Thursday 19 November 2015

Choosing your roaster - tips & guidance

Over the moon as I am that we have an-ever-growing choice of independent and passionate specialty coffee roasters from which to buy our beans, I had one burning question as a coffee lover: How do we know which of these specialty roasters are good?

I’d made some decisions myself. Buying beans used in my favourite coffee shops was a safe bet. And relying on detailed descriptions provided by roasters that confirmed the origins of beans was another but I wondered if there was more I should know.

I caught up with Lloyd Burgess, long-time coffee lover and owner of to pick his brains. Lloyd’s site offers online purchase of over 100 specialty coffees from 18 artisanal roasters on a subscription or one-off basis. His site also sports the definitive BIG list of UK roasters, currently sitting at around 330.

So, are we safe to buy from any of the burgeoning number of passionate (and often bearded) coffee roasters delightfully cropping up all over the UK? A resounding “yes” is the answer and instead we should be asking another question.

Lloyds’s default position is that “most roasters are really good...they’re mostly pretty small: one person and their dog (and often don’t even have the dog), but they’re passionate and friendly and want to talk all day and night about how they roast and where their beans come from. That’s the great part of it.” Lloyd reinforced often in our conversation that it all comes down to personal taste. As everyone likes different things, there’s no right or wrong about which roaster to use.

The question we should be asking instead is: ”what profile beans should I buy to suit my needs?”. Lloyd’s talking about whether the roast is light, medium or dark alongside the type of bean that suits some brew methods more than others.

Profile (in very simplistic terms) results from the length of time beans are roasted, the temperature and the bean type. As beans roast they lose moisture and the chemicals in the beans change, affecting the sweetness, acidity and bitterness. Lloyd explains that the profile is how beans are roasted for a particular brew method. Roasting for espresso is quite different to how you roast for a filter and the roaster has a taste in mind when they roast.

That said, Lloyd’s advice is to visit the roasters yourself to see how they roast their coffee. Talk to them to understand how they’ve roasted their beans and which ones suit your preferred brew method. “This is what switched it on for me, when I saw how it was all done”. He says “while it’s incredibly easy to roast coffee, it’s really difficult to get it right and how roasters adjust the profile based on small changes in the bean through the roasting process is really specialist”.

I asked Lloyd specifically about ‘old style’ and ‘new style’ coffee roasters, given the UK has a very long history of importing and roasting coffee. Many an historic old town across the UK has a tea and coffee merchant nestled next to the ‘sweetie shop’ that has been continuously operating “since 1800-something-or-other”. Even the smell of the coffee in these shops is different to what I’ve experienced in my local ‘new style; roasters and is not to my taste. If you’re like me and prefer a lighter coffee and plenty of variety, Lloyd provided the following guidance.

New style roasters:
  • are passionate and knowledgeable about the traceability of the coffee (about the farm or cooperative that grew the coffee and the way the beans have been processed)
  • frequently stock new types of beans including micro-lots (small batches of extra special beans from a single hill, plot or farm)
  • tend to roast lighter - although not always the case
  • are very focussed on different brew methods and recipes - e.g. might say 'for this bean as an espresso use 20g, 25 seconds extraction to produce 30ml of coffee’.
So if you want to verify that you’re buying the coffee you like, you could ask the roaster what brew method and recipe they recommend for a particular coffee.  If they can't provide a clear answer, you might not walk away with what you like.

Some roasters visit coffee-growing countries to choose which coffee they’ll buy. Does this make them better? “Small roasters can’t afford to go tripping around but that doesn’t discredit their passion or ability to roast coffee” says Lloyd. “It’s great that larger roasters do this but they’re all different. A lot of roasters get their coffee from big UK and European suppliers and every single one I’ve met is passionate about what they do” Lloyd adds

He says there’s no way to generalise about which roaster to go to but warns about thinking fancy branding is better. “A lot of new companies will spend a lot on fancy logos but that doesn’t mean they’re better than someone who hasn’t”. Lloyd mentions one of the best Kenyan coffees he has had for a while.  It was from South East London’s Dark Fluid Coffee who has minimal branding, sells their beans in brown bags that have the bean type written on the bags with pen.

Lloyd put his site together to give people a choice and it’s been going for just over a year, growing to 18 roasters with others approaching him all the time. His focus is on offering coffee variety, not just roaster variety. Avoiding duplication is key in his decision making and his coffees change quite frequently. Some of the roasters tiny micro lots come and go very quickly, while others have stocked the same coffee since he started. And just by the way, Lloyd’s preferred brew method is Aeropress: “it’s simple and makes great coffee”.

Local specialty roasters in Edinburgh that I’ve visited and chatted with are Artisan RoastMr Eion. Steampunk and Norther Edge. Additionally there’s a growing range of roasters online you can buy from, including Lloyd’s of course.

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