This summer I’m kicking off a new thing for me; interviews and articles about specific people in the coffee industry. I’m calling it “In The Sightglass.” For those who aren’t coffee roasters; the sightglass is a window into the roasting drum that allows the operator to see what’s happening to the coffee. I thought the name was clever.
I know Neal through the Coffee Roaster’s Guild. I’ve been to three or four of their retreats over the years and he’s probably been at the same events every time I’ve gone. Over the years I noticed him station-instructing and I would frequently see him in smaller groups of people talking about coffee at quite a technical and advanced level. Granted, early in my coffee carreer it seemed to me that everyone talked at an advanced level, but regardless of my lack of knowledge of coffee-specifics, you could tell by listening that Neal knows his shit.
See Also: Roasters Guild Retreat 2015
This article will be a part of a series that is the result of talking with Neal and getting some early info before interviewing him at this year’s Roaster’s Guild Retreat. I also made sure I was a station-instructor for a class he’s teaching this year, titled Roasting Style Exploration. All of this exposure to Neal and his ideas and concepts around roasting are sure to generate a lot of sharable content!
Neal is a second-generation, co-owner of Wilson’s Coffee and Tea, in Racine, Wisconsin. He got into coffee through the family business and at an early age. As he says; “it’s not that I got into coffee so much as that I grew up in it.” He’s been roasting for eighteen years now and though he started roasting on cheaper machines that lacked good control mechanisms or true instrumentation, he soon found he had an affinity for Diedrich roasters (I too started early with Diedrich and have developed quite a loyalty to them).
He also develops and maintains Typica roasting software. When I asked him what the advantages are of using Typica, he broke it down into advantages over paper tracking and other, competing software.
Compared to paper-based systems of tracking your roast profile, Typica (and many other applications) free the operator to focus more on what’s happing in the roaster, rather than recording what’s happening. By not having to actually write down time and temperature readings and any sensory observations, the operator is better able to observe and visualize what is happening over time with temperature, sensory cues, etc. It’s a lot to juggle to watch a timer, record observations, and also check for sensory input—checking the trier; looking at and smelling the sample, watching the sight-glass, etc.
Compared to competing software, Neal is the primary advantage. With many other roasting applications, the developer isn’t necessarily a coffee roaster and if they are, they likely aren’t a production roaster who roasts nearly daily for retail/wholesale. Since Neal roasts so often and also since he has such a rich and deep background in coffee, he’s able to screen or filter feature requests and spot the features that are truly useful versus those that are more eye-candy in a profile, rather than truly useful (he calls these anti-features).
Another class of feature requests that you’ll find are things that someone thinks might be interesting to look at and they may have a convincing and plausible theory so it’s worth exploring that, but then when it turns out that this is not that useful or that using a feature that should help people roast coffee more consistently turns out to have the opposite effect, it’s very hard to go back and remove those anti-features once you’ve advertised them so you’ll see people talking about certain things that they’re seeing in their software as if it’s meaningful and something they should be paying attention to when really they’re just getting themselves confused. They can articulate that they’re not happy with the results they’re getting, but it’s hard to get people past the assumption that if a feature exists in a program it must be meaningful. You can avoid that with Typica because I’ve killed a lot of features that people ask for that in testing turn out to be not the thing they really need or I’ve taken good ideas where the most obvious implementation is not a usable one and put in the extra work needed to make that useful.
Neal also get’s to travel a lot for coffee and a lot of his travel is less about finding a great coffee to sell at Wilson’s and more about teaching classes, evaluating coffees, or providing an American perspective on what they’re (whoever hired him) are doing. He said about these trips; “it’s not about what I’m trying to get out of the trip, but about what the client is getting out of bringing me in.”
This attitude of sharing, of giving rather than receiving is in a lot of ways central to who Neal is as a coffee guy. You can see it in the fact that he freely shares so much information about coffee online as well as the amount of time he spends training others via the Coffee Roasters Guild and the Specialty Coffee Association (which is largely done through volunteering). This is very inspiring and refreshing to see and I’m looking forward to our interview at the retreat this year!