure to suck. Selling flavored coffee is something that a lot of roasters do out of financial necessity. They do it to please the bottom rung customer – sort of like a microbrewery that grudgingly keeps bottles of Bud for those customers that refuse to expand their beer palate. The good roasters aren’t proud of their flavored coffees, and would never display HAZELNUT or SNICKERDOODLE over one of their own creative blends. A bad roaster won’t care. If the roaster places the flavored coffees in too prominent of a selling location, don’t buy anything from them.
Crop and Roast Descriptions
A good roaster knows the difference between the characteristics of a good crop and a cheap one and, like a proud father, they want you to know everything about the bean. A great roaster will never describe a bean merely by country of origin. They will go into region and mark. For example, a poor roaster will sell “Costa Rican”, a better roaster will sell “Costa Rican Tarrazu La Minita”. Most roasters will stop at the region level. It’s not important that you know which regions are good or not, that is the job of roaster. If the roaster hides that information from you, it doesn’t speak well of what they are trying to sell.
No Cafe Correlation
Unfortunately, we can’t use the Coffee House stereotypes against the roaster. Some of the best roasters I can think of have the worst cafes. These roast masters devote so much effort into the bean that they neglect the cafe.
Fooling the Customer
A bad roaster will try to make money by exploiting the ignorance of their customers. If some roaster is trying to sell Hawaiian Kona Blend for $17 a pound, they are trying to capitalize on the fact you won’t recognize the last word says “Blend”. Blend means that there is probably very little Kona in the mix. If a roaster uses the term “Style”, as in “Hawaiian Kona Style” then they are really out to pull the wool over your eyes. “Style” means there is no Kona in the blend and that cheaper beans were roasted as if they were Kona. A good roaster will not not tack on “Blend” or “Style” to Hawaiian Kona. Their reputation is worth more to them than any possible misunderstanding. Also beware of roasters that try this trick with Jamaican Blue Mountain.
2 Grinders or 1?
If the roaster does sell flavored coffee along with the good stuff, how many bean grinders do they have? Flavored coffee should not be ground in the same grinder as the non-flavored coffee. Those flavors will drift into the next bean that is ground in the machine. I don’t want the taste of AMARETTO coffee inside my Kenyan AA. Even if you plan to grind at home, use this test to stereotype the quality of the entire coffee operation.
Same Style Of Roasting
Does every coffee bean at the roaster look like French roast? A skilled roaster will know that every crop has a sweet spot; some beans are best when roasted lighter and some best when roasted dark. A Colombian may excel at a Vienna Roast, but roasting Ethiopian Yirgacheffe that dark is a crime. One particular arrogant roaster with a big name believes that there is a magical dark roast level that is perfect for all beans. In actuality, there is no “one roast fits all” solution.
Ability to Share Knowledge
Can the roaster articulate how great their product is? Is the staff able to answer questions about the bean selection? Are the bins marked clearly, with verbose descriptions? Does the roaster provide detailed literature for the customer to take home and read? Ask them to recommend a good coffee and then watch how they sell it. A quality roaster will be able to share knowledge about their product. A lesser roaster will not be able to make a convincing case for any bean.
Stereotyping the quality of a given coffee roaster without trying their beans will save your money and taste buds. By using the rules listed above, you will be able to spot a bad roaster in minutes. These techniques work well if you are physically inside the shop of the coffee roaster.
In 2007, Michael moved to America's coffee capitol Seattle, Washington. He has visited close to two hundred different coffee places in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver and met many of the top roasters and baristas in the country. Since 2009, Michael has been the Organizer of the Coffee Club of Seattle, which is a Meetup group of over 600 coffee enthusiants. Besides the social aspect of the group, the Coffee Club of Seattle partners with local coffee professionals for educational events such as coffee cuppings, brewing demonstrations and roasting tours.
Unrelated to coffee, Michael has a personal blog at CriticalMAS.com which covers several topics including fitness, cooking and finance.