For many coffee roasters just getting into the business, the first roaster they choose is a shot in the dark - they don’t know enough about coffee, much less equipment to make an informed decision. Additionally, within the realm of small roasters, the selection, while overwhelmingly varied, is fairly basic - aspiring small roasters are usually just looking for a basic 12 kilo roaster and maybe an afterburner. They’re certainly not looking at conveyors, destoners and elaborate, computerized roast profile systems.
The second roaster is another matter. If a coffee roaster is in the market for a second roaster, chances are they started out as a retailer and are beginning to develop a thriving wholesale business. Alternatively, they may be opening a few more stores and are looking to centralize their production in one facility. Less frequently, the business was founded as a wholesale operation from the get-go and has done well enough to warrant expansion into larger equipment. In all cases, the choice of what roaster to move into is a complex one.
First of all, any growing roaster knows a whole lot more about coffee than when they first started roasting. No matter what equipment choice they made to begin with, they have come to realize that all roasters have their plusses and minuses. The question is, which equipment will best allow them to grow along in the areas where they see opportunity. It’s a given that most successful, growing roasters have very strong ideas about what they want their coffee to taste like and for many, the decision of which roaster to buy is based primarily, if not solely, on that criteria. Obviously, though, there are other factors. Expense of operation, ease or difficulty of training related to use of the equipment and restrictions of size and configuration all play a role.
What follows are a few interviews relating to the selection of roasting equipment. Taken as a whole, it turns out there are as many ways to select roasting equipment as there are equipment options. The point is to find a method that suits the needs of the roaster’s particular business. The result, no doubt, will be another completely unique roasting plant - leading to the conclusion that there’s no one way to produce great coffee, or to succeed in the coffee business.
Martin Schuster, senior project engineer with Neuhaus Neotec Maschinen- und Anlagenbau, located in Reinbek, Germany, says that his company’s most important objective is to deliver a roasting system “that meets our customer’s expectations and to provide equipment and service that makes him happy for a long period of time.”
Schuster began by talking about the first step in that process. “We find out (or in some cases help to find out) the customer’s true needs regarding product quality, product specifications, capacity for the roaster, special roasting condition requirements (based on test roasts on a pilot roaster) and his future plans.” Next they find out if the customer has any preferred vendors for standard components or equipment. And then they discuss additional equipment that is required for a proper roaster operation, such as conveying systems, scales, and destoners. The installation site is then checked for the existing equipment configuration, existing equipment to use, available space and equipment restrictions, applicable standards and regulations, and available utilities and their specifications.
Once these items are taken care of, a roasting system is designed by Neuhaus Neotec based on the collected information. Then, an engineering package with detailed drawings of the roaster and auxiliary equipment, system descriptions with scope of supply, control description, listing of the expected or guaranteed performance data, listing with equipment specifications, and possible options is drawn up.
Schuster continued, “Based on the information from the engineering package, the whole system is discussed with the customer in order to agree on the expected scope of supply. The best results from this meeting are achieved, if the participating group includes also operators and maintenance people. It is also very helpful to show a similar roaster in operation prior to the meeting. This meeting provides also the time to discuss some special customer wishes regarding design details of the equipment, color specifications or special finishes of surfaces.”
Daniel Ephraim is president of Modern Process Equipment, Inc. which serves as the U.S. and Canada representative for Neuhaus Neotec.
Ephraim explained how they determine how to match the right roaster with the right company. “The low-hanging fruit as far as qualification on a roaster, of course, is rate. How much is someone going to have to roast? Are they at a size that is 25 or 50 kg per hour or are they at a size that’s 500 kg per hour. Typically if they are somewhere in the area of 100 or 200 kg per hour, they have already had a roaster in the past. People typically don’t start out with a 200 kg per hour roaster. They typically start out with maybe a 25 kg per hour roaster. So their first type of roaster would often set the stage for what their second type of roaster is and also the quantities that they’re going to be looking at. So that’s a quantitative type of selection criteria. Other factors are the type of roasting - whether it’s a drum roast or a rotating fluidized bed roast. One being utilizing a drum type of method and the other using the use of hot air to transfer the heat to roast the coffee. And the predominate type of roaster that does that is the Neuhaus Neotec.”
“After going through their selection criteria, we typically start providing them with sample roasts.” Ephraim explained the next part in the process his company goes through when a prospective client contacts them. “We have a roasting facility here in Chicago, so they would send us a quantity of their green coffee and we would roast it to their specifications, using a number of different roast profiles. After we return those samples to them, then they evaluate those samples on a blind testing basis, and then get back to us on the most desirable characteristics that they may have found based on the samples they received. At that point it becomes a matter of specifications, such as what is best for their needs in terms of capacities, what’s best for their needs in terms of control for the roasting process, what’s best for their needs in terms of fitting into their current facility.”
Ephraim explained why these roasters are different by using an analogy about the way popcorn used to be made, “Neuhaus Neotec roasters are unique in the sense that they use a rotating fluidized bed to roast the coffee. And if you think about the way that coffee is roasted and if you think about how popcorn used to be popped, one would put popcorn in a bottom of a pan, throw some oil in there and heat would be transferred and the popcorn would be popped. And sometimes you had a few kernels down at the bottom that wouldn’t be completely popped. This process is using metal as a transferring agent to the corn of the popcorn. Nowadays, they have air roasters. Air is a better transfer of heat than metal. The reason is, that air encompasses entirely that popcorn kernel and in the case of coffee, the coffee bean. It’s a better transfer agent and medium of heat. You can also control it to a great extent. You can raise the level of heat or lower the level of heat.”
Ephraim continued, “If you follow the theory, and most people do, that controlling the amount of heat that is input into the coffee bean, will affect its flavor and also affect how long it takes to roast and it’s characteristics, then basically you can tailor make your different recipes for roasting.”
“So the capacities and the characteristics of the fluidized bed roasters is significantly more than what you have with the drum type roaster. Drum type roasters have their own niche. Typically they have a limitation as far as how much heat and how much you can vary the heat into the coffee beans, because you are heating up metal the same time you are trying to heat up the beans.” Neuhaus Neotec has been specializing in this technology for the past 20 years and according to Ephraim, it has become their forte.
Gordon McNeil, former vice president of sales in North America for Probat and current president of Equip for Coffee (sales agents for Probat for North America for their smaller roasters) talked about why he believes Probat roasters are so popular among roasters. “There are two reasons why Probat has about two thirds of the world market,” McNeil began. “One: very, very high quality roasting, It is extremely uniform. It’s more uniform than just about anything else out there on the market. And they’ve been that way for quite a while. The uniformity comes about because it’s a combination of a lot of convection heat, but in a drum roaster. So it basically takes the advantages both and combines them together. It’s come about through basically many years of engineering. The second item is that they are very durable, trouble free equipment that very often outlive their owner.”
Consultant Dan Bloch is the exclusive agent for Cia. Lilla de Maquinas of São Paulo, Brazil for the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
“Lilla has been a family business in Brazil since 1918, and has built thousands of roasters,” Bloch explained about the history of Lilla. “Their newest models combine sturdy design with state-of-the-art technology. Principal features are solid drum, rather than perforated, making for lower roast shrinkage; continuous self-cleaning - no roasting time lost to stop and clean; PLC (computer) control; profile roasting; modem connection to diagnose operating problems from anywhere in the world. It also has a high ratio of air to green coffee - and all that at prices significantly below those of roasters produced in Europe or the U.S., due principally to the very favorable exchange rate between the dollar and the Brazilian currency.”
Bloch, who has spent over 50 years in the coffee business, begins by asking the prospective roaster a series of questions, “How much coffee do you intend to roast - per hour, per week, per month or year? An answer to this immediately indicates which model or models of Lilla Roaster I should offer the customer. Since Lilla builds roasters with capacities ranging from 110 pounds per hour to 5,500 pounds per hour, this information is crucial. It is important to know if the customer is already in the roasting business. Does he have an existing plant; does he need only a roasting machine; or does he need all the auxiliary equipment - from green coffee handling through roasting, grinding and delivery of the ground coffee to a packaging line?”
Bloch must also determine whether a customer is a large or small roaster and what percentage of their business is whole bean and ground coffee. These types of questions will help establish what kind of auxiliary equipment they will offer the customer.
According to Bloch, supplying the customer with what they need depends a great deal on how experienced the customer is. Customers who have been in business for years, tend to know exactly what they want. Someone new to the business requires more help from Bloch. In both cases they try to take potential customers to visit installations using Lilla roasters, talk with the owners and operators, and then provide some education to the newcomers.
After going through all of the above, Bloch presents a detailed quotation to the customer. “If he thinks of something else he might want, or if he requires any change, Lilla will rewrite the quotation as many times as necessary,” Bloch assured. “The roasting machines themselves are standard and comply to the Lilla design - but plant layout and auxiliary equipment, especially for larger roasters, requires individual engineering to meet their needs. Some of our best customers have been offered plant designs and quotations as many as seven or eight times before a final plan was decided on and implemented. Selling complete roasting plants requires flexibility and patience, but Lilla and others, I'm sure, are prepared to exercise both virtues.”
Don Schoenholt, Master of Coffee at Gillies Coffee Co. in Brooklyn, NY joked that he purchased his Lilla roaster because “it had a cute color.”
In reality, the answer to why he purchased a four bag, gas-fired, solid drum, smokeless/odorless Lilla Roaster for his plant, goes much deeper. Schoenholt talked about his quest for a roaster that did everything he wished for and his experience going through that process. “The fast answer: Ciro Lilla impressed me as a human being. That was the key reason, but it was certainly not the only reason. As a coffee roasting person, I grew up in this business and my father grew up in this business. So I have a lot of experience of my own and a lot of experience that I got through the generations of my family on coffee roasting. I kind of inhaled it or got it by osmosis when I was growing up. Individually I had experience roasting with just about every kind of roaster that was made during my working years. Since roasters last forever, the first roaster I ever roasted on was made in 1909. I’ve done it hands on, that is, it wasn’t me watching a guy who was doing the work. It was me schlepping the burlap sacks and slicing them open and bumping the green and climbing up on the ladder and lighting the fire. My hands on experience over the years had told what it was that I wanted to have in a roasting plant if I ever built one from scratch. Most coffee men never get to build a coffee plant from scratch because the machinery lasts forever and so if it’s a family business you just keep using the same machines generationally. But in my working lifetime I did get to the point where I was going to build a new factory. And I had this wish list.”
Schoenholt’s wish list was long and creative, “I wished it didn’t throw smoke everywhere; I wished that it didn’t throw dust everywhere; I wished when I leaned up against it that it wasn’t hot; I wished it would clean itself so that I didn’t have to take the machine apart twice a month. I wished every time that I wanted to open the flume that I could push a button instead of climbing up on a ladder. What I discovered, as I started looking for machinery, that nobody would build a machine to do all the things that I wanted to do. Also I was buying more than a roaster, I was buying an entire plant. That is, whoever was going to sell me the roaster was also going be selling me the things that attached to a roaster.”
Gillies has been roasting coffee since 1840 and when Schoenholt started to look into buying a roaster 10 years ago, he took that process very seriously. “To me, I was spending my life savings. To most of these manufacturers, I was spending the equivalent of $1.39. I mean, I’m a very little guy in business. To them, I was insignificant and yet to me, it was everything that my family had put together over a hundred years, being reinvested in a business to carry us for the next, hopefully, 50 years. I couldn’t afford to make a mistake. At the same time, I wanted to do things that were not being done by my competitors. I was prepared to be more radical. I didn’t have to go through a committee to make a decision. All I had to do was to be able to sleep at night to make the decision. I talked to just about every manufacturer there was and I must tell you, in spite of the fact that my business is very small, the name of my business is very large, in trade, and I have a good reputation as an individual and I wasn’t talking to salesman. The more I talked to the roaster manufactures and they were all making proposals, the more I discovered that they were very inflexible because my job wasn’t big enough for them to care about enough.”
Schoenholt gave an example of his experience which led to the beginning of a relationship with Lilla, “I wanted the key conveyors that were carrying roasted coffee to be titled at a 45 degree angle from the floor. This was a great idea that I had that I felt since I’m a specialty roaster and most of what I do is whole beans, then I didn’t want the coffee to drop long distances. Then I felt that if I had my conveyors running at angles, it would be dropping shorter distances from the top of the conveyor into the bottom of the bin and therefore would land softer with less chance of breakage. It was a little craziness that I had in my head and I decided that this was very clever and that nobody did this because it takes up too much room on the ground. Everyone was telling me that I was nuts. And they wouldn’t do it because it was nuts. And when I spoke to Mr. Lilla, Mr. Lilla said to me, 'It isn’t really going to make any difference.’ And I said, ‘That isn’t the issue, Mr. Lilla. I want it that way and it’s my money. Will you build it that way?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely. If that’s the way you want it, that’s the way Lilla’s going to build it. But you don’t have to do it that way. It’s not going to make enough difference.’
“Every time I came up with one of my little ideas and said, ‘This is the way I want to do it.’ Mr. Lilla would say to me, ‘I don’t know if it’s a very good idea, but if that’s the way you want it, That’s the way we’ll build it.’ And that became an important thing, leaning on me, to make a decision. Because I was the guy doing all the roasting, if there’s any dust and dirt and smell and smoke, I was the one who was eating it. I didn’t want to eat it. I wanted a machine that was going to operate very, very cleanly. Mr. Lilla’s machine operates with an intricate cleaning system. You do not need a separate system to clean out the machine, nor do you need a separate system to eliminate the smoke and the odor. You don’t need after burners and things. Everything’s built in. It’s all part of the machine. And that appealed to me. And the other thing that appealed to me was, [Lilla] was prepared to guarantee that his machine would meet or beat any on the books or planned federal state or local standards for clean air.”
Before Schoenholt was ready to sign on the dotted line, he had one last concern. “My last concern with Lilla had to do with their ability to support me and their operation of their machines because they did not have, as their competitors did, a parts depot in the United States, fix-it people in the U.S. So I was concerned, ‘What happens if something goes wrong?’ And Mr. Lilla reminded me that FedEx was in business. What he was saying basically was, ‘Don’t think of me as being 5,000 miles away. Think of me as being next door. If you need somebody to fix, he’s going to be there. You need equipment, it’s gonna be there. You shouldn’t even be giving this another thought.’”
He continued, “We had our first problem about six or eight months after we were operating and I was very nervous to walk to the telephone and dial Brazil. And the phone was picked up on the other end, ‘Good morning, Gillies in New York, this is Lilla, how can we help you?’ And I said, ‘Whoa.’ They had put in a special phone just for customers in the States, which at that point was me and it was sitting on the desk of someone who spoke English. So from the very first day that we needed them, they have proven that they took me seriously.”
Ten years after the roaster was installed, Schoenholt continues to be very happy. “The roaster was rebuilt about 15 months ago, after 10 years of very good service,” he said. “We invested a substantial amount of money to make sure that it was like new and we hope doing that periodically that it will remain in pristine working condition.”
Although Schoenholt speaks very highly of the roaster and Lilla’s customer service, he says that “in many parts of the world, Lilla is still an unknown quantity.” “I think the last people we had visit to see the Lilla were from India. They flew halfway around the world just to see my plant. Because they wanted to talk to me and see my Lilla work.”
Knowing that everyone has different preferences and experiences, Schoenholt added a little disclaimer to his comments, “You should not take my word for any of this. Because I come with my opinions, though they may be educated opinions, an awful lot of baggage comes with my opinions. And I don’t make anybody have to live with my positive and negative experiences. In the long run, everybody has to make their own decisions.”