It’s no secret that I generally disdain superautomated espresso machines (myself and Howard Schultz apparently included) and the convenience-step-forward/quality-step-backwards home pod machines. So you may get the (false) impression that, when it comes to coffee, I am an anti-technology Luddite. While I have never placed PID temperature controllers on the group of my home machine — and while I have no faith a machine will ever be able to toss out substandard shots the way Sammy Piccolo can — with coffee roasting it’s a different story.

Recently I met Matt Weisberg, general manager of Fresh Roast Systems (not to be confused with the infamous Fresh Roast home roaster, of which I am a longtime owner, from Fresh Beans, Inc.). Matt’s company consists of a number of innovative, patented retail coffee roasters — self-contained and deployable for on-site fresh roasting just about anywhere — and a handful of techie/coffee geeks who manage and evolve them. The team may know squat about operating an espresso machine, but they are religious fanatics when it comes to the freshness of roasted coffee. Matt is one of the most vocal advocates I know for making the public recognize that roasted coffee is a lot more like fresh baked bread than the bottled cola our society has long treated it as. And that’s music to my taste buds.

Last month, Matt invited me down to their East Palo Alto office/coffee roasting lab to check out some of their roasting equipment and operations. It was clear from my visit that Fresh Roast Systems — through sophisticated instrumentation that includes lasers, pressure systems, and computer controls in a device the size of a large refrigerator — were attempting to scientifically emulate the job of a roastmaster.

This is highly controversial. Matt has been stirring up controversy and trouble (two things I seem to be naturally attracted to) on the SCAA‘s Roasters Guild Web forums. Most traditional “artisan” roasters (a term Matt scoffs at) are men and women of art rather than of science. On the surface, that hardly sounds like modern day grounds for the Hatfield-McCoy feud. But to many roasters who act as the guardians of the trade, Matt’s company represents a threat that illicits a visceral reaction. They scoff at the notion that anything they do could be scientifically deconstructed through instrumentation, measurements, and controls. So they tend to be reactionary: “this stuff tastes like garbage”, “it comes out of a computerized machine instead of the hands of a traditional roastmaster — so what do you expect?” Ultimately, this debate is a modern version of John Henry folklore.

John Henry versus the Steam Wand

Which side do I fall on in this debate? I personally could care less about any pretense of science or tradition: just give me good coffee. And while I wouldn’t say that Fresh Roast’s steam drill killed off the John Henry roastmasters with a heart attack, I can say both approaches are pretty good in their own right.

Making espresso at home from the coffee I roasted with Fresh Roast’s equipment, I may have to disappoint many a roastmaster: the flavor profile for single-origin stocks of green beans measured up quite well, producing full flavors (and very good crema) for many days afterwards.

Unlike the curse afflicting superautomatic coffee machines, the variables involved with coffee roasting appear to be fewer and rather self-contained and controlled. Roasting seems to lend itself much more to a successful scientific approach rather than relying exclusively on an artisanal “black arts” explanation for how good roasts can be achieved. Take a look inside the automation of the Illy roasting plants in Trieste, and you’ll see — and taste — what science and technology can offer.

For Fresh Roast’s latest technology “trick”, last week Matt had me run a roast from my office 40 miles away using an Internet connection. Using a simple prototype made of an Internet-accessible building security camera along with GoToMyPC access to their touch screen roast controller, I was able to remotely roast (and watch) a couple pounds of F.T.O./shade grown El Salvador coffee. Slap on a computer-generated label and Fedex shipment, and you’ve got a nice webcam application that delivers custom-roasted fresh coffee without the mess or smell.

I roasted green beans online from 40 miles away