When choosing a coffee roaster, there are a few things to keep in mind. Since it can be a significant purchase, you want to know what you're buying. There are many ways to roast. You can roast using equipment over your stovetop, outside using a whirly popper, using a drum roaster, or an air roaster. The method depends on how you prefer to roast, the kind of profile you want to achieve, and how much you want to roast.
When I started roasting, I used a Whirly Popper. While it did what I needed it to do, it was inconsistent and produced a lot of smoke. The smoke was so bad that I had to roast outside. Living in the Phoenix metro area, roasting outside in the middle of August wasn't something I wanted to do long-term, so I bought a Behmor drum roaster. Although the manual states that it only does light roasts, I can get the darker roast I like with a bit of tweaking. I also wanted a roaster that could do at least a pound.
The process of roasting coffee is much like popping popcorn. You heat beans until they reach the right color, but most importantly, flavor. If you think about the different popcorn poppers, some use air, and others use the heat from a stovetop or heating element. The same goes for roasters, some use a heating element, and some use air. The air roaster brings out the brighter flavors of coffee, while the drum roaster may bring out a more caramel-like flavor. What flavor profile you like will determine what kind of roaster you should buy.
Remember chemistry class? Remember endothermic and exothermic reactions? The reaction will be different based on the kind of roaster you're using. Energy is absorbed in endothermic reactions, and energy is released in exothermic reactions. Let's consider each reaction with each type of roaster.
An air roaster heats the air within the chamber and causes an endothermic reaction in the beans themselves from the air in the chamber. Another term to consider with an air roaster is the term fluid bed. A fluid bed roaster heats the air and then blows it through the roaster bed, spreading the hot air throughout the chamber. As heat spreads and beans heat up, they’ll begin crack. The smell and color of the beans will change until you reach the perfect roast. Air roasters may bring out a brighter flavor if you're if that's your preference. One of the benefits of air roasters is that it’s harder to scorch beans. You can still over-roast and even burn them, but they won’t ignite as easily as they do in a drum roaster. I have used a drum roaster more than an air roaster and can tell you that it's a lot easier to ignite coffee in a drum roaster. I know that from personal experience. Check out this blog on how we roast at Sagebrush Coffee. One thing to remember about air roasters is that they tend to roast smaller batches.
A drum roaster is like a stovetop popper. It heats a drum, creating an exothermic transfer of heat from the drum to the beans. This 'cooks' your beans and develops the roast profile. Drum roasting is by far the most common roasting technique and is an excellent method of coffee roasting. Drum roasters can produce a little bit more caramel flavor in the bean because of the way the Maillard reaction develops, which is the process that produces the sugars in the coffee. Drum roaster can get in the hundred kgs per batch size, but I haven't seen a fluid bed roaster that can produce more than a couple of kilograms per batch. I choose a drum roaster because I like the more caramel-like flavor, and I want to roast at least a pound at a time. Since it's easier to scorch beans, it means I have to take a careful approach when roasting, which is a little inconvenient, but I can roast just how I like it every time. I get far more consistency if I watch the roaster closely. If you've followed Sagebrush or Sagebrush Unroasted, you know that Matt, the owner loves fluid bed air roasters. If you didn't know that, click the link provided earlier in this blog. He shares his perspective on air roasters. I love drum roasters. Our difference in preference speaks to why I roast at home and why Sagebrush exists. Since we may all have different preferences, we can roast how we like it, and that's how coffee should be.
Questions to ask yourself when buying a roaster:
- Do I like brighter flavors?
For brighter flavors, an air roaster is best.
- How much do I want to roast at a time?
Air roasters usually do smaller batches like ¼ - ½ a pound. If you want to roast more, a drum roaster is best.
- What is my level of experience with coffee roasting?
The Whirly Popper is great for beginners because you can know how coffee behaves when roasted. The Fresh Roast is easy to operate as well as the Hot Top. The Behmor is the only roaster we talk about that I wouldn't recommend to beginners.
Our 5 Favorite Roasters
- Whirly Popper
I was first introduced to the world of home roasting using the Whirly Popper. While I think it's great for beginners, I would not recommend using it with higher-priced coffee. The Whirly Popper teaches you the sounds, smells, and smoke of coffee roasting. I suggest using small batches and working your way up to bigger ones if you're starting. Igniting, scorching, burning, and more are easy on the Whirly Popper, so start small and stay close.
- Fresh Roast
The Fresh Roast SR series is an easy air roster to use. If you're an experienced roaster getting to your favorite coffee profile is straightforward. If you're new to roasting, it's easy to use as a beginner. It has a lot of flexibility with temperature, time, and fan speed, making it hard to get a bad roast. It has excellent smoke suppression technology, which makes cleaning up chaff easy. The only drawback is the roasting chamber is small, making it impossible to roast larger batches, so you're stuck roasting small batches. The SR800, which is Fresh Roast's newest model, has the capability of 8 oz for wet-processed coffee or 6 oz of dry-processed coffee, which is more than the previous series. You'll roast a great cup of coffee using the French Roast, but you'll need patience and time if you want to roast larger batches.
The Behmor is an excellent drum roaster, but I wouldn't recommend it for a beginner. I started using it as a beginner, and it was tricky to learn. But, once you get the hang of it, it roasts delicious coffee. The settings aren't very intuitive, so the user guide is necessary when you're first using it. The smoke suppression is pretty good unless you burn the coffee I have done. Since it's a drum roaster, scorching and even igniting is possible, which I know from personal experience. It is possible to get a darker roast but getting there might make you want to pull your hair out until you get the settings just right.
The HotTop coffee is where Sagebrush was born. Matt bought one as an upgrade to his Whirlypop (yes, that's quite a jump) and immediately fell in love. It is convenient, accurate and an amazing device. I would recommend it for a beginner or an expert. It gives you the flexibility of programming the roaster and basically leaving it to get consistent roasts each time, but it's customizable enough to cater to any coffee roaster's obsession. The biggest problem with the HotTop is the price. It is well over $1000, so you have to be committed. In fact, Matt started Sagebrush to offset some of that cost, which worked out for him and us, but gives you a clue into how this roaster will bring the coffee nerd out of you.