There are few jobs in the coffee industry as romantic or mysterious as roaster. Traditionally, the tradecraft of the making-coffee darker arts has been a closely guarded secret, passed on from roaster to roaster in old fashioned apprenticeships. Other than a couple of good books, there aren’t many resources available to aspiring novice roasters. Joe Marrocco is helping to change that. The longtime Cafe Imports educator recently moved on to work with Mill City Roasters, but the year-long video project Roasting Concepts is now free to view on YouTube. We caught up with “Roaster Joe” over email in the midst of his busy travel schedule to learn the thought behind the project–and how young roasters can develop their skills.
Over the last seven months Cafe Imports has been releasing a series of videos called “Roasting Concepts.” What inspired the project?
This is a project that I worked on with Cafe Imports over several years. I know that the videos seem very simple and short, but they took a long time to conceptualize, carve out time for and put together. The idea was born out of teaching people roasting at the Cafe Imports headquarters in Minneapolis.
I would spend essentially four to five days between prep and execution, teaching 8-12 people how to roast in a two-day class. My desire was that I wanted to teach as many people as I possibly could and get the information to them in a way that was effective, easily digested, meaningful, and low cost to them. This would require something more than asking 12 people at a time to come and visit us. I simply didn’t have the time to invest in spending four to five days away from my desk on a regular basis as well. I mean, my main job there was sales.
So, I decided it would be best to spend time with people in their own homes, offices, wherever, and through the magic of technology. I then began to develop the curriculum that would achieve all of those goals and lean on Andy Reiland, the director of marketing at Cafe Imports, to add the visual aids to pull everything together. That alone was an incredible process of collaboration.
Coffee roaster is one job without very defined career paths. How did you become “Roaster Joe”?
I knew, fairly soon after becoming a barista, that roasting is where I would spend some quality years of my life. I was not satisfied, from a craft and culinary perspective, only knowing extraction. I wanted to control more than that in the process, or at least understand that control.
I was offered a job at Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Company in Saint Louis as a roaster, and I loved it. Well, kind of. I loved the art and science of it. I did not love the monotony of roasting day in and day out. I would kind of deal with that part of the job as a payment forward to get me to those opportunities to dig into and unlock a profile on a new coffee or sample roast a bunch of new arrivals, or better yet, teach a group that was coming through about the roasting process. Teaching is where I thrive. Kaldi’s was quick to recognize this and made me an educator with perks of being able to roast as I wished after only about a year and a half beside the machines.
Upon leaving Kaldi’s in 2011, I jumped into Cafe Imports with an exploratory hunger. I mean, they have HUNDREDS of different coffees. So, I began roasting these coffees and trying to figure out how to best highlight them. I began, and very controversially at the time, posting my profiles and taste notes on their website. Although I had already been “roasterjoe” for a while, this is where people outside of my normal circles began to care a bit more about my style and ramblings. Cafe Imports also supported me and encouraged me in this area and allowed me to do a lot more work with the (then called) Roasters Guild.
Beyond this, I think that one key thing that helped me the most in my journey was, once I was at Cafe Imports I was able to spend quality time with a huge number of roasters on their equipment with coffee that I knew and simply roast a bunch of different styles on all of these machines. The cross-referencing that your mind does through taste and smell is incredibly powerful. I was able to see how roasters were implementing different strategies to achieve the results they wanted. I saw how a roaster on one machine would have a strategy that opposed a roaster’s on another machine, but their results were the same, or vice versa. I began to connect a lot more dots and learn about the deeper science of roasting in general and not the exact craft of roasting on one particular machine. This was revolutionary and has been something that I have made my mind up to continually share with as many roasters as I can, open source or as free as possible.
You’ve worked with a wide variety of different coffee roasters throughout your career. What is it about Mill City that made you willing to throw in with this company?
I have been doing collaborative work with Mill City really since they started about five years ago. The belief that roasting coffee should not be an exclusive job, more people can and should be doing it and doing it well, information on how to cook green coffee should not be a huge secret as it is actually fairly simple to do it fairly well, and the ability that their equipment has at empowering entrepreneurs who are otherwise kind of on the fringes of society are all things we agree on, full force. I have aligned goals with Mill City’s goals. I want to help people who are brave enough to venture out into business on their own become successful. The idea of putting my full-time devotion toward these ends was impossible to say no to.
Along with this, the machines are LEGIT. As a roaster nerd, I have this personal list of things like, “I wish this machine didn’t simply have a damper but that I could control the airflow by using a dial to control the fan speed,” along with so many more. Over the years, Steve Green and Nick Green of Mill City Roasters have heard all of these wishes from us roasters and have worked tirelessly at implementing the controls and information read-outs that matter to roasters and actually matter to coffee. Sure, they have vetted these and thrown out ideas that don’t truly matter. This makes things even better! The machines are incredibly interactive, intuitive, repeatable, and honestly, FUN to roast on. We have people come through all of the time who have roasted on other equipment and feel sad leaving at the end of the day because the machines are just so fun. Helping my roaster friends have fun in their day to day job, which for me began to get so boring, is worth taking on this new job all by itself.
Do you still get to roast coffee with your new role? If so, what coffee have you been enjoying roasting recently?
HA! Yes. Indeed I do. I have been spending a lot of time getting into some of the other systems within the company, so I have not gotten to devote a lot of time to this yet, but I have full access to our green coffee and roasting equipment at any and all times. Most of the time I spend roasting is spent with other people either during a class, or a demo, or simply talking shop. I was recently able to take a trip through Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and teach four two day courses. I was able to roast on a lot of interesting equipment on this trip and it just continued to drive home how special our machines are.
I have been enjoying a natural Ethiopia that we picked up from Cafe Imports. But, if I am honest, I find the most joy in whatever is in the drum at the time I am roasting it. I know that sounds cheesy and made up, but it is absolutely true.
What advice would you give to an aspiring roaster? (Besides watching “Roasting Concepts”!)
Every roaster is different in their own goals and aspirations. Being successful in roasting is not about producing the perfect roast, the perfect coffee, the ultimate machine. If you chase that myth, you will only find disappointment and form firm ideals around how one “should” roast coffee. Being successful in roasting is about you. This is why it is very hard for me to define. It is about fulfillment, contentment, respect, equity in something, and so many other things. I know that for myself, it is that sense that I am making the world a better place, I am supporting my family, I am helping people around the world support their families, I am creating something of beauty that matters, and I am heard as a professional. In roasting, there are a lot of roadblocks to many people in achieving these goals. For those folks who cannot achieve this through the traditional methods of simply getting a job at a great company as a roaster, I recommend working toward creating your own thing. Carve out your success, and work toward including others in that space who have experienced your same struggle.
Ok, that may be a bit more philosophical than you were hoping for. Here are some practical things as well.
- Roast a bunch and fail a bunch. Burn a bunch of coffee.
- Taste everything you roast.
- Taste other people’s roasts.
- Try to get on a number of different machines.
- Try a bunch of different strategies.
- Stop freaking out about dark roasts, and realize that a roast level is not a moral issue.
- Don’t believe everything you hear just because a powerful voice says it.
- Don’t disregard everything you hear, because there is likely a nugget of truth in just about everything, or that individual would not believe it.
- Try to find something beyond yourself to work for in your pursuit for success, in order to make your success actually valuable and not simply ego.
- Collaborate with people who you strongly disagree with.
- Stop being as worried about long-term success and try to focus in on the short-term successes every day. If you do the small things well, they snowball to big things.
- Focus your attention on—in other words, be mindful and intentional—when eating. Every taste experience you have is a learning opportunity.
- Try to sleep well, eat well, move often, drink moderately, and stay healthy. Nothing is more important to your success than your health.
- Remember, the best roasters on earth are likely the people who you will never see on video or in a magazine. The best of us are too busy ROASTING for all of that.