company - education - coffee

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Micro and macro

I have been talking a lot lately with people about roaster sizes and why we chose our roasting equipment. Since there are about 5 new coffees arriving over the next 3-4 weeks, this is a good time to address some roaster nonsense.

I spend a lot of time worrying about how large is too large in regards to our long term goals. There are many reputable roasting outfits that are what I would think of as very large. The problem is that they are not quite large by general industry standards but by a layman's concept of size, they are on an obviously big scale to be romancing anything micro(thought they frequently do).

At what point do you lose control of quality as it relates to volume and output? In my eyes, there must be a point where quality roasting no longer means finessing and tweaking a roast but rather relates keeping the production consistent and avoiding problems. At larger volumes, it then becomes about repeatability and logistics instead of refinement and optimization.

I make this statement because I believe roasting in it's truest sense is about mass and momentum. When the mass gets large enough, it becomes very stable but harder to drastically change the momentum. It's the difference between a touring car and a dump truck if that analogy works for the reader. There is an obvious cutoff point where some more challenging roast profiles would no longer be achievable.

If this, then a larger batch size in a roaster becomes increasingly predictive and slow to react to changes. Obviously, this is a common observation, but the implication is that a smaller batch can do more unique profiles if the user has the ability to utilize this properly.

The problem is that smaller roasting outfits have very little access to (due to scale) better coffees. The smaller a roasting outfit, the more dependent it becomes on existing supply lines for coffees. In a business that deals in containers, a truly small batch roaster (unless well connected) is going to be locked out from some great coffees.

Simply put, a small batch roaster with knowledge and an adequate setup has more upward roast potential but little access to exceptional coffees. A larger batch roaster has less control over the roast in comparison but can consume more coffee and has more leverage to get any coffees they want.

It is very strange right now that our community, the online one, is not having this discussion yet. How big is too big to produce quality? How small is too small to have access to quality?