January 29, 2021

How coffee education can help roasters adapt to the impact of Covid-19


Covid-19 changed the world of work for everyone. For many around the world, the introduction of states of lockdown, physical distancing measures, and general economic disruption have made things difficult, to say the very least.

This is also true for stakeholders across the coffee sector, including coffee roasters. Café closures and a widespread economic slowdown across hospitality and leisure businesses have seen wholesale orders of roasted coffee swapped out for a spike in direct-to-consumer sales and subscriptions.

This disruption has created the need for many roasters to take time to reflect on their career and adapt to what has been an ultimately unprecedented set of challenges. Throughout these challenges, investing in education and skills gives roasters the preparation they need to return to the coffee sector stronger than ever. 

To learn more about how roasters of all skill levels are taking the opportunity to upskill themselves and invest in their education, I spoke to Nathan Dodge, Ildi Revi, and Rob Hoos.

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Developing skills for roasters at any level

Roasters of all levels benefit from honing and developing their skills. However, their reasons for doing so will differ depending upon where they are in their career. 

For baristas who are eager to begin a roasting career, investing in their own education and developing their skills can help them secure a roasting position. Rob Hoos is a coffee roasting consultant. He tells me that there’s a major trend of baristas joining a roastery-café and hoping to go in as a member of the roasting team.

“The problem with this is that the queue for the people who are [entering the roasting side of the business] is usually quite long,” Rob explains. “And it’s unlikely that you’re going to show up at a larger roasting company, or a roasting company that has a decent [team], and just pop right into the roasting team.”

Rob suggests that aspiring roasters should start by investing in their skillset. He says that this will help them to convince their new employer to move them into a roasting position more quickly. 

It’s also important to consider that a broader or more diverse skill set provides roasting companies with increased flexibility. Education gives them the opportunity to shift people into new positions, or to focus on other areas of the business and support the team in other ways. This is especially relevant at a time when so many things have changed for commercial roasters of all sizes.

Ildi Revi is Director of Learning at green coffee importer Ally Coffee. She says that undertaking a training course is not only a way to hone your skills, but also helps roasters become more efficient and prevent waste. 

She says: “When you buy a new coffee, how many batches of beans are you going to use to dial in a roast profile? Do you know what you will analyse about the beans before you begin roasting to inform your approach on how to roast that particular coffee? By investing in training, roasters become better-equipped to work in an efficient and effective way.”

Education and skills development also allows people who want to learn more about roasting as a craft or a hobby during a period when they’re spending more time than ever at home.

Nathan Dodge is a chemistry graduate and an avid home roaster. He has been roasting coffee at home for years. He says he has “[a] fairly wide knowledge of various green beans, different varieties, and their chemical profiles”. 

However, even though home roasters like Nathan might understand the science behind roasting and know about where coffee comes from, they may feel they lack knowledge of the “art of roasting”. 

As a result, they may want to develop their roasting skills so they’re able to get close to the flavour profiles and complexity they’ve become familiar with throughout their specialty coffee journey.

Which skills should roasters focus on developing?

The main goal for any roaster is bringing out the right flavours from a batch of green coffee. To achieve this, they must understand each variable they’re working with, and how it affects flavour. 

Rob and Ildi both agree that it’s not a specific roasting skill that most roasters need, but rather a mindset.

Rob says: “One of the things roasters really need is the ability to think critically. They need to be able to step back and to ask themselves about what they did, and how it influenced the roast. Limit variables [and control the process]. Treat it a bit more like a scientific methodology.”

For newer roasters looking to develop this mindset, Rob says: “There’s no substitute for hands-on time. You have to get your hands on coffee and turn beans brown.” He notes that home roasting is the perfect place to practice for roasters who are getting started. 

“[As a home roaster], you have the opportunity to roast with smaller roasters. This means that you use fewer beans, and that [as a result], your mistakes are a lot less costly.”

Ildi tells me that alongside critical thinking, focus and concentration are also important. “[You need to] discipline your mind to pay attention to everything happening [in the roast] and not being distracted,” she says.

“This includes personal distractions, but also things going on in the roastery or going on in the business. When you’re at the roaster, working with the coffee, you need to be focused on what’s happening there and then.”

For more experienced roasters, Ildi says that it’s important to be mindful of new and emerging focus areas. For her, one such example is food safety. She says that in today’s world, it is “as integral as turning the beans brown”. 

Finally, Ildi adds that the pandemic presents an excellent opportunity to reflect on the role of the coffee roaster throughout the wider supply chain. 

“I feel like this is a great opportunity to step back and reanalyse coffee education from several viewpoints,” she says. As an example, Ildi points to her blog post on the SCA Coffee Systems map, which she says “could be a tool for analysing, planning, and taking action to navigate the months ahead”.

How can roasters develop their skills?

So, once roasters know that they want to invest in their education, where do they look?

Rob notes that even though “Google Scholar has a lot of articles that are published on coffee”, accessing can be a problem because “many of them are behind paywalls”.

Ildi adds that even if you do find information about roasting online, it can take a long time to make sense of it or break it down into something that’s easily understandable. She says that when she created the manual for The Essential Coffee Roasting Course at Ally Open, she “put everything in one place”. 

“Often, newcomers to the industry search the internet for information about, for instance, what actually happens in the roaster. They find hundreds of articles with lots of different pieces of information that they have to sort of put together themselves,” she explains. 

“Our courses have all the information [together]… and each point [generally] has a citation with it that comes from at least one, if not two or three, peer-reviewed journal articles or edited books on coffee roasting.” 

Furthermore, it’s important to note that resources that focus on the “essentials” or “fundamentals” of roasting shouldn’t be viewed as being exclusively for beginners. Many of these, such as The Essential Coffee Roasting Course, also work well as primers or “refresher” courses for more knowledgeable roasters to practice, revisit, or refine certain skills.

Ildi also notes the importance of tailoring and customising educational materials where possible. Roasters should not take a one-size-fits-all approach to skills development.

“Customised programmes should be much more focused on individual learners and their needs,” she explains. “Instructors should ask a lot of questions, analyse the work, the workplace, and their performance in conjunction with the desired outcomes for the programme [in question].

“[Moreover], learning should be targeted to fill the gap in knowledge and/or performance that will impact the bottom line the most.”

While community events are always a good way to meet other professionals and expand your skill set, many popular events like the Coffee Roasting Championships or Roasters Guild meetings are presently on hold in many places. 

Virtual events and webinars have grown recently into a more robust and affordable way to interact with other professionals and experts about specific topics.

Increasingly popular during Covid-19, these virtual events have made conversations about roasting significantly more accessible. Examples in recent months have included events such as the Online Sensory Summit hosted by the Coffee Roasters Guild and the Cropster x Ally Roasting Origins series.

The ongoing learning journey

Rob says he continues developing and learning as a roaster despite decades of roasting and teaching experience. “Like most things in life, if you ever think you’ve [mastered it], that just means you’ve closed off your mind to new things,” he says. “There are still things I learn that influence the way that I choose to roast my own coffees and the way I choose to teach others.”

For Nathan, the next step after attending an Ally Open course online was purchasing a home roaster and getting some hands-on experience. “I want to increase my skills in roasting and apply my scientific knowledge and concepts to roasting and try to do something unique,” he tells me.

He says that being able to leverage this newfound roasting knowledge alongside his chemistry degree presents a unique opportunity. “[I want to] create a compilation of various roasting parameters applied to various coffees from various origins,” he tells me. “This would be a quick guide for roasters with a very scientific, very specific set of parameters.”

Finally, Ildi notes that professional development doesn’t just benefit an individual. She points out that honing your existing skills and bringing new ones to the table adds tremendous value to a wider roasting team. “If you watch sports, when you see that one team gets an exceptional player, suddenly everybody levels up,” she explains.

The pandemic has changed a lot for roasters; disruption has come in all forms across the global coffee supply chain. Despite this, it has also provided coffee professionals around the world with opportunities to learn or adapt (albeit sometimes out of necessity) to thrive in these unpredictable times. 

Developing skills – whether it’s through hands-on time at home or dedicated educational opportunities – helps roasters grow, adapt, and ultimately be more flexible. By doing so, roasters can open up possibilities they might not have considered otherwise – no matter their experience level.

Found this interesting? Read Covid-19 & The Coffee Trade: Exploring The Short & Long-Term Impact

Photo credits: Ally Coffee

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Please note: Ally Coffee is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.  

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