June 7, 2021

Exploring automation in coffee roasting

As technology in the coffee sector evolves, the range of equipment available to roasters increases with every passing day. New technology seeks to improve consistency, profitability, and efficiency for roasting professionals, often under the banner of one trend: automation.

While the skill of a roasting professional is still necessary when dialling in a roast profile for each new lot of green coffee, technology is increasingly becoming able to replicate these profiles once they are confirmed.

So, to learn more about automation in coffee roasting, what it means for the sector, and what the future holds, I spoke to two roasters who have openly embraced new technology. They told me more about the various benefits, and how it has supported them to grow. Read on to find out what they said.

You might also like our article on choosing a roaster for your coffee shop.

elevate coffee

An overview: Looking at the tech

New technology in coffee roasting can largely be boiled down to three key areas: better roast profile reproduction, improving how data can be manipulated, and providing a more intuitive user experience. The first two of these categories are more linked to automation than the third.

Let’s take a closer look at the first point – which is how new technology can help roasters reproduce profiles. For this, arguably the most important development is artificial intelligence and machine learning.

AI has been a hotly discussed topic in coffee roasting for a couple of years now. In June 2020, coffee roasting software developer Cropster announced “Bean Curve Prediction” functionality on their new Roasting Intelligence tool; nine months later, in March 2021, they added AI-driven first crack prediction.

However, as machine learning has become more prominent in the coffee sector, roaster manufacturers have also started to incorporate it into newer machines.

One specific example of this is the Stronghold S7 Pro, launched in 2017. The smart roaster’s built-in “Roastware” is designed to auto-replicate preset roast profiles, helping to emulate the work of a trained roastmaster. 

In turn, this gives roasters more time to develop the best possible roast profile, as they can spend less time repeating it.

Alongside this growing focus on machine learning, roasters now also have access to an ever-increasing number of data points to fine-tune each profile.

Benjamin Tan is the owner of Runes Coffee in Singapore. He explains that the starting temperature of green coffee is one such data point. As the temperature of the roaster’s production space will fluctuate (even by just a degree or two) from day to day, the beans will correspondingly act differently throughout the roast.

“Regardless of the temperature fluctuation of the green, [new technology] can increase or decrease the settings automatically to ensure the RoR catches up to the original RoR and end at the same curves as the original profile,” he says. “We have tested our roaster, [an S7 Pro], with beans straight from the chiller and at ambient temperatures. 

“The end results were quite similar, with only 1 degree or less deviation from the final curves. This helps maintain consistency from batch to batch.”

elevate coffee

Saving time to focus on other areas

Cliff Stevens is the owner of Elevate Coffee in Bolivia. Elevate started off as a coffee shop, but later started roasting its own locally-sourced beans. Cliff says that in the early days, the most important thing was “being able to multitask and eliminate as many variables as possible”.

“We used the Stronghold S7 Pro, because of its technology and easy usability,” he says. “I was able to ramp up pretty quickly, and to get good coffee out of it without years of experience and the understanding of how a gas drum roaster works.”

For many roasting businesses, standing by the machine and making perfectly timed adjustments is the perfect way to maximise and ensure quality and consistency. But as smaller businesses like Elevate roast their own coffee, they are forced to be more agile. Serving customers and managing other areas of the business is just as important as roasting the beans.

Benjamin adds that this need to focus on other areas isn’t just limited to business that have to serve customers, however. “As a roaster, we have to worry about multiple variables when roasting: green temperature, the difference in humidity levels, in-between batch recovery, and so on.

“Traditionally, you have to employ a roaster to solely focus on roasting, with an assistant to help with sorting, weighing the beans, and packing.

However, removing some of the steps in the production process frees up time, space, and sometimes even money, allowing a switch of focus to other perhaps-overlooked parts of the business.

“Through automation, we have saved roughly 30% of our time… that helps us grow the other aspects of our business,” Benjamin concludes.

automated roasting

What else does automation help with?

There are many benefits to automation in coffee roasting. As well as saving time across the board, it can support roasting businesses to improve consistency, efficiency, and even dedicate more staff to customer service. 

Consistency

The biggest challenge with manual batch roasting is recreating and repeating profiles to get the same flavours out of the beans, time and time again.

Human error is always a factor when it comes to production roasting, but with the new wave of automated equipment, the number of variables that can affect the quality of roasted coffee has been minimised.

Benjamin says: “Automation has helped me as a business owner by providing precise solutions that help reduce human error and increase consistency in quality. It helps us replicate the roast [profiles], and also automates colour sorting, weighing, and dispensing.

“[Before this], we used to sort and pack the beans by hand, with the roaster focusing on the batch to batch roasting.”

For Cliff, the increase in consistency that automation delivers gave Elevate the foundation to scale and grow. “[The Stronghold S7 Pro] was so critical from the very beginning,” he says. 

“Our vision for growing the business wasn’t to keep opening more cafes, but to grow the roasting side of it. With the Stronghold, we could have machines in various locations that are roasting the same coffee the exact same way.”

When a roaster wants to expand, they often use a large central roastery space that ships coffee out to new locations once they are up and running.

However, with the consistency that automatic replication can provide, a roaster can guarantee that two batches roasted in different locations can taste as similar as possible. This means that coffee can be roasted and sold fresh in different locations, making expanding a much more flexible prospect.

roasted coffee beans

Customer engagement

The amount of time that automation saves allows roasters to invest in customer engagement and satisfaction, whether that’s looking for new customers, spending time on marketing, or even just engaging visitors who step into your space.

Beyond that, however, Cliff says that trusting the roast not to go wrong gives him the freedom to give people tours of the roastery and explain the process, without the need to physically man the machine and give the roast his full, undivided attention.

“There’s a point of connection,” he says. “If I’m roasting and someone else is in or near the shop, they can see me, they can smell the coffee, and they can watch the roasting process happen. 

“It makes conversation easy. You can tell when someone is intrigued by what’s going on, and it’s natural for them to have questions.”

Machines like the S7 Pro, according to Cliff, are an “awesome conversation starter”, and a “way to bring [customers] into coffee roasting”.

“It elevates appreciation for the coffee that we’re roasting there in the shop, and everything I’m doing,” he adds.

coffee roasting automation

Automation in coffee roasting: What are the implications?

While automation is often recognised as an inevitable force for better consistency, higher productivity, and a more efficient operation across the board, it is not universally accepted as a good thing.

There are larger discussions about automation in the world of work – not just in the coffee sector – which consider it a threat. In theory, workers fulfilling functions that could be automated may face job losses if they struggle to adapt.

Predicting what automation means for roasting professionals over the next few decades is no easy feat. From Ben and Cliff’s testimony, it’s clear that the roastmaster of the future will have more data at their fingertips than ever before, and will be free to diversify into other areas and disciplines.

For smaller businesses and roasteries who are just getting started, increased automation likely means more time spent on everything from sales and marketing to accounting and operations. 

As for experienced production roasters in larger teams, it seems likely that the job description will change over the years to come. In the future, we can expect roasters to require more expertise with dedicated roasting software and to be comfortable with an ever-increasing number of data points – all in search of that perfect roast profile.

coffee roasting

While in the past there has been scepticism about whether or not a machine can accurately replicate the skill and expertise of a dedicated roastmaster, technology and automation have arguably reached a point where we now know repeating a roast profile is possible. Artificial intelligence’s capacity to monitor and tweak a roast is rapidly improving.

As time goes by, we are sure to see more changes for this kind of technology. In turn, this may free up roasters to focus more on sourcing, sales, and service. One thing is for sure – it will fundamentally change the way that their business operates.

Enjoyed this? Then read our updated guide to buying home espresso machines.

Photo credits: Elevate Coffee, Stronghold

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