Closing the Loop

Roasting coffee is simple. And roasting coffee is complicated.

Starting back in our very first conversations about Matchstick, we knew we wanted to roast our own coffee.We wanted to roast because we wanted to feel intimately connected to and responsible for our product. We wanted to be partners with the producers responsible for growing the green coffee; and we wanted a deeper connection to the subtle details that so dramatically affect the end product of roasted coffee. Most importantly, we wanted to share this story with others. Since then, the gentle, churning hum of the roaster has enticed hundreds of people to curiously venture to the back of our cafe to see what was happening. From their honest, inquisitive questions, we have introduced a great deal of people to the world of coffee roasting.

We've learned a lot, too. We've learned that roasting coffee is simple; and, that roasting coffee is complicated.

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The process of taking coffee from its green stage (the clean, dried seed of a coffee plant) to a drinkable stage is, at a basic level, relatively straightforward. Heat is applied, the coffee turns brown, expands, dries out, and parts of it become soluble in water. Roasting coffee is simple.

Then again, there's a little more to it. We need to consider the degree of heat that is applied at the beginning of roast, the environmental conditions present in the roaster, the amount of combustible air moving through it, the rate at which heat is being exhausted from the drum, even the speed that the drum is spinning. We should also take note of the conditions of the green coffee, its temperature when we begin roasting, bean size, variation in bean size, moisture content, and density. All of these characteristics can dramatically affect the way that green coffee will absorb heat throughout the roast. If conditions are not monitored closely, and the rate at which the coffee is developing is not monitored closely, we end up with a less than perfect final product. Here's another tricky part: a coffee bean increases in size throughout the roast, which alters the way convective heat interacts with the beans. Near the end of the roast, the coffee undergoes a process called 'first crack', marked by a literal cracking sound, in which the rate at which it heats up starts to increase, followed by a rapid decrease, followed by another rapid increase. If we do get it all correct, the coffee should be very soluble, sweet, and have a preserved distinct and unique flavour. In short, roasting coffee is difficult.

On Roasting

Here's another tricky part: a coffee bean increases in size throughout the roast, which alters the way convective heat interacts with the beans. Near the end of the roast, the coffee undergoes a process called 'first crack' — marked by a literal cracking sound — in which the rate at which it heats up starts to increase, followed by a rapid decrease, followed by another rapid increase.

So, assuming the coffee was roasted well, it should taste good, right? As in all questions of quality, in order to answer this we need to go back and look at the raw ingredients.

Most of the coffee grown on earth is bad. Really bad. Seriously. There is good reason why most people assume they don't like black coffee, because they're probably correct. Until very recently, most of the purchases made by 'specialty' coffee roasters were selections from very large lots, with very little specificity regarding the details of production such as farm history, size, elevation, processing methodology. This was typically, and often still is, a very large blend, composed of green coffee from hundreds of producers' harvests, at a generally consistent level of quality, in order to achieve a reasonable degree of uniformity in the cup, while allowing for a more efficient way to pack, ship, market, and sell the coffee to brokers. While this model can be excellent if the blends of coffee are all of very high calibre, the more common reality is that the blends are mediocre, or worse. So how would a roaster sell mediocre coffee? Simple; cover up the sub-par flavour of the the coffee with flavour from the roasting. After the more delicious, flavour-producing stages of the Maillard reaction and caramelization, the eventual effect of roasting is carbonization, or in other words, burning. The flavours associated with this reaction are strong, dominant, carbonic, smoky, and earthy. While a little of this can sometimes be pleasant, and is arguably inevitable when roasting for an espresso profile, carbonization always comes at the expense of diminishing a coffee's innate flavour. If we start with two very different tasting coffees, and the darker the roast becomes, the more similar they begin to taste. Not surprisingly, darker roasting offers significant opportunity for consistency and profitability for those roasters who purchase large amounts of commodity grade coffee. The darker a coffee is roasted, the less apparent the flaws in that coffee become. Many roasters have taken, and continue to take advantage of this.

By contrast, we roast all of our coffees quite light. The degree of roast of our espresso is similar, or lighter, to what most roasters would consider to be a medium roast. This is tricky, though, because coffee must be developed adequately in order to taste good. Even coffees that are equally 'dark' but roasted in different manners can have wildly different flavours and textures. These range from underdeveloped, expressed as woody and doughy, to overdeveloped flavours of carbon and ash.

The problem is, if coffee tastes bad, very few people will celebrate it. They may drink it for its medicinal qualities, but they won't savour it. Historically, bad coffee has been covered up with aggressive roasting and branding, and we've allowed ourselves to celebrate the brand on the tin, while giving little thought to the people who produced the product inside of it.

We are aiming for a different approach, one that focuses on finding coffees of a high calibre, and roasting them so thoughtfully that they demand the question "Where did this come from?" If we can encourage this question in our community, we're doing something right. Once people start becoming curious about what distinguishes one coffee from another, we're strengthening the line between our consumption of that coffee and the people who produce it. To us, the only way for this to happen in a sustainable way is to recognize and celebrate truly amazing coffee. If we begin to give credence to outstanding coffee, we prevent the people responsible for that coffee from becoming invisible.

When people purchase our products, we want to illuminate their direct contribution to a well-researched and vetted supply chain, which takes into account as many pieces of the puzzle as possible, and ultimately helps enrich the lives of everyone involved. It's a lot to try to fit into a small bag of coffee, but it's what makes this worthwhile.

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