February 28, 2017

Jen Apodaca: How to Improve Your Roasting Skills


Jen Apodaca has been pushing the roasting industry forwards for nearly 13 years. And now she’s agreed to talk with me about the different ways you can improve your roasting skills.

She’s an Executive Council Member of The Roaster’s Guild and a Coffee Committee Chair at Good Food Awards. She’s worked at some of the industry’s biggest names, including Intelligentsia and Blue Bottle. And now she’s Royal Coffee’s Director of Roasting at their soon-to-open educational facility The Crown: Royal Coffee Lab & Tasting Room.

But while her CV may be formidable, Jen isn’t. She’s friendly, full of smiles, and on the go non-stop. The past couple of months, she’s been travelling from state to state to lead Royal Coffee’s Crown on the Road educational roasting seminars. Luckily, I managed to grab her between Milwaukee and Costa Rica to find out more.

Spanish Version: Jen Apodaca: Cómo Mejorar Tus Destrezas de Tueste

Jen checks a roast’s progression. Credit: Royal Coffee

Do I Need to Improve My Roasting Skills?

If you’re reading this article, chances are that you want to improve your roasting skills. But for experienced roasters, it’s not often that they’ll need to follow all these procedures. While some are basic requirements, others are more time-consuming and don’t need to be applied every time.

“You know your machine, you have your style,” Jen says. “The only time you really start exploring different roast profiles is when you run into a problem.” These problems can include maturing coffee or new, but “difficult”, coffees. They come out well on the sample roaster, but not on your production roaster. That’s when these steps can help.

Alternatively, for budding roasters these processes can be a great training exercise. They’ll help you develop a strong understanding of the craft.

coffee roasting

When a roast goes wrong, it’s time to proactively look for ways to improve. Credit: Thump Coffee

1. Know Your Machinery

“The whole point of [the Crown on the Road roasting class] is to master a machine and understand its full potential,” Jen explains. “Learning how to manipulate a roaster and control the heat transfer in the drum is powerful.”

This point might seem basic, but it’s important. It’s what will allow you to choose the best profile for any coffee. It’s what will allow you to control that roast to produce the exact flavour profile you want. And it’s what will allow you to keep producing the best flavour even as the coffee matures, or as one coffee in a blend is substituted for another.

Every machine is different. Credit: Royal Coffee

2. Keep It Varied

Jen emphasises that there are many different roast styles. She tells me that often people don’t realise this, or how important that fact is.

“There is no one way to roast a certain type of coffee and there is no magic formula to use as a shortcut,” she says. “Not only do roasters deal with variance in green origin, cultivar, screen size, process, moisture content, density, and water activity, but if a roaster plans to roast a coffee over the course of several months then the green coffee will begin to mature and lose some of its acid structure, requiring roasters to adjust their roast profiles.”

In her classes, she introduces three coffees with different origins, processes, moisture content, and screen size variance. Then she explains three different roasting styles, and the impact the their authors believe they’ll have.

This has little in common with the daily routine of a small-scale roaster. But it’s important despite that. It pushes you to understand how different factors impact the final coffee – and how different coffees must impact your roasting style.

coffee roasting

There’s no magic formula for roasting. Credit: Talor and Jørgen

3. Roast Together

Jen knows it’s not always easy to roast with people, but she’s firm about its importance. “When I first started roasting, I was very isolated, like many roasters,” she says. “It was just me, in a building, with two roasting machines. At that time, there were very few resources. In town, when I asked for help, I got the cold shoulder. Very few people reached out and talked to me, and I’m very grateful for those who did.”

Roasting with others allows you to get feedback on roast profiles. Even when your roasts are great, it provides you with new perspectives on them. And that will improve your roasting. What’s more, it’ll do it quicker than studying a book or using trial and error.

Jen tells me about her experience of working with people from different roasting backgrounds. “We were all from different schools of thought, with different roast styles, but we all had to roast to the same flavour profile.” This pushed the team to think about roasting in different ways.

Some roasters are lucky enough to work in a team. For those that aren’t, Jen recommends workshops, the Roaster’s Guild Retreat, and Roaster’s Camp to build your own community.

A team will support you in your progression as a roaster. Credit: Royal Coffee

SEE ALSO: Step-by-Step VIDEO Guide to Developing a Roast Profile

4. Roast, Cup, Discuss

The great thing about roasting in a group is that you can roast, cup, and then discuss. And that last part, the discussion, deserves some focus. Go in depth. Don’t just say which coffee is “better” or more to a particular taste, but discuss all the ways in which they differ.

Jen explains that her Crown on the Road classes end with questions like: Do the roasting styles pair well with a particular brew method? Origin? Density? Which roast is the sweetest or the most acidic?

It’s better with a group, but you can also ask yourself these questions if you’re roasting alone. To force yourself to be more detailed, write your answers down.

coffee roasting

Jen prepares a cupping table so she can evaluate several roasts. Credit: Royal Coffee

5. Consider Complementary Studies

Jen tells me that there’s more to roasting than, well, just roasting. Green coffee analytics is “invaluable to any roaster”, she says. She also teaches a Menu Development & Inventory Management course focused on topics such as scheduling coffees and production flow. Whether you attend a course, receive in-house training, or pick them up in other ways, these additional skill sets are highly beneficial.

coffee roasting

Roasting is only half of a roaster’s job. Credit: Bunker Coffee

Further Reading

There you have it – Jen’s five-step process to improving your roasting skills. But she’s not done with advice just yet. She finishes by telling me that roasters wanting experience of different styles could look to Scott Rao’s The Coffee Roaster’s Companion, which recommends a decreasing ROR to increase sweetness, and Rob Hoos’ Modulating The Flavor Profile of Coffee, which suggests increasing the Maillard reaction time for greater body.

She also mentions a technique developed by Ed Leebrick of Lighthouse Roasters in Seattle: “After first crack begins, rest the roast by turning the heat down to low. The drum temperature should drop several degrees before kicking the heat back on and finishing the roast.”

coffee roasting

Never stop reading about coffee. Credit: Chonchon Christian

Roasting can be lonely and challenging. But one sniff of those freshly roasted beans, one sip of a coffee you’ve helped craft, and you’ll understand why people do it. And the moment you realise how different one coffee can taste, just because of how you roast it – you’ll never want to give it up.

Roasting coffee is an act of passion, dedication, and expertise. And becoming better at it doesn’t just improve your coffee: it also improves your experience. So whether you’re a professional, home roaster, or someone considering picking up the craft, look to Jen’s five steps to help you become the best roaster you can be.

Royal Coffee is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind. This interview was conducted in accordance with our editorial policies, and Royal Coffee has had no greater influence on the final copy than any of our other interviewees.

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