How the Ikawa Coffee Roaster Changed Barista Competitions

IkawaDu Jianing of Nanjing, China won the World Brewers Cup Championship in Boston at SCA Expo 2019. Du’s winning routine was remarkable in many ways. The Chinese champion utilized different pouring speeds at different points of the brewing process to highlight certain flavor attributes, and used a tablet linked to her scales to allow the judges to check her technique in real time. Perhaps what was most remarkable, though, was how Du choose to roast her coffee.

The coffee had been roasted in an Ikawa coffee roaster in small batches, 4 days prior to the competition. The Ikawa, which fits in a carry-on sized suitcase, is a bluetooth-enabled coffee roaster that’s controlled with a smartphone app, allowing the user to plot the coffee’s exact profile.

When we first encountered the Ikawa roaster at SCA Expo in Atlanta in 2016, we knew it could disrupt the way that coffee is sample roasted. Traditional barrel sample roasters are notoriously hard to control, and Ikawa’s app allowed for roasters to do their sample roasting on autopilot, many bragging they now did their sample roasting while answering emails.

What we didn’t anticipate is how the Ikawa roaster has changed the landscape of barista competitions. We’ve seen brewers and barista champions from around the globe embrace the Ikawa, which I think can be boiled down to three main reasons.

Small Batches

Competition coffees are notoriously expensive. In many ways, barista competitions are one of the main driving forces behind ultra-high end, experimental micro-lots. But for barista competitors with a limited budget, the costs associated with procuring a 90+ point lot can be cost prohibitive. The ultra small batches of the Ikawa roaster (typically 50-60 grams) allows the barista to minimize costs and waste.

Roasting in small batches also allows the barista to determine what amount of degassing is best, and then only practice with that roast. For example, when I was competing the smallest batch we could consistently roast on our traditional drum roaster was around 10 pounds. Each batch of coffee would last me 1-2 weeks of rehearsals. But the coffee would taste and behave noticeably differ on day 14 than it did on day 5. Ideally, a barista will replicate the conditions of the competition as closely as possible.

Repeatability

With traditional drum roasters, it’s very hard to roaster coffee the same way twice. Even with data logging software like Cropster of Artisan, roasting coffee is a bit like cooking a perfect medium-rare steak, it’s elusive and always subtlety different. Environmental factors like ambient air temperature and humidity will still have an affect, but roasting with the Ikawa is remarkably consistent considering the machine is about the same size as a popcorn popper.

Access

Perhaps the biggest game changer is the access to roast profiling the Ikawa provides. In most coffee companies, there is a big disconnect between the barista and roaster. In fact, many coffee professionals with years of experience have never actually roasted coffee.

Industrial coffee roasters cost tens of thousands of dollars and are complicated to install (think fork lifts, new gas lines, custom ventilation). Many cities have complicated environmental regulations and mandatory permits that make opening a roastery an enormous obstacle far beyond the reach of most baristas.

The Ikawa isn’t cheap— but it’s a price point that’s conceivable, and perhaps more importantly, it’s plug and play. No gasoline or ventilation system required.

The Future of Flavor

The unexpected application of the Ikawa coffee roaster to barista competitions shows the amazing possibilities of what can happen when you give baristas more access and control. In my book, that can only be a good thing.

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