Around the world, the specialty coffee market only continues to become more prominent. This has led to an increasing number of micro roasters selling high-quality coffees – but what does the term “micro roaster” actually mean?
Many of these smaller roasting operations run on tight margins as they roast and sell comparatively minor volumes of coffee. For many of them, as well as being defined by their volume, however, there is an outright focus on roasting high-quality coffee, as well as having a strong brand identity that appeals to third wave coffee consumers.
But what’s the clear definition? What actually makes a micro roaster different from medium and larger-sized roasters, and how do they operate? To learn more, I spoke to two coffee roasters. Read on to find out what they had to say.
You may also like our article on cost management tips for smaller coffee roasters.
How small is a micro roaster?
Although there is no formal definition, micro roasters are defined by some sources either by the batch capacity of their machine, or the amount of coffee they roast.
For the former definition, some say micro roasters are commercial operations that routinely use 1kg to 3kg capacity machines. For the latter, some definitions say that a micro roaster is any coffee roasting business which roasts less than 100,000lbs (around 45,340kg) of coffee per calendar year.
Stuart Ritson is the Director of European Sales for Osito Coffee, which operates in the US, UK, and Colombia.
“[Generally speaking,] if you roast over 1,000 kg of coffee per week, you are considered a full-scale roasting operation,” he says.
Moving from home roasting to micro roasting
Naturally, the smaller size of a micro roaster raises questions about how they are different to home roasters.
Home roasters are more likely to roast for their own personal use, rather than selling their coffee. If home roasters choose to sell their beans, they will still generally roast smaller volumes of coffee than micro roasters – most likely using a sample roaster or home roasting machine.
However, some micro roasters can develop from home roasting setups upon deciding to become a more established business. This could mean moving the roasting operation into a bigger commercial space to scale up roasting volumes.
What about nano roasters?
The terms micro roaster and nano roaster are often used interchangeably, but are they the same?
Again, there is no formal definition of a nano roaster, but for the most part, they often operate on a smaller scale than micro roasters, occupying a space between home roasters and micro roasters. This is similar to how we define micro lots and nano lots, with nano lots often being smaller and more niche.
For this reason, nano roasters are more likely to use even smaller machines (such as sample roasters) than micro roasters.
As a result of lower roasting volumes, micro roasters use machines which have a lower capacity than commercial roasters. For instance, purchasing a small batch roaster (between 1kg and 3kg capacity) can be a more efficient investment for a new micro roaster.
As well as keeping costs down by purchasing smaller roasting equipment, micro roasters often also roast in smaller batches to improve quality control. Roasting in these small batches often gives them the insight they need to be more particular with their roast profiles.
However, in order for micro roasters to upscale their roasting volumes, they may need to invest in larger-sized equipment.
“If you can afford it, buy a bigger roaster than what you think you need,” Stuart advises. “If you purchase a roaster that is too small, you will most likely spend so much of your time roasting coffee and you won’t have time to develop your business.”
But it’s important to note that finding the right roaster in proportion to the volume of coffee you’re roasting is essential – no matter the size of the roasting operation.
Most roasting equipment manufacturers recommend roasting at around 75% capacity to ensure even airflow throughout the entire roast time. So for some micro roasters, this could still mean using a 3kg roaster, while others may need up to a capacity of up to 5kg.
Starting a micro roastery
As micro roasters buy and roast small quantities of coffee, they tend to focus predominantly on quality and traceability. But there are many other factors that need to be considered when starting a small roasting operation.
Tomáš Laca is the founder of BeBerry Coffee, a micro roaster in the Czech Republic. He is also a licensed Q grader and the 2018 Slovakian Cup Tasting Champion.
“[The factors you need to consider when starting a micro roastery] largely depend on what your overall goal is with the business,” he explains. “If you are serious about roasting, it’s a good idea to first visit a few other roasters to learn more about the whole process.
“[However, it’s important to note that] each business will have different values, cultures, and goals,” he adds.
Marketing and branding play significant roles in communicating the company’s passion for coffee, as well as helping to convey its values and brand story.
The smaller-scale operations of a micro roaster generally mean that they focus on buying high-quality coffees with the intention of roasting them for a small, passionate consumer base. These lots can sometimes be bought directly from the producer or through an importer that works closely with coffee farmers.
This has led some micro roasters to develop long-term trading partnerships with producers or co-operatives – often referred to as “relationship coffee”.
Ultimately, this means that their interest in the coffees they offer needs to be shared with the end consumer, too.
Furthermore, as a smaller business, storytelling is essential for micro roasters to gradually build a solid customer base.
Many micro roasters use physical marketing materials such as packaging and tasting cards to tell their story. This may look like a vibrant, colourful bag clearly communicating the roaster’s brand identity, or cards which provide supplementary information about a coffee and tell “the story” behind it.
Stuart tells me about his packaging design project Untitled Coffee. He explains that he has partnered with local artists to produce unique artwork inspired by a number of exclusive coffees. Each piece of artwork is then printed on the bag – with each one representing a different coffee.
“The bags have no information on the front, just the design,” he says. “[The goal of the project was to] bring together good coffee and good art.”
The importance of brand identity
Roasting has arguably never been more accessible than it is today. As such, over the last few years, we’ve seen a growing number of brands and coffee shops start roasting their own coffee.
“Despite the pandemic, the number of specialty coffee roasters in the Czech Republic has continued to grow in the last couple of years,” Tomáš tells me.
Stuart agrees, saying: “It is so much more accessible to start a small roasting operation now.
“With the right branding and a good level of experience, you don’t need the same amount of capital as you did around five to ten years ago to start a roastery,” he explains. “Many people started roasting because they owned a coffee shop, so they were willing to take the risk.
“But now, you see a lot more people experimenting with micro roasting,” he adds.
Ultimately, this can mean the market is saturated in some areas, so it’s essential that coffee businesses are able to stand out from their competitors.
For micro roasters, this could mean introducing new or lesser-known coffee origins, or working with a small number of farms in different coffee-producing countries. Effectively, by offering a different experience, micro roasters can remain comparatively competitive, while still building mutually-beneficial relationships with producers.
“Offering a [unique product that differentiates your brand] is what matters most,” Stuart says.
Ultimately, it’s marketing and branding that play one of the most important roles in allowing micro roasters to stand out among the rest – especially in an increasingly competitive market.
How do micro roasters source their coffee?
Coffee quality is one of the biggest selling points for micro roasters, and rightly so. They often buy more exclusive coffees, such as micro lots or experimentally processed coffees, and will often offer a range of coffees which come and go depending on stock levels.
In contrast, larger commercial roasters tend to offer a greater number of consistent blends which are available all year round.
However, this focus on offering more exclusive coffees means that micro roasters buy coffee in much smaller volumes. In response, we’ve seen a number of specialty coffee importers adjust minimum order quantities in recent years. For instance, Ally Coffee and Royal Coffee now offer smaller bags or boxes of green coffee – even as low as 1lb (0.45kg) in some cases.
“I know some roasters who only offer one origin because it sets them apart from competitors,” Stuart tells me. “At Untitled Coffee, we don’t always have coffee available, so instead we sell limited-edition coffee releases for a few months at a time.”
Some micro roasters also operate through direct trade models, which means they buy coffee directly from importers or producers.
“In recent years, there has been more discussion about how climate change is pushing more research institutions to develop resilient hybrid varieties,” Tomáš says. These new varieties could potentially lead to a premium, niche market for many consumers.
However, while offering more exclusive coffees can help to grow interest in a brand, it may not be the most economically viable business model for some micro roasters. This is because they already operate on finer margins than larger roasters.
When it comes to scaling this model, there are difficulties. At higher volumes, price changes become more difficult to absorb. Furthermore, market size becomes a concern, as it may not be growing at a rate sufficient to support continued scalability.
What’s more, the demand from micro roasters for more exclusive coffees can put pressure on farmers to experiment with new processing techniques that are less profitable. This may not always be cost-effective at a small scale, potentially making it harder for producers to turn a profit.
Scalability and growth may be a difficult prospect for micro roasters, as will standing out from competitors in a market that is only becoming more saturated year on year. However, at the same time, operating on a smaller scale means micro roasters can be more flexible and agile, opening up scope to experiment where larger roasters would not be able to.
While there are understandably questions about the future of this model and how it will evolve in the future, there’s no denying just how prominent and popular it is becoming across the coffee industry.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how small and medium-sized coffee roasters can manage price risk.
Perfect Daily Grind
Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!