Business World


Getting the Skinny on Sample Roasters: Part I


What is a sample roaster? Is its purpose to find a great coffee or to find a great coffee roast? I thought this question would be easy, but the answer remains elusive, especially when you talk to the large roaster manufacturers. They keep telling me these “toys” aren’t useful diagnostic tools. It was enough to daunt an out-of-the-box thinker such as myself. Then, one roaster manufacturer posed this question: “Do these small machines really produce a decent enough roast to help determine a green sample’s worth?” It all comes down to that. In response, listed below are some new sample roasters that just might help in the green coffee buying decision. For the record, in my opinion, not one of these machines has the kind of variable settings that would qualify them as a commercial roaster. But, the point of this article is to determine if they could assist in finding a great coffee. Period.

Even though Hearthware is often dismissed as an early player, they are still widely available. In addition, they’re about to introduce new models.

Currently, there are two models.

Hearthware Gourmet - This unit looks like a coffee brewer to the untrained eye. It takes nearly eight minutes to roast. Unlike most fluid-bed roasters, the coffee never really seems to float. Both direct contact and hot air heat the beans.

The longer roast time is deemed to be a positive taste attribute. I do think the longer roast time gives a wider margin of error to the roast profile. I know a number of home roast aficionados actually prefer the Gourmet to its “improved” sibling.

  • Longer than average roast time… seems to increase development/increased margin of error
  • Direct heat/hot air mix
  • Spring timer, less accurate/repeatable
  • Some tipping
Hearthware Precision - This model is more Sirocco-like, which means it is a traditional fluid-bed air roaster. It also has a more user-friendly and repeatable timing knob. Simply dial in the preferred time and press a separate button to begin roasting. At any time you can press a cooling button. This roaster accomplishes a medium roast within six minutes, around 20% faster than the earlier Hearthware model.
  • Push button timer… repeatable
  • Nice three-ounce roast portions
  • Even roast
The Freshroast uses a small glass container. The idea is simple. You fill the glass up to just under a metal band. It takes roughly two ounces or 57grams of Sumatra beans. Of course, other coffees will add up slightly differently.

A unique feature is a light-to-dark setting that allows you to control the amount of outside air. Presumably, the dark setting, but opening up the air, gives a longer roast. It allows you to affect the roast.

Other than a smaller-than-average batch size (57 grams/2 ounces), the Freshroast is the sleeper unit of the bunch. It most closely follows Ian Bersten’s theories that the ideal roast time is between four and six minutes, at least that’s what he states in his legendary and notorious treatise on the subject, Coffee Floats and Tea Sinks.

  • Roast close to Sivetz ideal
  • Good chaff removal
  • Small yield
  • Difficult to clean chaff removal unit
More than any other in this survey, this roaster promises to be heir apparent to the long-out-of-print Sirocco coffee roaster. Apparently European giant Siemens had better things to do than make a little coffee roaster. Well, the Imex is, if anything, built better. It is well made and almost smokeless. I say “almost” because it did trip the smoke alarm when doing French Roasts.

The coffee definitely “floats” on a cushion of air. The powerful fan that accomplishes this is, unfortunately, quite noisy, so hearing the beans’ first and second cracks is difficult.

Cleanup is easy with the Imex as well. They use mostly stainless steel shell materials. Everything is nice and neat. The see-through plastic lid is dishwasher safe, as is a screened chaff collector.

The amount it roasts is slightly overstated; at least it was with my favorite Yemen beans. Once they puffed up with heat, they overfilled the heated chamber, resulting in an overflow into the chaff collector. Using more standard issue beans like Costa Rica, there was no problem. Even so, I’d weigh the beans (150) and still prepare to experiment.

  • Well made
  • Even roast, no tipping whatsoever
  • Roasts 150 grams, a lot especially for its size
  • Efficient cooling, beans come out room temperature
  • Not entirely smoke-free
  • Spring timer, not exact
Now comes the Hottop (what a name). This thing has it all. It looks great, probably a number one item for the home user. It’s stainless steel. For once a designer understood that the kind of crazed lunatic who’ll risk spending his family’s monthly grocery bill on a home roaster wants it to look like a shop espresso maker. Its styling reminds me of a La Pavoni.

More important to taste, the Hottop roaster is intuitive. They forgot to pack an instruction book and I still was able to roast in two sessions. The reason it took two is because they surprised me by engineering a warm-up period. Great idea! Also, there’s an alarm just seconds before the beans dump in the cooling tray and a 10 second override button. A window is added to the front, which provides the best visual for bean doneness of any machines.

Beans dump onto a cooling tray, just like a large drum roaster. I’ve read some web feedback that the cooling was inadequate, but my later-generation machine did not seem to have this problem. If you’re going to be using it for years, this unit will stand up to regular use. It definitely came closest in this survey to matching what a large size drum roaster would do, albeit minus the flexibility of a professional machine.

  • Preheat circuit
  • True drum roast, actually not an advantage if you’re a Sivetz disciple
  • Repeatable presets
  • Ergonomics, unusually well thought out for a coffee appliance.
  • Does a half-pound of coffee. Plenty of cupping tests
  • Long roast, could be a good thing, but time consuming at very least and possibly flavor flattening
  • Smoky, I got kicked outside by spouse following roast #1
  • Roasts too much coffee. Small roaster samples are too small for ideal roast
I bought this small sample roaster years ago. It does a small amount of coffee. I find three or four ounces to be its limit, and I know Sivetz recommends a single ounce. But, it does a credible job, I’d say just like coffee from any of the larger size Sivetz machines.

  • Small… you can carry it around in a duffel bag.
  • Maneuverable… I find it helps to toss the beans around, minimizing scorched tips. Air roasting is known for evenness; sometimes it’s even considered a fault.
  • Durable… how can a thousand electricians be wrong? It’s a standard issue heat gun.
  • Smoky, no filtering of any kind. Think Winston!
  • Beans can jump out, especially if you put in too few
  • Doesn’t roast very much coffee
I saw the Swissmar at the International Housewares Show around three years ago. I must admit I was floored at the design. Here is a company that understood that the drum roast is still the gold standard for roasting. To me, it’s most reminiscent of a Diedrich, mostly because it uses around an 18-minute roast and it appears to roast by a mix of direct and indirect heat. Is it the flavor equivalent? Well, you have to realize that there’s no way on a single method machine that it’s going to be able to match roast for roast a machine with many variables. But, when it comes to heat transfer, I think it comes darn close to what we all taste in drum roast coffee.

My tastings indicate a slight amount of flattening, but Michael Sivetz and Ian Bersten would say this about any drum roaster, and most drum roast manufacturers would claim it of any competitor whose machine takes a minute longer to roast.

It smokes more than Joe Camel.

  • True Drum roast
  • Coolest outside temperature
  • Long roast time flattens taste
  • Smoker
If there is one machine here that I think might actually define the home market, Zach and Dani’s is it. Sample roasting is equally interesting with this machine. Joel Appel, Zach and Dani’s creator, is, if nothing else, the most innovative of designers.

  • Automatic, accurate settings.
  • Automatic recall. Want to roast two samples at exactly the same setting? It’s easy with this unit. It automatically defaults to the lightest setting, then you just press “recall” to get your last one.
  • Smokeless. Hallelujah! They’ve done it. Several of these roasters claim “smokeless.” This one is the champ.
  • Long roast time can flatten taste slightly, compared to higher temperature fluid-bed roasts
  • Looks consumer, too attractive for lab-gear look so important to he-man coffee professionals
For sample roasting, are these machines better than simply asking a green broker what’s good? I believe that the realities of the coffee business are that any of the machines in this survey are better than none. That’s pretty rough talk to some of the larger machine manufacturers, who refer to each other’s machines as toys, much less a sub $200 “corn popper.” Nevertheless, just as Sivetz coffee roasters are serious machines, so is each of the machines reviewed here. I still think we’re something short of a quartz watch-style quantum leap forward. But, for further development, there has to first be a market. I believe there’s a market and there are now some serious contenders.

I anxiously await the next generation. Meanwhile, there’s some serious fun to be had trying out beans using these units.

Kevin Sinnott writes about coffee because he loves it. He pioneered the legendary Coffee Companion and has appeared in countless television and radio shows as a coffee expert, including 15 minutes of fame as Oprah Winfrey’s selected coffee guru. He is author of the book Great Coffee. He can be reached at (630) 393 9010 or kevinsinnott@attbi.com

Tea & Coffee - May/June, 2003
Theta Ridge Coffee


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