March, 22, 2016
Part 6: Your Dream Machine
One of the largest, if not the largest, capital investments you will make in starting a roasting company will be your roaster. This equipment can end up being a huge part of your identity as a company, either because of the machine or brand of machine itself and the hype and/or hangups around it, or hopefully the way you’re able to make it speak for you and your craft.
Procuring a production roasting machine might be one of the main reasons that you wanted to go pro in the first place, and there may be a make or model that you’ve been coveting for some time. The lure of the dream machine is powerful, though the actual quest for one is frequently frustrating and expensive. There are clearly more small roasteries open now than at any other time, which means that the market for vintage roasters is competitive to say the least. But this competitiveness has also driven the production of a number of new small shop roasters and increased their availability on the market.
Because I’ve had the good fortune of working on a number of different types of roasters, I’m frequently asked about my opinion on what’s available out there. [Almost as frequently, I’m asked if I know where they can find a vintage machine for a good deal.] With that in mind, I figured that it was important for this series to do a rundown on some of the small to mid-sized roasters currently available on the market. I will say right off the bat that I have had beautiful, sweet, delicious coffees roasted from all of the roasters listed here, even the ones that I’m not particularly crazy about. For all of these recommendations, I am talking for the most part about both new and used models. These are my personal opinions based on my experience on these roasters or similar roasters.
I will say right off the bat that I like different roasters for different reasons. As far as my personal favorite roaster goes, I can’t pretend that roasting on Gothot’s, particularly the 23 and 40 kilo models, is not a complete and utter joy. Next to that, I also adored roasting on a Probat UG-15. Operating these roasters was like driving high performance race cars: nothing performs quite like them. I vastly prefer the UG and GG models of Probats to the P and L series and Probatone models; they’re completely different and considerably more agile roasters. The biggest downside to these models are their maintenance needs, their cost, and their availability. I have a really difficult time recommending that someone build their business around 50-75 year old equipment that only a handful of people on the planet know how to repair. Or for that matter, build their business around a piece of equipment that they can’t find in the first place!
There are a couple of other factors that I always consider in making my recommendation for a roaster: What is your budget, are you going to have a retail space, are you going to roast in that retail space, and where do you want to be volume-wise in 3 years? Because a roaster is such a large investment, I think it’s much better to look ahead 2-3 years rather than 5 years with your first roaster.
Many roasters I know who started with 2-5 kilo capacity machines were sized out within a year. Even with only doing farmers’ market sales and minimal wholesale, they just weren’t able to grow and had to either fold, or make another large capital investment within the first 2 years of their business. Comparatively I’ve known roasters who started with at least a 10-15 kilo capacity roaster, in small markets even, who were able to grow at a healthy pace and still were in a position to upgrade size-wise within a 5 year period.
Having said that, I still feel that for the money that the San Franciscan SF-6, a 6lb capacity roaster, is one of the best starter roasters on the market. This is a very well built machine, and the Kennedys have done an excellent job of building on the already solid reputation of the brand. This roaster is easy to control and shape profiles with, is beautifully designed and constructed, and the technical support from the manufacturer is top-notch. The SF-25 is their next step up, and can roast small batches just as well, so again, looking at the larger-sized model is a great idea.
My other favorite starter roaster is the Diedrich IR-12. This is a widely available roaster both new and used, is incredibly easy to operate, and can fit perfectly into a retail or production warehouse environment. Some roasters feel like this isn’t an easy machine to build profiles on, but they’re wrong. This roaster was designed to do longer, drawn-out roasts for espresso, but you can produce nice bright roasts on it as well.
Because of the IR (infrared) burners, they can feel unresponsive without making large adjustments to the gas setting, but you have to approach this roaster differently and make your adjustments with the airflow to really help you sculpt the roast. One of the very best features of this roaster is the consistency from batch to batch. I cannot stress enough how crucial consistency is to a new business as well as a new production roaster. One of my main complaints about this roaster is that you can definitely upgrade easily to the IR-24, but then you’re stuck there size-wise. Frankly, this roaster does add a very distinctive signature on your coffee so that if you change to another roaster, you’re going to have a challenge in matching the profiles and characteristics that you’ve built your brand on. Though they are attractive and user friendly, I don’t really recommend the smaller, under 12K Diedrichs.
Another widely available roaster at a pretty great price both new and used is the US Roaster Corps. I’ve had some really beautifully roasted coffees from this machine, though I don’t feel like it’s the most well-built roaster. Their Revelation Roasters (Armageddon!?!) seem to be a better build, but I’ve heard from folks who have them that they’ve need to still do some personal modifications to get them to perform the way they want them to.
Older Ambex roasters, which are not very sturdily constructed are very easy to use and you can find old YM-2’s everywhere. They’re cheap and they’re thin steel with aggressive ribbon burners, but you can produce amazing roasts on them. There’s pretty much zero technical support on these roasters though, and like I said, you can find them everywhere, which means a lot of folks are trying to get rid of them. In that regard, maybe this is a great start-up low cost roaster for you, but please keep in mind that you will need another roaster much sooner in order to grow. I really wouldn’t recommend the larger YM series roasters. I also am not fond of the Primo’s, as it’s really hard to have any control over those roasters. They’re pretty much on/off roasters; as in you put the coffee in, it turns brown and it’s done. There are tricks, mostly involving controlling the flow of gas to the burners, but that’s not particularly recommended.
Roaster Dynamics and Proaster are building some smaller roasters at a great price as well, and the construction is very nice on them, as well as the controllability. They both also make really nice sample roasters. The issue that roasters have had with purchasing the Proasters, out of South Korea, is the available technical support. Both manufacturers are widely available at the Roasters Guild Retreat and the SCAA Expo, but from what I’ve heard there’s not a lot of Proaster presence outside of there to help with support. Roaster Dynamics is based out of the Southeast US and, from what I understand, everyone who has worked with them has been really happy.
The Giesen is HEAVY. It’s also very expensive. I’ve had really lovely roasts from Giesen roasters, but I also feel that it’s a little over-engineered. This is not a horrible problem to have, other than the fact that I know roasters have struggled with getting their heads around operating them. They are beautiful showpiece roasters that perform well and are well-built, and I have recommended them in the past to people who were looking at new Probats.
The new Probatone series from Probat, are impressive, consistent, and expensive machines. There is no other roaster manufactured on the market with as much expertise and experience behind its design, period. There is a popular sentiment out there that owning a Probat makes you legit. This is of course ridiculous (though I get it), but really you have the ability to make almost any roaster produce what you want it to. I still prefer the old UG and GG series roasters to these new ones, but having the expertise of Probat behind you can be helpful. I have heard complaints about installs on new roasters, so it’s important to keep that in mind if you’re going to spend that kind of coin.
I am honestly not a huge fan of Loring Roasters. I very much appreciate the concept behind the roaster and love the idea of someone working to improve efficiency, but frankly there is a common flatness in the cup in every coffee that I’ve had that was roasted on a Loring. There is brilliant and sparkling acidity, and a clarity of specific flavors, but always there is flat and limp bodied character. There is also a detachment as an operator that, as someone who actually loves production work, I’m not really into. If you’re looking to really push bright crisp coffees, have the cash, AND have specific air quality controls in the place where you’re roasting, this can be a great roaster match for you at the 15 kilo capacity.
A couple random roasters that you may be able to find used include the Samiac from France, the Vittora and the Joper. Samiacs are usually “set it and forget it” roasters by set up, but you can work some control over the gas and airflow on them and produce some lovely roasts. They’re fairly well built and the ones you can find are still running. Vittoria Roasters that I’ve seen have a perforated drum and are indirect fired, so there is more of a convection approach to roasting on these. Jopers seem to be unapologetically knock-off Probats. I’ve never roasted on them, and I know they have the models with the indirect combustion that makes me curious about how they would perform as a malt and grain roaster, but I’m not excited about it as a coffee roaster. I would love to roast on one to see what that’s like. The prices are certainly pretty nice.
All in all, I would conclude that the best start up roasters out there for the money right now are the San Franciscan and the Diedrich roasters. They’re solid investments with great resale value and you can upgrade capacity along the same model and engineering, up to a point. I will forever promote the idea that any roaster can make any machine do what you want it to do if you work at it. The machine can be the thing that defines you as a roaster, but you don’t have to let it. Do not be intimidated, be curious, patient and adventurous. There are endless options out there, which is awesome!
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- Chris Schooley
Christopher Schooley is a coffee roaster who works for Sweet Maria’s and our CoffeeShrub project, and has served as the chair of the Roasters Guild Executive Council and has worked for the SCAA. He is also founder of Trubadour Maltings Company.