"Hot, You're Not": A Look Inside This Year's Roasters Guild Retreat Competition Through the Eyes of a Roaster

This year’s Roasters Guild Retreat returned to the Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Washington. Located in a secluded area of the beautiful Columbia River Gorge, it is the perfect place to immerse yourself and get lost in the world of coffee. Due in part to this annual event and events like it, the coffee industry has created a platform for ideas to be formulated and discussed and shared. Attendees can promote the point of view of the company they represent and show off their skills by participating in friendly competitions.

Every year the organizers of the event create a contest that pits teams of coffee professionals and enthusiasts from different facets of the industry against each other. This year the competition was cold, literally! “Hot, You’re Not” it was called. Teams were tasked with roasting a blend or single origin from five provided coffees, then preparing one quart of cold brewed coffee using one of three designated methods. With ten people per team, came ten different points of view, making coming to a consensus challenging at times. However, team dynamics is an important part of the challenge and the fun!

Most teams worked together throughout all phases of the competition. My team took a different approach. We divided the coffees evenly among team members which allowed us to develop our own roast profiles individually or in small groups. This gave everyone the freedom to roast what they wanted, how they wanted. After initial evaluation of the competition coffees from roasts that were done a few days prior to arriving, I decided to roast the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, Guatemala Panajachel Microlot and Sumatra Lintong Tano Batak. The other two coffees provided were Bolivia Caranavi Organic and Burundi Rutana, but I preferred the other three bearing the cold brew application in mind.

Next was choosing a roasting machine of which there were many to choose from. At Equator I roast on a half bag San Franciscan every day, which is why I chose to do my competition roasts on a 2kg version of the machine. Because there was a limited amount of coffee I had to load 1lb batches which proved to be challenging. Luckily, I was able to do a couple of test batches with a Mexican coffee that was provided for this purpose, and I’m so glad I did. Let’s just say that the roasts wouldn’t have cupped particularly well!

Feeling comfortable after a couple practice roasts, I began loading the competition coffees. The Ethiopia Yirgacheffe was first up. Knowing it was a dense, high grown coffee I used a fairly high charge temperature and was conservative with the heat at the front end of the roast so as to not blow through it. The goal was to keep the delicate floral notes intact. I went for a slightly shorter roast development time and lighter roast degree than I would with the other two coffees.

I envisioned using the Guatemala coffee as the base of the blend. Like the Ethiopia, it was also a high grown, dense coffee so I used a similar roast profile, but the development time was lengthened giving it a darker roast degree. This highlighted the bitter-sweet chocolate notes and syrupy body I was looking for as the foundation of the blend. I would take a different approach when roasting the Sumatra

For me, the Sumatra coffee was the stand out of the bunch. Many people have adverse opinions regarding Sumatran coffees, especially when compared to more nuanced Ethiopia Yirgacheffe and Guatemala coffees. However, this Sumatra was delicious! It had sweet citrus notes reminiscent of grapefruit while retaining classic earth and aromatic wood tones. Unlike the other two coffees the Sumatra was lower grown and not as dense so I used a lower charge temperature and was a bit more aggressive with the heat at the front end of the roast to keep it moving. The aim was for the roast degree and development time to fall between that of the Ethiopia and Guatemala roasts. The idea was to use the Sumatra to add some body and balance out the blend.

After all the coffee was roasted and rested for twenty-four hours, we began the cupping marathon! In order to avoid being bias towards their own roasts we conducted a blind tasting. Unfortunately, I was the only team member who wanted to include the Sumatra in our blend. Damn you democracy! After revealing who was responsible for what roasts, I learned that my roast of the Guatemala was one of two chosen to blend together to yield enough coffee for the blend. However, it was agreed that although good, my roast of the Ethiopia was a bit light for cold brewing. The consensus was to use the Ethiopia and Guatemala and we began playing around with ratios. We tried 50/50, 60/40 and 75/25 Guatemala to Ethiopia both hot and cold and it was agreed that the 50/50 blend was the only combination that didn’t overpower the Ethiopia.

Then it was time to brew. The Toddy cold brew method was chosen because of familiarity. Due to my inexperience with cold brewing in general I had to heavily lean on my teammates during this phase of the competition. We let the coffee brew overnight using standard Toddy brewing procedures. We tasted it the next morning and it came out good, but not great. The floral notes of the Ethiopia subdued and it lacked a bit of body. We did not win the competition, but that’s not what the Roasters Guild Retreat nor the competition are about.

This competition forced ten strangers with different points of view to come together and compromise. In doing so, we interacted with an experienced group of people with the same passion as our own and were able to both learn and teach in a collaborative setting. The Roasters Guild brought together roasters, importers, producers, baristas and just plain old coffee lovers creating a fellowship among the coffee community that motivates and stimulates. They promote coffee knowledge, invoke excitement and ensure the industry’s prosperous progression. For those who have never attended these events, whether you are a coffee professional or just enjoy great coffee, you need to go!