Everything you need to know about being a head roaster

Matteo Pavoni
June 30, 2021
head roaster

There are many reasons someone might decide to become a roaster: a love of coffee, an interest in the science of roasting, the challenge of sourcing green coffees and determining roast profiles, a passion for quality control and cupping protocols – the list goes on.

As a head roaster, your responsibilities cover all of these areas and more. In fact, while roasting may have been your route into coffee, as a head roaster, you’ll also need to possess leadership, management, and organisational skills, as well as an in-depth knowledge of the market, suppliers, and other roasteries.

To find out more about becoming a head roaster and everything it entails, I spoke with Cafes Belleville’s experienced head roaster, Mihaela Iordache.

Read next: How specialty coffee roasters have adapted to Covid-19

coffee cup tasting
Head roasters must have a range of skills, from roasting to leadership

What are the responsibilities of a head roaster?

The head roaster is one of the most important figures in a roastery. Often working in collaboration with the “head of coffee”, they are usually responsible for everything from sourcing green coffee and speaking to importers, to directing roast profiles and organising product menus.

Although they will undoubtedly have a finely tuned taste for coffee and experience operating a roaster, head roasters will also need to show a range of other skills, including good organisation and strong leadership. Working with people in close quarters, as well as regular meetings with suppliers, coffee shop owners, and retailers means good people skills are also highly valued.

Mihaela Iordache is head roaster at Cafes Belleville in France. She’s worked in the coffee industry for more than half a decade, during which time she’s created six specialty blends that have been offered a “Fabriqué à Paris” label by the city of Paris. 

She tells me that a large part of the job involves overseeing other staff members to ensure consistency and high quality.

“First of all, I need to make sure my team has the means to complete every order we receive in the most efficient way possible,” she says. “That’s why I also need to make sure we have everything in stock, from green coffee to packaging.

“In roasting, you need to develop an understanding of your senses.”

“Then there is the roasting and quality control, which for me are the easiest and most fun parts. This involves making sure whoever is operating the roaster is following the company standards.”

In larger roasteries, areas such as quality control are sometimes overseen by another employee, usually with the role of “head of QC”. However, a basic understanding of the process is still important for head roasters.

Mihaela explains that as well as quality control, it’s crucial for head roasters to have a refined sense of taste when it comes to different coffees. 

“In roasting, you need to develop an understanding of your senses, and correlate what you’re tasting with the changes you made during the roast, something that takes considerable time and practice.”

Outside of the usual day-to-day responsibilities, a head roaster may also be expected to further their knowledge through training, trade shows, and networking events. 

head roaster
Mihaela Iordache (above) started as an assistant producer at Cafes Belleville in Paris

Routes to becoming a head roaster

While the most obvious way of becoming a head roaster is by starting out as a roaster, this isn’t always the case. Many roasteries demand at least two years of roasting experience, but some people work their way up through various roles within the company before being hired as head roaster.

Mihaela tells me that her route to becoming head roaster at Cafes Belleville was internal. “My experience is kind of different because I didn’t get into coffee to become a head roaster, it just kind of happened naturally,” she says. 

“I hadn’t taken any roasting courses. With Belleville, I started out as assistant producer and asked my boss to help me learn more and more about roasting. I then started gradually roasting myself and, one year later, I took the role of head roaster.”

Gaining experience of roasting by working closely with people willing to share their knowledge is a well trodden path. However, some head roaster positions require specific qualifications, such as SCA Professional certifications.

However, Mihaela maintains that the best option is to gain as much first-hand experience as possible before applying to become a head roaster.

“Find a way to actually get a job inside a roastery,” she says. “This is because I believe as soon as you have experience as, say, an assistant roaster and you become good at it, you will definitely put yourself in a good position to move up to head roaster further down the line.”

It’s also important to do as much reading around the subject as you can. There are always new things to learn, whether it’s cupping techniques, stock management, roasting software, or water quality testing.

head roaster
While courses can help you learn the art of roasting, nothing beats experience

Are roaster courses & origin trips worth doing?

In recent years, coffee roasting courses and origin trips have become increasingly popular among aspiring roasters. Although often expensive, they are both thought to offer extensive insight into the industry and a unique opportunity to further one’s coffee knowledge.

Mihaela explains that while courses and origin trips are not imperative to becoming a head roaster, anything that might improve your skill set and expertise is worth considering.

“Courses can definitely help,” she tells me. “I don’t think there are any particular courses that are essential, but anything that can add knowledge will ultimately be helpful as long as it is not at the expense of practice.

“Roasting coffee is so much of a craft that you mostly learn by assisting someone else more experienced doing it.”

“There tends to be an air of romanticism around visiting coffee farms…”

Some of the most important skills involved in being a head roaster, such as sensory skills, can undoubtedly benefit from courses. For example, the SCA Professional certification in sensory skills together with lots of practice can go a long way to making you a better roaster. Courses can also provide the confidence needed to give other staff direction.

Origin trips are slightly different. There tends to be an air of romanticism around visiting coffee farms, with little evidence that it adds value to your skills as a head roaster. 

However, some argue that it deepens an understanding of all aspects of the supply chain and helps create connections between roasteries and farmers.

“Where I think there could be value is when people visit coffee farms during harvest,” Mihaela says. “Then you can help the people hosting you as well as understand what changes in producing coffee techniques bring changes to your green coffee.”

Finding the best coffee packaging available is one of the head roaster’s responsibilities

As a head roaster, one of your responsibilities is to find packaging that will not only protect and preserve the coffee, but also help it stand out on the shelf and reflect brand identity. At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable packaging options for coffee, including stand up pouches, side gusset pouches, and flat bottom pouches.

All our options are available in recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable materials, from kraft paper to LDPE, while degassing valves and resealable zippers are also sustainable.

For information on our coffee packaging, contact our team.

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