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A Chat with Warwick Mayn, our Head Roaster

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes at our roastery at 11 Vanderbilt Avenue. We chatted with Warwick, our head roaster, about the machine at the heart of our operations: our vintage Probat UG22.

What makes the Probat different from other roasters? Does it contribute anything unique to our coffees?

The Probat is heated by gas, which gives us precise control over the applied heat to any given roast. I feel we're able to produce a clean cup, rounded body, and unique sense of mouthfeel with this roaster. Think of a steak cooked on cast iron compared to a thinner frying pan.

What do you like most about the Probat? Least?

Well, much like an older-model car, it’s pretty simple to wrap your head around. The heat source is down below. Air gets pulled through the drum. The drum goes round and round. It's fairly easy to pull apart and maintain; it doesn't ask for much and will happily rumble along all day.

Also like an old car, little things can break easily. It has a tendency to make weird and wonderful noises that keep you on your toes—this is also a favorite thing of mine. It does not like cold mornings, and prefers that the room temperature be the same all day. It will also make life difficult if made to wait between batches while you wander off for a morning cortado.

How long did it take you to feel you really understood the nuances of the Probat? Is the learning curve different for a "vintage" machine?

It took a while to get to a place where I felt really confident about the decisions I was making at the start that would set me up for the whole roast. I would think the learning curve is about the same for newer versus vintage; you just have to figure out what each machine is willing to do. If you're at the point where you're dialing in new coffee profiles, you should have a pretty good idea of how your roaster and that particular coffee will behave. But that being said—and it's one of the things that I find interesting and exciting about roasting new coffee—I'm always discovering little ways to manipulate a certain part of the roast to get the best out of that new-new!

How do you "dial in" a roast? 

We do have a bit of info on hand that gives me an idea of how a new coffee will behave before I jump into roasting the first batch. Varietal, elevation, moisture content, water activity, and such. These aren't hard guidelines, but they give an idea of possible heat application/reduction, start temp, and so on. I keep data from the 100-gram sample roasts and find that this can be helpful in translating it to the Probat, despite the sample roaster being a much smaller machine. 

What's really useful, though, is that we use Cropster, which keeps all of our profiles for every coffee we've ever had. I definitely spend time going through that info and jotting down little notes. I don't grab any old profile and think it looks groovy for this new coffee and just roast it like that—that’s not how I approach it at all. I have in mind what the original cupped sample tasted like, and that kind of guides what I'm driving for. After a while you just get to know that a certain coffee ideally needs to fall into a certain range. Getting it right the first time is nice, but it doesn’t always happen, and that's why the cupping table [where our team performs quality control] is so important. I gather different opinions of the roast, positive or negative—I don't mind, as I have thick skin and it's crucial to get us heading in the right direction if there's an issue.

What’s your favorite coffee to drink right now? And to roast?

Mexico Nido de Aguila. No! Genji Chala. I had a cup over the weekend that tasted like a perfectly clean cup of tea. That said, I always like drinking Wallabout. It’s such a versatile coffee. I drink it black, as an espresso, with a bit of steamed milk—it never disappoints.

I have a love-hate relationship with Central American coffees. Sometimes they like a slightly longer and hotter roast; other times not so much. They can be very well behaved and then all of a sudden say, "Well, you turned your back so we're going to do our own thing and possibly wander off that way, but who knows." But when you get them right they’re always the most delicious. 

Thanks, Warwick!