May 16, 2017

Tim Wendelboe: 6 Ways to Improve Your Coffee Roasting Skills


The best roasters never stop learning. That may be a cliché, but it’s true. From using different machinery to roasting new coffees and developing the best profiles, there’s always a challenge waiting for us.

And there’s no better feeling than tasting a coffee you’ve roasted and discovering the flavours and complexity you managed to highlight.

So when I was invited to interview Tim Wendelboe, I couldn’t wait to hear his six tips for improving as a coffee roaster. He’s one of the biggest names in coffee roasting – in fact, as the 2004 World Barista Champion, he’s also one of the biggest names in coffee – so who better to ask?

Let’s take a look at his advice.

Spanish Version: Tim Wendelboe: 6 Formas de Cómo Mejorar Tus Habilidades de Tueste

Tim Wendelboe

Tim Wendelboe outside his coffee house. Credit: Benjamin A. Ward

1. Know Your Green Coffee

Sometimes, you need to take a step back. Yes, you want to learn how to roast – but before you master rate of rise, you need to understand your coffee.

“For me,” Tim shares, “by far the most important thing to do is learn the basics about green coffee, which means tasting defects, tasting different origins, tasting different varietals, tasting different processes, and so on… so that you’ll understand when you roast, for example, a very woody coffee that it is old… and if you don’t like that woody flavour, there’s nothing you can do in the roast to cover that up.

“You can’t really turn woody, old, stale coffee into a fruit bomb or a flower bomb. So, you really need to understand the ingredients you’re using before you can even begin thinking about roasting.”

Skip this step, Tim tells me, and you’ll struggle. “It’s like cooking with ingredients where you have no idea what the texture, or taste, or anything is.”

Tim WendelboeSeveral coffee professionals inspect green beans for, among other things, defects. Credit: Chartree Treelertkul

And a key part of understanding green coffee is understanding green coffee quality. “For me, number one is to get high-quality ingredients. If you have high-quality ingredients, it’s so much easier to work with anything in terms of roasting… But that doesn’t mean you should avoid roasting a bad coffee. I think you can learn a lot from roasting poor-quality coffee, but you can never turn a bad coffee into a good coffee. That would just be fooling yourself.”

In other words, to become a great roaster and improve your roasting skills, you need to study coffee. Study green bean differences and green bean quality. Learn how different beans have different densities, why they react to heat differently, and how all this affects flavour – because only by doing this can you learn how to manipulate that flavour.

Speaking of which…

Tim WendelboeTo become a great roaster, you need to understand coffee. Credit: Tim Wendelboe

2. Learn How to Taste Coffee

Tim tells me that good coffee roasters are good coffee tasters. As of such, he “highly recommends” that budding roasters improve this skillset.

“That means taking the basic classes, sensory analysis, Q grader classes. All these kind of things really, really help to develop a palate, so that you understand different aspects of green coffee, what the different tastes are, and where they may come from.”

Tim WendelboeTim Wendelboe evaluates aroma during a coffee cupping. Credit: Benjamin A. Ward

Taking these courses both helps you to taste your roasted coffee better, and to have a vocabulary for what you’re describing. This vocabulary will be a universally understood one that industry leaders and teachers use to discuss coffee, explain defects, and more. Because how can you learn from others if you don’t understand the words they’re using?

“When you’re able to describe what you’re tasting,” Tim tells me, “it’s easier to recognise what you’re doing wrong in any process, whether it’s brewing, roasting, or green buying.”

Tim WendelboeTim Wendelboe cups coffee and evaluates its sensory attributes. Credit: Benjamin A. Ward

3. Understand Brewing & Extraction

Good roasters don’t just know green beans and coffee profiles – they also know how to brew their coffee.

“Now that doesn’t mean you have to be a barista,” Tim clarifies, “but you need to understand what you’re tasting when you’re tasting it.”

“Let’s say you’re setting up a cupping and your grind setting is extremely coarse… you’re going to under extract your coffee and they’re all going to taste very thin. At the end you’re going to think, maybe I need to roast it darker to give it more body or something.”

“So you need to make sure you extract the coffee well, before you taste it, in order to be able to evaluate the results of your roast for sure.”

Tim WendelboeTim Wendelboe serves coffee in his café. Credit: Benjamin A. Ward

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

4. Find Out About The Coffee Supply Chain

And just like how you need to understand how to brew your coffee, and how to taste your coffee, you also need to have some understanding of how it was produced.

“[You should] at least understand the basics of all the steps from seed to cup, in order to be a great roaster…” Tim says. “This doesn’t mean you have to understand everything about these things, but you have to understand the basics.”

In 2015, Tim purchased the farm Finca el Suelo in Huila, Colombia. I ask if becoming more involved at farm level has changed him as a roaster. He thinks briefly, before saying, “Definitely getting more involved at farm level has changed the way we buy coffee, and think about pricing coffee and doing long-term relationships. There’s certain things I won’t do, and certain things I want to do more of, and so on. So, for sure it’s changed the way we do everything.”

Understanding more of the coffee supply chain will, if you’re running a business, change what coffees you choose to roast and how you price them. It will no doubt help you to plan ahead when designing your seasonal menu. And it will help you understand the impact of processing, altitude, and weather in more detail.

Tim WendelboeTim Wendelboe plants coffee on his farm. Credit: Finca El Suelo

5. Respond to Feedback

You can learn a lot from books, and courses, and websites and podcasts. But you can also learn a lot from the people drinking your roasted coffee.

Tim tells me that you have to be open to feedback, both positive and critical, from your guests. “Stay open-minded about your own abilities, and challenge your own abilities… Nobody’s perfect and we all fail all the time, especially with roasting, I think.”

He explains that, when approached with negative feedback, he works with the customer to analyse whether it is an issue with grinding or the extraction (another reason to improve your brewing!) – or if there really is a quality control issue.

“When you get this kind of feedback, you need to investigate it with your customers and listen to it, because you can learn something from it.” So be teachable, be approachable, and be humble – a criticism is an opportunity to improve, not an insult.

“If you want to progress, you shouldn’t be afraid to fail and admit that what you’re doing might not be the best thing,” Tim continues. “So, you should question your own methods if someone comes up with some new information that you haven’t heard about, or some new knowledge.”

“Instead of just taking a stand right there and then…and saying I don’t believe in this, or doing the opposite and embracing it without questioning it – both of those things can be dangerous! So I think you should always test new stuff, and make up your mind based on results, rather than just opinions.”

Tim WendelboeServing customers coffee – and being open to feedback. Credit: Tim Wendelboe

6. Balance Technology & Taste

Tim makes it clear that he believes it’s taste that matters. But does that mean that he shies away from technology, preferring to opt only for his palate? Not at all. He also believes in using modern tools to assist him in achieving consistency.

He tells me, “We use a ColorTrack laser colour system to analyse the roast colour. We’ve used this for many many years in combination with Cropster to log our roast curves and in combination with measuring moisture loss and all these other factors we have.”

Tim WendelboeThe ColorTrack laser colour system, one tool used by Tim Wendelboe. Credit: Chartree Treelertkul

“All these things in combination have been able to make us very consistent, but only trusting these instruments isn’t enough. You still need to have a palate and taste your coffees.”

He explains that data only gives you a small part of the picture. “I can get the same numbers in many different ways, but the resulting taste will be very different. These [machines] are just tools that you can use to help you become more consistent, but you have to use them in combination with other metrics.”

Technology can’t replace basic roaster skills – but it can help you to make sure you’re being consistent.

Tim WendelboeThis roaster lab has devices for recording data. Credit: Tim Wendelboe

Our coffee journey is never truly complete – we are all still apprentices, with the potential to discover more about coffee and about roasting. And with hard work, and dedication to learning, it’s amazing what we can accomplish.

So get out there and study your coffee, from production to brewing. Ask for feedback. Learn to use technology. And see what you can achieve as a coffee roaster.

Perfect Daily Grind is not affiliated with any of the individuals or bodies mentioned in this article, and cannot directly endorse them.

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