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Treat Your Roasting Apprentice Well
By Phil Beattie

Molding a skilled roaster is an ardurous journey. Phil Beattie helps the roaster implement the process.

At some point as a roaster you will, hopefully, have the pleasure of not being able to keep up with your company’s roasting demands. Sometimes it may be hard to admit, but the workload and requirements of maintaining a roasting operation will stretch you to your limits. If you choose to ignore this situation, the quality of your product, and possibly your sanity, will be sacrificed.

So many things can lead to this dilemma. Whether it is increased demand for your coffee, or your desire to visit the origins from where you buy coffee, you need to have someone that you can entrust in handling the roasting while you are away.

At this time you have the wonderful opportunity to search out and develop some willing person into a coffee fanatic, which, with any good fortune and planning, will surpass your levels of enthusiasm and passion for the craft of coffee. But how do you find the right candidate? Once you have them, how do you mold them into as skilled of a roaster as yourself?

This process is long and complicated, with many pitfalls and traps waiting to pull your apprentice to the side of mediocrity. Here are some tips for providing a solid foundation for fostering the ideal roasting apprentice, and allowing the continued success of your company.

Choosing The Right Candidate
Finding the right person for the job is by far the hardest part of the apprenticeship process. First, you must determine exactly what you are looking for. Spend time asking yourself the hard questions regarding what you are looking for before you start interviewing.

Are you looking for someone that you can quickly hand off a substantial amount of responsibility to, or someone that you can slowly develop over many years? Do you want this position to be a career, or are you looking for a part-time enthusiast? Are you looking for someone that you will share the lime-light with as the coffee guru of the company, or are you looking for someone that is content to work behind the scenes and is simply satisfied with producing a great product?

I find that the most helpful first step is writing a detailed job description, listing the tasks the person’s responsibilities will include, and what your expectations are for the future of the person in that position. This outline will help candidates to know what they are getting into. There’s no disappointment like getting six months into training with all that investment in time and supplies, only to have someone decide that roasting is not for them.

The number one priority when looking for an apprentice, and really any employee, is personality and character. Finding someone that can fit into the culture of your company is crucial. Someone may have all the skill in the world, but if they have a different mission and core values than that of your company, you’ll find that drama and separation are inevitable. Look for someone who will compliment your team in the long run.

When possible, use word of mouth to find potential apprentices. Going with people who are referred to you through colleagues and associates gives you an extra layer of insurance that the person is a quality individual.

Look for someone that has an appreciation for the arts, and even better, an understanding of tasting. People that have an interest in wine, beer, culinary arts, even cigars, will generally have a leg up when it comes to appreciating tastes and flavors, and the intricacies of what can affect those attributes. Coffee is a romantic and artful product, therefore, people who are artistically inclined will be much more likely to develop into the passionate roaster who has pride in what they produce.

Passionate baristas looking for a career change can be the best candidates as they already have a basic understanding of coffee. They will also know the struggles of the retail environment and can be empathetic to the challenges that your customers face.

First Things First
The number one, most important, absolute necessity for the young apprentice is learning the art of tasting. Tasting is the foundation for everything that we do in roasting, and for that matter, the whole industry. This is where the apprentice will begin to recognize the different nuances found in the coffee and start developing an appreciation for the product.

Start with the cupping process; teach them all the parameters of setting up the cupping. Let them taste what can happen if the cupping is set up wrong, what happens when the grind is off, when the dose is off, when the water is the wrong temperature. All of this will add to their understanding of how fragile and important the extraction process can be.

Every time you do a cupping, include them. Describe what you taste, describe the aroma, body, acidity and aftertaste. Cupping a single coffee makes it harder to analyze the nuances; always provide a comparison coffee so that the differences are easier to pick out.

Another useful exercise is to call your importer and request defective coffee, I know, you use a reputable importer that does not sell defective coffee. Trust me, they can find it. Have the apprentice cup horrible coffee, burn the taste of fermented and baggy coffee into their taste memory forever. So much so, that if they taste just a hint of it in their coffee, it will come back like a bad childhood memory.

Of course the tasting exercises are never ending for a true coffee professional, but they need to be extensive and often for the beginning roaster.

Don’t Touch That!
While the daily tasting continues you can move on to the next most important subject, safety. Roasting can at times be a dangerous venture.

Safety is not a light subject when dealing with natural gas burners, chaffe, and commercial machinery such as a coffee roaster. What seems very obvious to you may go un-noticed by others.

I once had a friend watching me roast. He was looking through the sight glass at the flickering flame under the drum. Before I had a chance to say anything he said, “Is that hot?” as he simultaneously touched the sight glass. Needless to say, he quickly answered that question for himself. Nothing is too obvious to mention during the safety training, “This is a roaster, and it is hot.”

Reading of the roaster’s manual is a must. Fully train the apprentice on your procedures: what to do in the case of an exhaust fire, chaffe fire, drum fire, and power outage. Train them on the use a fire extinguisher, what type of extinguisher to use around a roaster, and what types not to use. Test them on all of these things, and review the steps often.

Can I Please Start Roasting!?
When it comes to the actual roasting, there is vast amount of information that must be covered prior to roasting. It is a good idea to start with the mechanics of the roaster. Cover the basics of airflow, the burners, bearings, motors and afterburners.

When the time comes to have the apprentice start studying the roasting, it is best to have them focus on one blend. Take your biggest selling coffee and teach them everything there is to know about it. By having them learn your best selling coffee, you are maximizing the amount of roasting they will be able to do when you decide they are ready to roast.

Teach them how the coffee was developed, why you selected the coffees in that roast. Through tasting, have them get familiar with the flavor profile you expect out of this coffee. Provide the apprentice with a simple log where they can track the temperature, gas setting and airflow setting every 15 seconds. This process will give them their first glimpse into what roasting is all about. For each log they fill out, take a sample of that coffee and match it with the log. At a later time the apprentice can cup the coffees while analyzing the log and see what slight changes can have on the taste of the coffee.

Generally, you will come across two different personality types in apprentices. One will have the desire to rush into roasting. Full of confidence and ready to get to work, this person will constantly be pushing for the opportunity to jump on the roaster and give it a go.

The other type may be intimidated by the roaster or afraid of burning a batch. Different approaches will be necessary for these two apprentices. For the enthusiastic roaster, make sure that they can describe all necessary processes to you without help. It is easy to have you describe it to them and they may say they understand what you are discussing, but a true understanding of the concepts is only demonstrated by the ability to teach them to someone else.

For the timid roaster, a few pep talks and praise may be needed to encourage them that they understand more than they admit. Eventually you will have your apprentice roasting your signature batch under your close supervision.

The amount of time it will take to get to this point will vary depending on their prior experience and their learning curve. It may take as little as six months, or as much as a year. The important thing is to take it slow and allow the young apprentice to develop their roasting prowess at a comfortable pace.

Developing Passion
The development of a passion for coffee in your apprentice is reliant on your level of passion. Find opportunities throughout their training to discuss the colorful history of coffee, what makes specialty coffee different from commercial coffee.

Once you have laid the foundation of coffee knowledge, introduce them to the coffee community. Enroll them into the Roasters Guild Apprenticeship program. If feasible, send them to Coffee Fest conventions/workshops, the SCAA Conference and/or Roasters Guild Retreat. Take advantage of the roasting seminars provided by your roaster manufacturer as well. All of these events not only provide exceptional education opportunities, but also acts as a shot in the arm for coffee passion and enthusiasm.

Eventually with dedication to the craft and never-ending curiosity the young apprentice will have the potential to develop into a leader in the industry. When you find the right fit, they will always be looking for ways to improve quality and find innovative ways to pass on the thrill of coffee to others. Of course, this is all based on the foundation of coffee exploration that you provide.

Phil Beattie is the director of coffee for Dillanos Coffee Roasters, Sumner, Washington. Contact Phil at +1 (253) 826-1807 or philb@dillanos.com.

Tea & Coffee - February, 2008

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