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Roasting with my father

All well and good in theory, but what if he’s on the phone? Sure enough, this is exactly what happened while roasting our popular Creole Blend. So, I was left to my own devices. I still remember how hard my heart was pounding as the beans cracked loudly in the roasting drum.

This was on our old Whitmee 28lb roaster, installed in the basement of our shop in South Molton Street. Built in 1936, it was already into its 6th decade. The natural gas burner centred inside the drum supplied the heat. The beans fell through the flames, clearly visible through a fairly large gap at the front. I would insert a small shovel into check on their colour. The aim was for me to keep the gas on until a small curl of smoke appeared in this gap. Then I would need to shut off the gas and let the beans out into the cooling tray. If I left them in too long, they could turn to brittle charcoal or even catch fire. But if taken out too soon, they would look dull and not have the deep full bodied and slightly smoky aftertaste that everyone was expecting.

I waited, and sure enough the curl of smoke was there. I quickly turned off the gas tap and with one last check pulled the lever to set the cooling tray arms turning, yanked out the shutter to divert the airflow from the roasting drum to the cooling tray, pushed up the bar on the chute and stood back as the hot shiny beans rushed out with a big puff of smoke. There they glistened and crackled and my father shot out of the office to survey the scene.

“They look fine” was his only comment. I got the impression he wasn’t all that surprised or worried. But my heart took a while to slow down before I continued with a lighter and far more relaxing roast.

That all happened in 1983 when I was 19 and had been working in South Molton Street full time for a year or so.

We became so busy we that we outgrew the old Whitmee. It couldn’t keep up the pace. We moved our roasting to a new site in Waltham Abbey the following year and bought a bigger 25kg machine from Probat in Germany.

So began the process of learning how to use this machine. The Probat seemed enormous in comparison. The drum was completely encased in a large body which towered over me. This roaster hummed quietly, only really loud when using the airveyor to blow the raw beans up into the loading hopper at the top. This was unlike the Whitmee, which was all mechanical belts and wheels. The gas flame was on the outside of the drum. The beans could either be seen through a small porthole in the door, of by removing a narrow probe from the centre.

I felt quite disconnected from the coffee at first, even listening to the beans cracking meant putting my ear right next to the warm casing. There was also much less control over the gas. The Whitmee had a simple gas tap which you could turn as much or little as you liked. It was rather like controlling a gas hob in many ways. But now, only 2 on or off buttons allowed me to either apply 100% or 33% gas, or none whatsoever.

I learned how to use this new machine, and to be honest it took a long time for me to enjoy using it. The old Whitmee had something magical about it. Occasionally, someone would ask how fresh our coffee was. It was always fun to lead them halfway down the stairs and show them this ancient machine, flywheels spinning, flames clearly visible and the sound of motors humming and fans blowing. It was a sad day in 1986 when we finished our last roast at South Molton Street. We knew we couldn't take the machine to our new Duke Street shop but we couldn't bear to part with it.

Our regular roaster John and I did the very last roast, a medium roast Colombia Supreme. We stood next to the on/off button and John said “remember this sound”, then all went silent. In 24 hours, the machine was gone. It left a huge empty space, some dust, and the lingering smell of roasted coffee. One day, we will put it all back together, if we can remember what goes where. It will have a second life, without all the pressure we put it through over 40 years.

Little did I think that the Probat at Waltham Abbey would go on for another 37 years with us, and began to prove itself as a reliable and consistent workhorse. The biggest improvement which really rekindled my interest was the installation of temperature probes. The probes connected to a laptop so that via software we could see much more clearly what was happening inside the drum.

Now, it became possible to roast even more consistently, because we could monitor the temperature and its rate of rise throughout the roasting cycle. Now each time we tasted a batch, we could see what effect the changes we had made to temperature over time would have, and then create a profile to reproduce the best tasting batches over and over again.

This development meant a big change in how we were able to develop the roasting. Even when I started in the business in 1982, computers were rare in businesses, certainly of our size. My father and grandfather would never even have dreamt of them in their early days.

They learnt their skill by doing the act itself and relying on all one’s senses. At most a stopwatch would be the only means of measurement available. I had learned essentially an art from my father. Simple in theory, but easy to get wrong unless paying very close attention.

Having a feel for what was happening and an anticipation for what would happen next. The science of roasting was already known. A process of endothermic and exothermic reaction, creating flavour compounds and altering the cell structure etc. But for me, that was unseen and quite mysterious, as none of my family had been scientifically trained. My grandfather left school at 14 to start work, my dad at 15, and me at 18. We had learned by doing, and with much dedication it had paid off, as people loved the coffee we roasted.

The coffee market has changed dramatically during my time, especially in the UK. New roasters started up in the 1990s and the science of coffee stood at the forefront of developing a roast profile. For us to take our roasting further meant having greater control. Not only of the heat applied but the airflow and drum speed.

In 2020, we began to build a new roastery in Whitby. And, so the search for the new roaster began in earnest. We discovered the relatively small manufacturer Kirsch und Mausser; a sister company to Probat and actually just across the road in Emmerich, a small town on the border with Holland. They built our new UG22 to order and not only does it look the part, it brought me right back to where I started as now, I had a machine to really play with.

Essentially the machine is like the Probat in its design, a rotating drum heated from the outside by gas. These are the same machines they have been building since the 1800s. The number of probes dotted around the machine and large touch screen control panel are very much from the 21st century.

Now I can control both the gas and airflow to almost any degree during the roast. This means I can extend or shorten different phases of each batch, and subtly alter the flavours. We can now focus on extensive cupping and being hypercritical to an extent that we were unable to achieve until now.

Of course, to get to this point meant switching on the roaster for the first time. We loaded it with coffee and then seeing how it responded. The first roast is always an anxious moment. It doesn't matter how many times you’ve been through the safety manual, and practiced using the controls. The first 3 roasts were all discarded to the compost heap, slightly scorched by the brand-new drum. Slowly but surely, each profile was established to a starting position from where nuanced development could be progressed. Now we can cup and improve as we go. Roasting has become fun again, just like it was when I was starting.

For my father this was also a big step. Having taught me everything he knew, I was now in the position to teach him everything I knew. So, a few weeks after we had started, he came up to Whitby to first watch and then roast some coffee.

When he was teaching me to roast, he was in his mid-forties. Getting used to a new machine, now at 83, was quite a challenge. With new controls, displayed on a small laptop screen, it soon became obvious that he was having difficulty seeing how high the gas or airflow were. I found myself saying “not that way. Down, you’re turning it up!”. This led to us both getting a bit stressed. This also meant he spent all the time glued to the screen, trying to see what was happening. Yet if I pulled out the sample probe and just showed him the beans, he knew straightaway where we were in the roast and what to do.Roasting coffee is quite alien and not at all recommended. It is best done in a quiet calm atmosphere without any interruptions as you need to concentrate all the time. My dad often told me that if he felt a bit stressed about something, he would roast some coffee and the world always seemed better again.

My father’s love of coffee and our business has never diminished. I am so happy that he still wants to take on new challenges. Over the last 38 years, we have spent many hours roasting, tasting and talking about coffee. Much has changed in that time but the love of what we do has grown ever stronger.

David Higgins


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