Roasting As A System

The process of roasting coffee is a complex task with many interdependent systems, some of which (many?) we don’t completely understand. For example, roasting coffee involves thermal dynamics, kinetic theory, chemistry, etc. None of these things works in isolation upon the coffee bean to achieve the end goal; a brown bean that can then be transformed by another set of complex systems into a consumable product.

It is possible, and in the beginning of one’s pursuit of learning to roast coffee even desirable, to over-simplify the process in order to learn. There is an aspect of “the IRIFOY principle” to coffee roasting;

it’s right in front of you. You know what scrambled eggs are supposed to be like; you can see what is happening in the pan; so you know what you need to do next. You don’t need to make a detailed plan ahead of time.

In otherwords; you know the beans need to be a relatively consistent shade of brown (unless they’re a natural) and you know that as you apply heat they are darkening. You don’t need to fully grasp the nuances of the Maillard reaction to achieve a consumable, even an enjoyable product.

But it certainly helps, especially if you want an exceptional product.

I approach roasting with systems thinking—there are many, interdependent systems working in concert to brown that bean and the way I learn to roast is by learning more about the individual systems and how those systems work with each other. For example, understanding how air flow impacts heat transfer within the roaster, which impacts the speed and intensity or depth of the Maillard reaction, etc, all improve my understanding of the coffee roasting process as a whole.

An understanding, not only of the consituent parts, but also how they work together will allow one to produce a better—and certainly more consistent—product.

If I were to be forced to name one goal of all the different ways I share information about coffee (this blog, my YouTube channel, Twitter, Instagram, etc), it would be that; to help others think of coffee as a complex system of systems and to get as clear a picture as possible (if that’s your goal), we should seek to understand each system and how it interacts with other systems.

Michael C. Wright

Michael is an American expat living in Singapore where he writes about many things coffee-related. A roaster by trade, Michael is also a licensed Q Grader and an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST).