What exactly does a coffee roaster do?

in Buying Coffee, Fair Trade and the Environment

The term “coffee roaster” may seem self-explanatory, but I learned more on my first trip to the Fire Roasted Coffee Company than I knew about coffee prior.  Let’s take a look at the role that a good coffee roaster plays in putting good fresh coffee in your cup.

The first thing that your local coffee roaster does is connect with the coffee supply chain.  For this, the roaster likely deals with an importer who himself is connected with exporters in coffee-producing countries.  That importer has a warehouse not too far from the roaster, and a huge variety of green unroasted coffee beans.  Yes, I’m simplifying the supply chain to get to the good part.


The coffee roaster decides what beans he wants to sell and orders burlap bags of them from the importer.  Storage of the green unroasted coffee isn’t as big a concern because green beans keep for 1-2 years.  It is roasted coffee that begins to expire immediately so the roaster can keep a loose inventory of green beans as you see in the image above, courtesy of the FRCC.

The variety of coffee is very important because different coffees of the world offer different taste experiences.  As opposed to mass-produced coffee sold instant or in big tins at the grocery store, the roaster can offer an assortment of coffees based on the tastes of his local market. He is roasting as little as a few pounds at a time, so he can make sure he doesn’t roast so much that some of it is bound to sit too long before being sold, and go stale.

Coffee can begin to lose flavor in as short as 2-3 weeks from when it was roasted – even shorter if the coffee has already been ground.  So you know you’re getting a fresher coffee from a local roaster…what he’s selling you was very recently roasted.

The roasting process involves heating the green beans while keeping them in constant motion.  This releases the oils from the bean that make coffee taste like coffee.  It’s also these oils that will go stale like anything else that’s perishable and that’s why unroasted beans keep for so long.

An interesting thing about roasting is that while it brings out coffee’s natural and inherent flavor, the roasting itself can contribute to the coffee’s flavor.  In other words in a darker blend, you are tasting the properties of the roasting itself.

Fire Roasted Coffee takes roasting very seriously, putting much personal care into this step.  Other roasters will profile the beans from a specific source and then automatically set their roasting machine the same every time for beans from that source.  When I was last in to buy Fire Roasted Coffee, they explained how subtleties in the bean itself from one batch to another, or else differences in the humidity and temperature of the air on the day the bean is roasted, can have significant impact.  So automating the process -while it might be more efficient- actually makes it inconsistent from one batch to another, and from one roasting day to another.

What does a good coffee roaster do?  He ensures a consistent quality from one visit to the next, and he ensures the freshest possible coffee you can buy.  Coffee is freshest when you buy it shortly after it was roasted.  Your roaster manages an inventory of unroasted coffee in a facility near you, and sells you coffee roasted to standard and roasted recently.  All of these things mean more flavor in the cup!  Find the closest coffee roaster to you.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for your article. Can you recommend a good importer to purchase green coffee beans from?

    Comment by PD — July 5, 2011 @ 3:28 am

  2. Good question. I suggest Sweet Maria’s online, they have the largest variety and store of information on green unroasted coffee. Alternatively, your local coffee roaster buys his coffee unroasted from an importer and is another good source for different varieties unroasted. I hope that helps!

    Comment by Marc Wortman — July 8, 2011 @ 2:34 am

  3. I agree that the most fresh coffee is the newly roasted coffee. So, to actually taste the real taste of coffee’s specific flavor, you have to grind and brew it immediately after it was roasted.

    Yes, I am aware that not everyone can do this and that only a few has their own coffee roasting machine at home.

    For this to be a success, go to a local roaster, order newly roasted beans, grind it when you get home, then brew it. Voila, you got the freshest coffee. Bear in mind, that you only buy a few grams of newly roasted coffee bean.

    Or another good option to always have the freshest coffee is to get a home coffee roasting machine. Invest on a good machine so you don’t have to keep on buying a new one.

    Comment by Carolyn Stanley — June 22, 2015 @ 3:06 am

  4. Well said, Carolyn. Buy fresh coffee, meaning recently roasted, which means from a local roaster or a roaster that sells freshly roasted coffee online. Grocery stores are great for some things, but there is almost no chance that their supply chain is putting coffee on the shelf that was roasted recently. Most of it is stale before it’s purchased.

    Comment by Marc Wortman — June 29, 2015 @ 6:11 pm

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