Welcome to Flavor Country: the Rob Hoos Interview

If you roast coffee, Rob Hoos likely needs no introduction. His book, Modulating the Flavor Profile of Coffee, and articles in Roast Magazine have been a lodestar for many aspiring roasters. We caught up with the Portland-based roasting guru to find out what roasters are overrated, what mistakes most roasters are making, and what’s in his cup. 

When I think about books about coffee roasting, yours is one of 2-3 that come to mind. What inspired you to write the book?

First of all, you’re kind to think of me in that way. To be fair, it seems like there are only 2-3 books out there! I was mostly inspired to write the book because of the lack of readily available information out there about coffee roasting. I come from a barista background, and seeing how much there was (even early on) related to brewing, extraction, and just really every element of being a barista was set in harsh contrast to the relative silence between roasters. When I originally started working on the experiments that became the basis for the book in 2011 (ish) my goal was to bring much of the openness and collaborative spirit that I had loved and appreciated from the barista side over to the roasting. This paired with the realization that part of what I wanted the roasting community to be sharing (profiling for flavor) wasn’t being shared because it was novel information. The reason for calling it a manifesto is because I didn’t want to be claiming to be the end-all-be-all of roasting, but to establish my observations and the changes I’ve seen in flavor due to roast profile changes.

As a barista, I quickly learned there was little I good do to compensate for poorly roasted coffee. Do you think the role of coffee roaster is undervalued?

I’d definitely answer this with a yes and a no. In many ways, the position of roaster is granted this almost romanticized mystique. Many of the realities of being a production roaster are anything but romantic. The goal is basically to roast a particular coffee the same way every time, and when you have 6-8 batches of Italian roast in the queue for the day, it doesn’t feel all that artistic or romantic– not to say it doesn’t require a particular skill set because it definitely does. That being said, the potential qualities present in a green coffee (intrinsic from the cultivar/farming/harvesting/processing) are teased out by the roaster. While brewing makes a huge difference in the expression of that quality, it cannot change an unpleasant coffee into a pleasant one. There is only so much you can overcome from the earlier processing / value add steps in coffee, and roasting is one of those steps.

Generally speaking, what roasting errors do you encounter most often?

Easily under-development. People often are having their development times just a touch too quick in the race to be the lightest and brightest on the block!

Between your work at Nossa Familia, Loring, consulting, and teaching, you’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. How to you balance all of those jobs and your personal life?

I’m still trying to figure out the balance, but I am lucky to have a family that is patient with me as I figure things out better and better each year. My wife and kids make it very desirable for me to be home with them and less desirable for me to be out, traveling around. When I first started I was traveling 2-3 times per month, and that was just too much. People often glamorize the whole travel side of coffee, but traveling for work is definitely different. I can’t say that I’ve seen much of many of the places I have been. Frequently the sights I am enjoying are the hotel, a coffee roastery / warehouse, and some cafes. The most exposure I get to a new city or country is essentially eating dinner. This year I have made the commitment to travel 1 time per month maximum. I hope to bring that down to less and less frequently as I have a better and better space to invite people to in Portland. I am working on striking a good balance, but don’t really have any answers.

“Coffee roaster” isn’t exactly a job with a clear career path. What advice do you have for aspiring roasters?

That’s a great question. I think that the best thing that you can do is to find something to contribute to the conversation or to the industry and to be proactive / self-starting. The only person who can advocate for you is you. Show initiative, spend time learning everything you can about coffee, be engaged in the community to the extent that you can. Know that a good roaster has a broad perspective (green/processing/brewing/extraction/customer-service/etc.) and filters their job through that lens. Don’t be a jerk, collaborate with people inside and outside of your company, and find a unique voice within our industry (perspective on flavor, farm relations, workplace organization, etc) — then rock it.

Every roaster manufacturer seems to have their fans and detractors. Do you think the industry is too brand obsessed?

Haha… oh yeah. There are a few people at fault for this one. First, sometimes manufacturers say things that are either blatantly not true, or partially not true because they are looking for a sale, and for too long people in our industry haven’t called them out on their bullshit. I appreciate the manufacturers who speak to their positives without framing it in a way of speaking ill of their competitors. If you have to speak negatively about a competitor, or frame it so that you are backhandedly speaking ill of someone else then you obviously don’t have enough positive things to say about your machine.

Every roasting machine can create good tasting coffee. In some respects a roaster is like a hammer driving a nail. It is a tool that we use to accomplish the goal of roasting coffee. I’ve made great coffee on the most simple machine, and I have accidentally messed up roasts on the nicest machines. It all comes down to the operator learning their coffee and their equipment. That being said, some have better build quality, customer service, environmental efficiencies, etc. Get to know which roaster you like, make sure that the manufacturer takes good care of its people and has a great reputation for customer service, and go from there. That being said, flavor profiles can be matched across machines without people being able to notice the difference (more coming on that later).

What coffee have you been drinking lately (for fun!)?

Wait, people drink coffee for fun?!?

Just kidding. I often find myself drinking mostly coffee from Nossa just for the purposes of QA/QC and because it is the most readily available. That being said, I’ve been drinking beautiful coffees from all over the USA/world. Sometimes people send me coffees to drink and I find them exceptional too. So it just depends. Right now I’ve been dialing in Kenya, Guatemalan Geshas, and a few others.

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