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Let's get cooking
The purpose of this tutorial is to give you a brief overview of the mainstream roasters on the market today and help you make an informed buying decision.
So first, what are the main models available out there? We've got the two Hearthware i-Roast models (the i-Roast and the i-Roast 2), the Zach&Dani's Roaster, the FreshRoast 8 plus, and finally the higher end model better known as the HotTop.
Features, performance, some thoughts
First, the i-Roast models: there are two of them. There's the basic model and the i-Roast 2, both of which do an excellent job. The i-Roast 2 has a few minor improvements in chaff collection, lid design and computer modifications and is about $30 more than the i-Roast 1. Is it worth it? Well, you can see from the chart below that they have almost identical roast profiles, with the I-Roast 1 actually outperforming the I-Roast 2 as far as temperature. Even with the improved chaff collection and lid design, they cool identically. Over time, the improved lid design comes in handy as sometimes the I-Roast 1 lid can start to slip off and spit chaff all over the place with time. The I-Roast 2 has a notch where the lid fits on the roasting pot allowing both units to "lock" in. As far as the chaff collection is concerned, the I-Roast 1 does an impeccable job at removing chaff from the roast. The I-Roast 2's redesign didn't seem to change this. The increased memory functions are nice if you want to program a lot of roast profiles, but I've done just fine with the 2 pre-sets and one extra programmed curve. Keep in mind that they will all disappear as soon as you unplug the unit. There is no way to save all that work if the power goes out or you accidentally turn off the power strip. The ability to program in times and temperatures (which is what I'm referring to when I say "curve") is quite handy if you want to have an extra degree of control over your roast. You can stretch it out so that you emphasize the body and deeper notes of the roast with a lower temperature but longer roast, or you can emphasize the brighter and more acidy notes with a quicker and hotter roast.
The i-Roast in action
I really like this roaster. It roasts pretty quickly, cools pretty well, allows you to hear the first and second crack pretty clearly and even has a vent attachment that allows you to affix a dryer vent and redirect the smoke produced during the darker roasts. This is a handy feature. The unit itself is sturdy and seems to hold up pretty well. You can also get a temperature readout on the roast, although the reading is a bit skewed. You only get the temperature of the air entering the roaster. The bean temperature is about 30-90 degrees higher after the first crack (the point at which the beans start producing their own heat). So if you are curious why your roaster is reading out a lower temperature, don't sweat it as long as the beans are roasting well. One curious thing on my units was that the I-Roast 1 seemed to consistently report lower temperatures than the I-Roast 2, but when I actually measured the temperatures with the thermocoupler, the I-Roast 1 was actually achieving slightly higher temperatures.
Freshroast 8 plus:
The Freshroast is a great value for your money
This model is the less expensive option out there. The roast profile was similar to the I-Roast's during testing, but I suspect that this was due to the fact that I have slightly lower voltage here in the lab (I did the i-Roast tests at home). I noticed that when I did the recommended "two scoops" of beans, the roast never got over 400 degrees and the beans just ended up baking. When I added three and a half scoops, the roast proceeded normally. A big note, though: it is very important that the beans circulate and move around in the chamber. If you overfill the roast chamber, you can cause a fire! I've had customers tell me that they are able to achieve very dark roasts in 4 minutes with just two scoops of beans (a little less than two ounces roasted), so I suspect that this roaster will vary from machine to machine and circuit to circuit.
Less bells and whistles
The unit itself is pretty simple. The roasting chamber and chaff collector just set on top of the base unit and do not "lock" in - meaning you need to be careful around them so you don't knock the whole deal over and send everything flying. The timer is a little knob that you turn to set the number of minutes and the beans go into a cooling cycle during the last minute. You can easily extend or reduce the number of minutes in the roast, or force the beans into an early cooling cycle. Since the default one minute cooling cycle doesn't get the beans cool enough (about 250F), you can extend this cooling cycle, as well. There chaff collection isn't flawless, but it gets 95% of the chaff out. But you don't get much control over the roast - it's always quick and hot. And you won't get much more than 2 ounces of roasted beans out of a roast. It's a pretty good deal for what you pay for, though. If you really get into roasting though, you will probably step up to something else relatively quickly.
Zach & Dani's:
The Zach & Dani's roaster is a breeze to operate
This roaster is a good all around option for those who don't want to deal with the hassle of setting roasting curves or smoke. The roasts take a bit longer (about 10-15 minutes longer than the I-Roast), but the Zach & Dani's has a pretty cool catalytic converter system that eliminates the smoke produced at darker roasts. The chaff collection isn't as good as the I-Roasts, but it does a pretty good job. The roast profile is similar to that of the HotTop's, but it takes a bit longer and doesn't cool as quickly. It roasts slightly less than the I-Roast (around 4oz of beans per roast), but still twice as much as the Freshroast 8. But this unit is the easiest to use of them all. It's got a mark on the roasting chamber so you know how far to fill it each time, and the control panel is intuitive and easy to use. It doesn't have a temperature readout, though. And the stainless auger that agitates the beans (while it produces a very even roast) moves the beans so that it makes it difficult to hear the first and second cracks. If you plan on getting more technical with your roasting, this may not be the roaster for you. But if just want good coffee without a lot of hassle, this is definitely your choice.
The best of the best - at a price
After testing this unit, I've found it to be an excellent roaster. You get a drum roaster with a longer roast profile (which emphasizes body and complexity in the cup) - and at 8.2 ounces per roast, it gives you enough coffee to last a while. It has a pre-heat cycle so that you are guaranteed consistent roasts each time regardless of ambient or roaster temperature (it is because of this that you see a dip in temperature relatively early in the roast in the chart above - that is when the beans were added to the roaster). You can hear the first and second cracks clearly and there is a glass viewing window that allows you to watch the roast and easily gauge bean color. The machine also has a temperature readout and is the only home roaster out there that cools the beans outside the roasting chamber - essentially replicating a commercial coffee roaster.
The cooling cycle is very efficient, as you can see from the roast. The roaster does produce a fair bit of smoke (mostly due to the fact that you are simply roasting more beans), but the smoke slowly drifts up and as such can easily be caught by a stovetop range. It roasts very quietly, too. All you hear is the sound of the beans wooshing around in the chamber and maybe a few squeaks here or there as the barrel turns. You do pay a bit more for this roaster, but you are essentially getting a scaled down version of a professional coffee roaster - effectively creating a cafe in your own home.
An excellent air roaster with consistent results
I first saw the demo of this unit at a trade show and I thought it was really cool. The coolest thing about it is the viewing chamber, allowing you to see the bean color and roast level throughout the entire roast without problems. The Gene Cafe is different in that velocity of air pushing through the roast chamber is only for heat - not to actually agitate the beans like in other home air roasters. The Gene Cafe has a unique auger and flap system that ensures that the beans are constantly in motion, which prevents scorching. As such, the Gene Cafe is quiet. Not as quiet as the HotTop, but much quieter than the i-Roast and Freshroast for sure. The sound level is more comparable to the Zach & Danis roaster. Another really cool thing about the Gene Cafe is the control it allows with the roast temperature and time. You can modify the roast temperature in real time with the turn of a knob. You can also easily force the Gene Cafe into it's cooling cycle - but then again, so do most other roasters. Seeing as the majority of air and smoke exits for the left end of the roaster, you could also easily add a smoke redirection device on the end (currently in the works at Gene Cafe).
So what are the cons?
One thing I didn't like about the Gene Cafe was the chaff collection. As the chaff is blown off of the beans, it needs to pass through a stainless grate in the roasting chamber. A small flap knocks the chaff loose (so that it can more easily pass through the grate) with each rotation of the roasting chamber. If the coffee you are roasting produces a lot of chaff, this grate can get overloaded. This doesn't present much of a problem because the air will simply redirect through the roast chamber lid. But if you did hook up some sort of a smoke redirection device, it would reduce it's efficiency because the smoke would be leaving from other parts of the roaster.
The cooling cycle also isn't as efficient as it could be, especially when you are roasting at max capacity. It has nowhere near the cooling efficiency of the HotTop, but it will do the job. If you are concerned about this, you can also easily bypass the cooling process and use your own homemade cooling device (a fan and a colander would do just fine).
All in all, the Gene Cafe is a great leap in the right direction. As home roasting becomes more popular, we will start seeing lots more cool machines like this - and that's exciting!
Click image to enlarge
There are two sides to everything
So that's a general overview of the most common machines available out there. Each has its pros and cons, but they all produce pretty good coffee. If you have any further questions, give me a call at 1-800-600-0033 or shoot us an email support @ morecoffee.com and I'd be glad to help you out.