The Rise of the Digital Roaster

Photo courtesy of IKAWA

In the last five years, we’ve seen a giant leap in one aspect of roasting technology: the rise of smaller, more compact digital roasters.

The amount of digital roasters available—from small home machines for coffee enthusiasts, to professional sample roasters like the IKAWA, ROEST, and Stronghold, to larger electric drum roasters like Bellwether’s zero-emission 20-lb. digital drum roaster—shows just what a need these digital roasters have filled in the professional coffee roasting industry. Earlier this year, the giant multinational conglomerate Nestlé unveiled the “Roastelier,” a counter-top roaster designed for cafes and baristas. Nestlé calls it “a compact coffee-roasting solution that will allow baristas to unlock and simplify the art of roasting in the shop.”

Nestlé’s Roastelier

While home roasters like the Sonofresco, Behmor, Hottop, Fresh Roast, and other brands have been around for many years, the success of the IKAWA as the first digital micro-sample roaster, containing the ability to control graphs and profiles from your phone, seems to have opened the floodgates for this latest round of digitization. Bellwether recently raised $40 million in its Series B round of financing. Most of these roasters are designed for sample roasting, but they can also be used by home roasters and baristas simply looking to roast some coffee on their own.

How Digital Roasters Can Help Efficiency & Accessibility

Like most technology, digitizing sample roasters was based on a need: creating consistent, hands-free roasting of multiple samples or batches. Whereas before a coffee roaster might have to stand over a manual drum and watch every step of development in the coffee, now, literally anyone can select a profile, push a button, and walk away. It really comes down to efficiency—the ability to sample roast and roast for production, at the same time.

Geoff Woodley, head of marketing for IKAWA, also brings up the topic of accessibility in sample roasting.

“It was a major gap in the sample roasting world for people to know what a good sample roast was and how to achieve it,” he says. “We encountered a lot of producers who thought they couldn’t roast. The IKAWA makes it really concise and really simple.”

COMPACT DIGITAL ROASTERS like IKAWA’s model make it easier for producers to roast and drink their own coffee. Photo by David Bowden

Of course, other larger commercial roasters, such as the Loring, have been automated and digital for a few years, but not in any way that was accessible to non-professional roasters. These new roasters are not just for “professional” roasters anymore; both producers and consumers can now roast with ease.

 It’s all about time and manual labor, after all. You can roast just as fast with traditional roasters, but roasting multiple samples manually requires a lot of monotonous hands-on time—time that could be better spent in more productive and engaging ways. But that’s not the only reason for the creation of these machines.

The founder of IKAWA, Andrew Stordy, an engineer and industrial designer, was living in coffee-producing countries, including Burundi (IKAWA is from the word for “coffee” in Kirundi, the official language of Burundi), when he noticed a huge discrepancy between producers and consumers—many producers were not able to drink their own coffee. These simple, compact digital roasters make it easier for producers to roast and drink their own coffee.

Not Just Air Roasters

Most, but not all, of these new digital roasters are “air” or “fluid bed” roasters, unlike the more traditional “drum” roasters. Some companies, however, like Aillio and ROEST, are applying the digital automated technology to both types of roasters.

Rob Hoos, Portland, Oregon-based author, roaster, and director of coffee at Nossa Familia, says they roast on a combination of sample roasting machines: two IKAWAs (digital fluid bed), an Ambex 1 Kilo (manual drum), and a U.S. Roaster Corp (manual drum). He also teaches a whole SCA sample roast course using a home roaster, the Aillio Bullet R2 1 kilo (digital drum). Of the rise in digital roasting, he believes that it could be due to, in part, a dislike in the process of sample roasting.

Norway-based ROEST is a digital sample roaster that combines the best of both roasting worlds: small digital roaster and a conventional drum.

ROEST digital sample roaster. Photos courtesy of ROEST

“When we started, drum roasters were the baseline. It was durable and manual,” says CEO and cofounder Trond Simonsen. “Consistency was, however, a problem. After IKAWA managed to open up the market for digitalization, everything has changed. Now we are first asked if we are digital, then if you can roast manual. A lot of our customers want the best from both worlds—and that’s been a key principle in our development. But strictly sample roasting is, for most people we talk to, all about getting the task done.”

“We’re teaching our roaster to listen for the sound of first crack to take consistency and automation to the next level,” adds Trond’s brother, Sverre Simonsen, the engineer and cofounder of ROEST.

TIM WENDELBOE has been using ROEST for quality control routines, sample roasting for buying, and roasting classes for the past year. He has helped with product feedback since ROEST’s inception in 2013. Photo courtesy of ROEST.

The Simonsen brothers say their machine is extremely flexible, able to operate with full autonomy, half, or manual, and that different companies employ its use differently.

“ROEST is designed not only to complement a traditional drum roaster, but to replace it,” says Trond Simonsen.

The Future of Traditional Roasters

The question lingers: Will air roasting replace drum roasting as the method of choice for sample roasting?

“I think it can,” says Marcus Young of Boot Coffee. “With more and more roasters using IKAWA sample roasters or Stronghold roasters, and even production roasting with Loring Roasters with their highly convective heat, fluid bed may be the way to go.”

MARCUS YOUNG is campus director and senior consultant of business development at Boot Coffee. Photo courtesy of Marcus Young/Boot Coffee

He also notes how these roasters have improved control over heat and airflow compared to traditional sample roasters.

“With the IKAWA, I can send a profile to the roaster and have a lab assistant roasting samples with about ten minutes of training,” says Young. “I’ve also found the ability to develop and share profiles on fluid bed machines to be appreciated by my clients who operate roasting companies.”

 But Phil Beattie of Dillanos disagrees somewhat.

“I do not think that air roasting will replace drum sample roasters,” he says. “Air roasting imparts a very specific development of flavor in a way that favors certain core profiles. My experience is that air roasting requires additional roast variance to bring out the flavors of natural and honey processed coffees. This required variance for air roasting introduces new variables that are not necessarily present in drum roasting, and the goal of sample roasting is to limit variables and create uniformity of sample assessment worldwide.”

Yimara Martinez Agudelo, the quality control specialist at Sustainable Harvest, says that, in her opinion, it is possible to achieve a great fragrance development with air roasters—perhaps there just needs to be a small variation on how the profile is used.

At Sustainable Harvest, where Agudelo roasts on two IKAWAs and a Probat, she has developed a profile similar to that of a drum roaster by cupping two roasts (one from the drum roaster and one from the IKAWA) side by side, in order to achieve the same expression of flavor and smell for quality control purposes.

YIMARA MARTINEZ AGUDELO is the quality control specialist at Sustainable Harvest and roasts on IKAWA and Probat roasters.
Photo courtesy of Sustainable Harvest

Even if drum roasters remain the choice of importers and large companies who need to crank through a lot of samples at once (or transfer their profiles from sample to production), smaller digital roasters seem to be perfect for small- to medium-sized roasting companies for both the price and quality.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits of learning how to manually roast: what better way to get a feel for roasting coffee than the full hands-on approach?

“There are certain things I appreciate about manual roasting that are not easy to replace,” says Rob Hoos. “Like if you’re the same person doing the sample roasting and the production roasting you get a better feel for the coffee.”

With that in mind, it’s still too early to tell whether these digital machines will one day take over coffee roasting completely, but the future of coffee roasting in general is headed in this technical direction—a digital, autonomous frontier. As Trond Simonsen of ROEST says, “It’s about time.”

The machines are here to stay.