January 21, 2021

What does it mean when coffee is “hand roasted”?


As third wave coffee culture continues to gather speed and popularity across the world, more and more roasters, baristas, and consumers are becoming interested in the experiences and the journey behind their cup.

As a part of this, specialty coffee roasters are increasingly moving towards conveying their craft and attention to detail in their branding. This includes the use of phrases like “small batch”, “artisan”, and “hand roasted”.

In an effort to demystify one of these terms, we asked several roasting experts the question: what does it mean when coffee is described as “hand roasted”?

Is there a different process or focus at some point during roasting? Or is it just part of a wider marketing strategy that alludes to greater care and control from the roaster? Read on to see how they answered.

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What Does It Actually Mean?

When we asked each of these experts to explain what “hand roasted” meant, something became clear: there is a lack of consensus as to the actual definition. 

Tony Querio was the 2016 US Roaster Champion. He says: “There is no real consensus as to what the term should mean. Hand roasted to me would simply imply manual manipulation versus digital manipulation… a level of manual control.”

Roba Bulga Gilo is a coffee scholar based in Ethiopia. “It is really tricky to label or define it,” he says. “For me, it’s down to the connection that you have with the coffee, it’s about telling a story. 

“How much time do you spend meticulously putting together the most perfect taste or profile for a certain coffee? At each and every step, your hands are involved… from handling the green beans to heating up the machine and checking everything. 

“When you can say that you use a certain technique to control a certain variable, rather than just throwing the coffee into a roaster to turn it from raw to usable with no regard for taste… that is hand roasted to me.”

Finally, Joe Marrocco is a Management Executive at List & Beisler. He says: “It’s a little tough to define… [historically] within the craft [of roasting] it’s clear that [some] of the [processes have been] done by hand.

“However, today, there are nearly no processes carried out by hand in coffee roasting, with the exception of sampling. While adjusting gas and airflow are signs of being hands-on, that’s not necessarily roasting by hand.” 

Altogether, the responses point to one conclusion, if nothing else: it’s a difficult term to qualify. Everyone seems to have their own idea, but it’s not necessarily one that’s clear or simple. 

Ultimately, there seems to be a shared philosophy rooted to some extent in being hands-on, and focused, rather than actually using one’s hands. For all three interviewees, at some point it comes back to one thing: the idea of some kind of manual control in the roasting process.

Just Another Buzzword?

So, if there’s no concrete definition: is it just another one of the many buzzwords used day-in, day-out by specialty coffee professionals? Is it just marketing?

Tony draws parallels between “hand roasting” and the concept of “craft coffee”, a phrase often associated with smaller, independent roasters and cafés. “Certainly in the US specialty coffee sector, I don’t see either term meaning that much any more,” Tony says. “It’s what smaller businesses do to show that they’re special.”

He raises another important point: hand roasting implies that there’s a degree of human involvement in the practice, more so than usual. In this case, while the personal touch might be appealing to some, any additional level of manual control means consistency can be an issue.

“Consistency in coffee marks the skill of the roaster. You should be able to come in, buy a bag of coffee, come in again the week after and have a similar experience with that coffee. 

“Whenever I see the terms ‘hand roasted’ or ‘small batch’, [I wonder if] this increases the amount of variables and ultimately decreases consistency.”

Joe adds: “I think that a lot of people in the specialty market believe that busywork adds something to craftsmanship. But that is not necessarily the case. Just because something requires more levers and literal hands-on work to control the process does not mean that it is ‘more craft’ or better quality.”

Automation And Traditional Roasting Techniques

The first cylinder roaster can be traced back to 17th-century Egypt, where a hand crank was used to rotate the beans to allow for even exposure to heat. In the years that followed, this design quickly spread across England, France, Italy, and the Netherlands, before then following to European colonies.

Before this, however, coffee was roasted in a thin metal or ceramic pan. This practice can be traced back to the 15th century, and it is thought to have originated in the Ottoman Empire and Greater Persia. Beans were stirred in the pan, but naturally, this was considerably less precise in the application of heat.

Today, every roastery selling coffee at scale will use a mechanical roaster of some kind, generally ranging in capacity from 1kg to above 100kg.

However, the question remains: at what point throughout the history of roasting did people stop roasting coffee by hand? 

It could be argued that coffee stopped being truly “hand roasted” with the introduction of dedicated roasting software or electricity. For others, it might be the minute that coffee was no longer roasted in pans.

Today, Roba tells me that traditional coffee roasting techniques remain, perhaps most notably in producing countries. In Ethiopia, he says coffee is still sometimes roasted over the fire as an almost “ceremonial” activity.

“It starts with a low-burning fire, [one that is] basically just charcoal,” he says. “It all revolves around the slow process of roasting coffee in the pan. [You enjoy] the aromas that come from the coffee while it roasts, and seeing the slow process of its change in colour.

“After the coffee is roasted then someone must crush it with a mortar and pestle. Once it is ground, it is added to a pot with hot water [over the fire]. The finished result is a fairly small cup, kind of like a shot of espresso. [But] the time it takes gives the people time to talk about life, about the future.”

Joe, however, believes that automation and scale do not necessarily come into it, as long as there is some degree of human control. “In my opinion, if you have manual control over the elements that create the flavour, that is hand roasting,” he says.

“A lot of individuals within the specialty coffee industry would believe that [hand roasted or] craft coffee is down to batch size, when I believe that is not the case… it’s flavour control. That pursuit is not limited to the size of the roaster.

“It’s about being able to hone a roast in a way that directly impacts the flavour of the coffee, taking it to be the way you want it.” 

Ultimately, there’s no one true definition for what it means when coffee is hand roasted. Stricter rules would say the coffee might have to be roasted over a fire; others might note that there has to be no software or advanced technology involved. 

Fundamentally, however, it appears that all three interviewees agree on one thing: the phrase “hand roasted” is linked to manual human control. This might be through a certain machine or platform, but it’s this control which means a batch or bag of coffee has been “hand roasted”.

So, what can the consumer come to expect? Well, while the phrase is confusing as marketing material, it’s clear that it’s becoming synonymous with independent, artisan coffee roasting, which often has a natural focus on quality and traceability.

However, as we know, these are all concepts that are already a key part of third wave coffee culture. Whether or not it’s necessary or useful to describe coffee is “hand roasted” is another question altogether.

Enjoyed this? Then try The Rise of Home Coffee Roasting

Photo credits: Battlecreek Coffee Roasters, Matt Hoffman, Ardi Evans, Charlie Firth, Jonathan Farber

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