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The Current Setup
Home >> Other >> Home Roasting >> Current Kit

The Current Kit

Alpenrost, with all its packed parts

So what's my current gear? To the right you see part of it. That's my Alpenrost Rotary Drum roaster (aka an Alp), the day I unpacked it. It is the home roaster I use the most, mainly because of the large volume it handles but also because I prefer the resulting bean quality. My other two purpose-build roasters - a Hearthware Precision, and a FreshRoast also get use, but mainly in an additive role, as in if I want to add 50 grams of robusta to a blend.

Things sure have changed since I first started homeroasting. My first roaster was a Proctor Silex Popcorn Pumper that I bought at London Drugs for $21 Cdn dollars. And while I still suggest the home hot air popcorn popper as the first roaster anyone should try, devices like the Alp or a Hearthware Precision sure makes the job easier.

I guess the question is, do you want "easier"? Maybe if you have 3 grinders to fill, the "easier" route that a purpose built roaster offers is enticing, but I can tell you, easier isn't always "funner" (excuse the bad grammar). Using a hot air popcorn popper, a couple of metal colanders and a cheap scale and needle thermometer are all you really need, and you have a lot of fun doing it. The bonus is that they help you learn about the process that these more expensive, purpose built roasters can offer a newbie coffee roaster person type.

But still, the Alp is just so sweet. Here's the details about my current rig, including mini reviews and commentary.

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Alpenrost Rotary Drum Roaster
Price: $285 USD (average)
Roasting Volume: 8 oz by weight
Roasting Times: 15-19 minutes, depending on roast
Manufacturer: SwissMar

The Alpenrost Rotary Drum roaster was a long time "vaporware" item. It was promised for several years, and preproduction models were frequently shown at coffee trade shows. But after a year or so of this, the call was heard loud and clear: "When is this roaster going to become reality?"

Thankfully in late 1999 it finally hit the market, but had a bumpy initial ride. There were production problems, failures, and a lot of initial complaints. Swissmar seems to have ironed out most of these problems, and by mid 2000 the units were shipping and in good working order. I received my Alp around Christmastime, 2000. I managed to buy it for about $185 US ($285 Cdn) during a fantastic sale period at the website (they are now gone). I wouldn't have paid full price for it prior to receiving it, but now that I have it, I think I would have.

The Alp does a solid 8 ounces of green beans, or a pound of green in two roasting sessions. This is its biggest plus, in my opinion. It also does a different style of roast than air roasters like the Hearthware or FreshRoast do. It tends to give more body to the beans that like body, which is good, but also tends to mute bright notes in beans you want to have bright notes in, which isn't so good. Construction is pretty good in the device, and while I expected that there would be a lot more interactive controls on the device (in pictures, it looks like this, but in reality, the control panel is mostly stickers that do nothing, other than a heat and cool button), bottom line is, it does the job.

The Alp has a few knocks against it. Knock #1 is the lack of any kind of "sight glass" or way to easily view the roast in progress. You have to listen for the cracks in order to determine when to stop your roast. Knock #2 is the cooling cycle is woefully inadequate. It is too short, and the beans remain too hot, possibly baking inside. My solution for this is the following: as soon as the bean dump is done, I take the still hot beans (around 300F) and quickly pour them onto a super large cookie baking sheet, then I put them outside. The huge metal surface of the cookie sheet is a heat sink that leeches away all the roast temps, cooling the beans down to a reasonable 100F or so within a minute or two.

Swissmar needs to fix this cooling situation, either by doubling the cooldown time for the next version of the roaster, or install a fan on both sides of the unit to draw fresh air through the roaster during cooldown. This is potentially a big problem.

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Hearthware Precision Roaster
Price: $120 USD (average)
Roasting Volume: 83 grams
Roasting Times: 7-10 minutes, depending on roast
Manufacturer: Hearthware

The Hearthware Precision roaster (HWP) was my first "purpose built" coffee roaster. It was a epiphany of sorts, you can read more about it in my Home Roast Progression article. It changed the way I roasted at home, and made me a very happy home roaster indeed.

The HWP is solidly built, but like the Alp, suffered from early production problems. In some cases it still does to this day, but these problems are increasingly rare. In fact, many instances of failures are due to operator error - in other words, people who don't RTFM. The HWP is designed to roast between 80 and 85 grams of green coffee, though you should vary this a bit for denser or lighter beans. It features an intelligent roasting profile built into the microprocessor, a profile that loosely follows the SCAA's recommended roasting levels of heat application at specific times in the roast.

The front control knob sets the microprocessor controlled "timing" of the roast - it isn't mechanical. It is also fixed - in other words, anywhere near "6" on the dial was a 6. Anywhere near 6.5 was a 6.5, etc etc. The HWP used to have infinite settings, but complaints by some consumers of the product about the way the dial might move during a roast (which wouldn't affect the current roast, but it would affect the next roast if not checked) prompted Hearthware to modify this. Too bad.

Early HWPs suffered some fan and motor problems, and a lot more problems were reported online about the device. Many of these problems were operator error, as evidenced by Hearthware's constant addition of warnings and instructions plastered to newer HWP models. Many early failures were attributed to the operator not completely sealing the top portion to the base unit, or not adequately cleaning the chaff collection area or glass unit. Hearthware has been very responsive about replacing these units, even in cases where it was operator error, but it must have cost them quite a bit.

The HWP has a great chaff collection system, much better than the one built into the FreshRoast, reviewed below. It also does fairly quick roasts, and is especially good for "brighter" coffees, as it brings out brightness, and tends to mellow body a bit. Viewing a roast is super easy - the roasting chamber is entirely visible. The HWP roasts using a patented air / fountain flow system, where beans are sent up from a central air vent area, hit a deflector plate, and are then sent off to the glass sides. The concave base of the roasting chamber eventually feeds these beans back to the middle, where the fountain process occurs again.

Some sad news came to light in March, 2002, when it was announced that Hearthware is ending production on the Precision. They lost too much money on it, because they were "a nice company" that always replaced "defective" units (read: abused units) with shiny new ones. Too many people took advantage of this, and in order to stave off potential bankruptcy, I'm guessing Hearthware decided enough was enough. This is really too bad for the coffee roasting public. I hope Hearthware will eventually get back into developing a new product.

FreshRoast Roaster
Price: $70 USD (average)
Roasting Volume: 2 US oz by volume
Roasting Times: 4-6 minutes, depending on roast
Manufacturer: ???? (someone got a link?)

I bought a cosmetically damaged FreshRoast from SweetMarias for about half the normal retail price. That's the only reason why I bought it, but I'm glad now that I did, because I use it in concert with the Alp to do custom blending. I usually roast Robusta in it now for espresso blends, but occasionally I'll do a few roasts of other types of beans, and one roast in the Alp to do creative blending.

The HWP is roughly the same size as the FreshRoast, except the FreshRoast has a tiny central jar area. For many people, the amount of beans it roasts might be too small - you end up with not even enough beans for a 10 cup pot of coffee. Doing 4 or 5 days' worth of roasting with the FR will involve roasting at least 6 batches or more. Also, unlike the HWP, the control on the FreshRoast is entirely mechanical timing.

It has a slider switch that opens or closes vents inside the machine for making a darker or lighter roast, as well as the timer knob. The timer knob doesn't roast long enough, in my opinion and practice - I find I always have to turn the timer knob back to the roasting side of things, even for Full City roasting. Not a huge hassle, but the FR is definitely not a set and forget roaster, unless you like very light roasts. I also have to run the cool cycle about double the time the timer has built in.

The FR's chaff collection system is inadequate. It lets too much chaff fall back into the roasting chamber when you remove the lid. Even if you use kid gloves, chaff is going to fall back in the chamber. My solution is a can of compressed air - I remove the lid, then take the little chamber over to the sink and lightly air out the chaff sitting on top of the beans.

I also find that the very fast roasting cycle makes beans "too bright" in the cup. Fine in a blend with beans from other roasters, but on its own, you might find the beans are too acidic to your liking. This is a personal taste issue - your mileage may vary.

On the plus side of things, the FR is a lot quieter than the HWP. It is also substantially cheaper. It is relatively fool proof in many aspects, and the all-mechanical controls could hypothetically outlast the HWP. It's built pretty tough, is easy to clean, and well, it's cheaply priced.

As an introduction to the world of home roasting, it is not bad, but I would steer people towards popcorn poppers over this unit. Popcorn poppers can usually do a full ounce or two more of beans in a session, and the popper with lid and bowl technique do a better job of removing chaff from the beans than this unit does. Poppers are also substantially cheaper, but have a shorter lifespan when put under the stresses of roasting coffee.

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Coffee Roasting
A must have book even if you don't home roast!

Other Tools and Accessories
Even before you get into home roasting, I highly recommend Ken Davids' book on the subject, called Home Roasting Coffee. This is the bible of the home roaster, and is not to be missed. Even if you don't home roast, or intend to, it's a great read.

In my normal roasting operations these days, the only other tools I use are a digital gram scale (I'm using the absolutely beautiful Salter 4001 digital scale, which can be seen here), a scoop, and a "blending bowl" - a deep bowl I use for sifting and blending my mixed roasts.

When I roasted with a popcorn popper, I used a few more tools. These included two metal mesh colanders (for air-cooling the beans), a wooden spoon (for agitating the roast in the popper's early stages), a needle high temperature thermometer (one that measured up to 550 F; Pelouze makes them), a "chaff collection" bowl which was usually the biggest, deepest bowl in the house, and of course, the popcorn popper itself.

I almost always roasted with the popper's original lid in place. I drilled two holes in the popper. The first hole was directly through the butter dish to hang the needle therm down into the chamber. But I found this didn't put the needle in deep enough to get a good read. So later on, I drilled a hole in the side of the popper, at about a 30 degree angle, and using my eyeball measuring to make sure I didn't drill too low. This put the needle tip right in the middle of the roast, and gave me really accurate measurements.

Other Parts of the Home Roasting Coffee Section.
A Home Roasting Primer Home Roasting Progression
What's the deal about home roasting? What did the past hold? What about today? And what about the future? Find out! [ more ] Just like my espresso progression, I have one for home roasting as well, an here it is! [ more ]

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If you want to get into home roasting, you don't need much.

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All you need...
This is pretty much all you need to home roast. Click to enlarge

In fact, what you see here is probably even overkill. But this is all you need. A popcorn popper, a thermometer, a colander to cool the beans down, and the green beans themselves. It's easy!