What you notice first is how quiet it is. At 400 plus pounds of iron and brass, chrome and enameled steel, it’s quieter in operation than any of the tiny air-roasters I own.
I’m at Riley’s Coffee in Fairview Heights, Il, in the company of Barry Jarrett, the shop’s owner, roaster and torch-bearer of good beans. To the good folk of Fairview, Riley’s is a coffee shop in a busy corner of St. Clair Square — a convenient stop between Dillard’s and J.C. Penney’s department stores. To the single-minded folk of alt.coffee I am at Mecca — maybe not a singular center of compulsive pilgrimage — but certainly a focal point of devotion… Barry’s coffee is just that good.
And here I am, my hands on the controls of Barry’s Diedrich IL-7 coffee roaster. It’s a one-off… an early production model, maybe even pre-production. Call Diedrich and they’ll tell you there’s no such thing. It’s a gas-fueled, infrared-powered seven kilo roaster with its control group mounted on the left-hand side. Thus, the “L”. Of course, left-hand or right-hand has little bearing on me… I’m in a coffee-roasting happy place.
As Barry steps through the controls of the machine, two things become clear. The first is that this is a very clever piece of engineering: a single blower performs triple duty of drum convection, chaff collection and cooling. The drum itself is open-ended — at both ends — allowing not only a front-mounted sight-glass and tryer [a little piston-like scoop that’s used to snag beans from the drum for closer inspection] but also making it possible to mount an array of gadgets on the back of the roasting drum, which is precisely what Barry has done. He’s augmented the built-in environmental temperature gauge with a digital probe that captures the temperature of the beans themselves… and records this “bean mass” temperature at 10-second intervals to a portable data logger.
Now, put the clever engineering and nifty bolt-ons aside, and something else becomes clear. Beyond the engineering — maybe even in spite of it — roasting coffee in Barry’s shop is very much a hands-on affair. Measuring, loading, listening… [it’s a while to first crack] and then shifting the blower like a formula-one car, listening… [it’s not so far to second] and shifting again, working the tryer, listening, sniffing, eyeing the beans, letting them sputter and crack until NOW! and dumping the beans to the cooling bin, shifting the blower one last time while the beans hiss and crackle and smoke, twirling in the bin, mahogany-brown and gleaming.
The gadgets, it turns out, are guides, only. And ultimately they say less about how you’re doing, and more about how you’ve done, and then only when you take the time to review the roast profile… studying the plot while you’re cupping a sample from that very roast. This is cupping for performance — think of the director watching dailies, or the coach studying tapes of last Sunday’s game — tasting this batch against the one before, and the hundreds before that, searching for nuances of flavor and aroma, body and finish. This is artisan’s work.
Barry would scoff, I think, if I called him a master roaster — a term that’s been so over-used in the coffee business it’s as much a pejorative. Instead, I’ll suggest simply that Barry is a craftsman — especially skilled, and always seeking to better his craft — the almost elemental melding of fire, steel… and curious beans from faraway places.