An Introduction to How RELAY Roasts Coffee
Unlock the world of coffee. Dive into a new roast.
There are over 100 species of coffee plants and thousands of varieties. Each varietal of coffee has its own personality. It’s a little like apples. Think of the differences between a Macintosh apple, a Gala, and a Golden Delicious. Each apple has different tartness, sweetness, skin textures and colours. Coffee is similar.
A coffee’s personality, its flavour and body, are locked away in the bean. You couldn’t brew green beans and hope for good cup of coffee. To unlock all the wonderful aromas and flavours, you have to roast the bean. Roasting changes the coffee bean chemically, activating acids, sugars and oils.
So it all starts with choosing the right beans. Where they’re grown and how they’re grown is important. RELAY buys green beans from an importer, a middle person who brings coffee beans into Canada from coffee co-ops all over the world. Co-ops are groups of farmers who work together to spread the wealth and make farming more sustainable. We make sure each coffee we buy is certified Fair Trade and Organic. We want to know that the people who picked our coffee are treated fairly and that the environment is prioritized.
With those standards in place, we look for beans that have lots of personality.
Does RELAY Use Robusta Beans?
The two most popular species of coffee are Arabica and Robusta. Most of the world’s coffee is Arabica, but about one quarter of all coffee grown in the world is Robusta. Because Robusta is more harsh in taste and texture, it isn’t in as high demand. Some people describe Robusta flavours as burnt rubber. That harsh bitterness comes from nearly double the amount of caffeine than an Arabica bean contains.
The increased caffeine naturally fends off pests though. Robusta is a hearty plant that is easier to grow than Arabica. It produces up to three times more coffee cherries than Arabica plants and grows in low plains without much trouble.
In comparison, Arabica has to be grown at higher elevations and is shade grown, meaning it grows under a canopy of light filtering trees. Arabica plants are fragile. Because they have less caffeine, bugs tend to get at them and they are susceptible to disease. Also, fewer coffee cherries grow per Arabica plant than Robusta and the growth of the plant is slower.
That said, because of it’s slower growth it is sweeter (attracting more pests) and has less caffeine making Arabica coffee beans easier to enjoy than Robusta. Robusta is generally only used for instant coffees or as a filler in blends from big brand coffee roasters.
We do not use any Robusta beans at RELAY Coffee.
RELAY’s Roasting Process
Heating a coffee bean changes it from the inside out. It expands, cracks, goes from pale green through yellow to different shades of brown. Different tastes emerge. Acids and sugars are released and oils escape. Coffee is naturally acidic and bitter, but it contains sugars as well that are very appealing. Some beans will retain the fruity qualities of the cherry that grew around them, giving the coffee a hint of blueberries, cherries or strawberries.
In the first few minutes of roasting, moisture evaporates and the bean loses about 25% of its mass. Soon, within 10 minutes, gases in the bean are trying to escape. A very important moment in a roast is the “first crack.” That’s when the gases break out of the bean. It sounds like popcorn. This is when sugars begin to release in a bean. Light roasts are stopped shortly after this moment.
Keep roasting and the acids will activate. This adds what we call “body” to a roast. It’s the thickness or weight of a coffee when you drink it. A thin coffee is said to have no or little body. Medium roasts are known to have lots of body.
The bean will crack a second time, not long after the first crack. At this point, things are changing quickly in the bean. Going too far beyond second crack means the roast will taste burnt or charred. It’s also interesting that the longer a bean is roasted, the more caffeine is roasted out.
A good roast, whether that be light, medium or dark, will balance the natural flavours of a bean with enough roast to eliminate unpleasant bitterness or acidity. That being said, it also depends on what the coffee drinker prefers. Some people enjoy a lighter, more acidic roast with flowery flavours, while others go for dark, bitter, full bodied coffee.
Roasting coffee takes care and attention. Get preoccupied at the wrong time and the roast can go too far in a matter of seconds, spoiling the batch. Or if you don’t get the heat correct, right in the beginning, the bean doesn’t lose enough mass and it takes longer to roast, changing the flavour profile noticeably.
Who Roasts RELAY’s Coffee?
There are two people who roast coffee at RELAY: Jason and Mike. Jason has been roasting for 10 years. He knows the beans inside and out. It’s like watching a magician at work, the way he roasts coffee. Mike has roasted coffee for 3 years. Roasting is his escape. He loves the numbers, watching times, temperatures and weights.
How do they know when a bean is ready to be dropped from the roasting drum into the cooling tray? Jason says the coffee talks to him. But he’s also following a set of time and temperature guidelines that come from years of developing his roasting formula for each origin.
They’re watching the clock, the thermometer, and the colour of the beans. They’re also listening and smelling for changes through each roast.
It’s that full experience that Jason loves most. “I love watching the whole process take place from green to yellow to cinnamon to brown and getting to first crack,” he says, “The aroma, dumping the coffee, the smoke that comes out, it’s kind of dramatic, it’s theatrical.”
Mike enjoys the dynamic between big machinery, a fine tuned process, and delicate results. Roasting in small batches, like they do, Jason and Mike have to hone their senses.
“A coffee roaster like RELAY, that doesn’t use enormous fancy computers and probes, relies on the attention and focus of the roaster,” Mike says, “Learning and knowing how certain coffees look and react at different points in the roast is tricky.”
They’re always chasing that perfect roast, finding consistent quality that they hope you will love.
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