Are electric-powered roasters the future of coffee roasting?

Janice Kanniah
August 18, 2021
electric-powered bellwether coffee roaster

Over the last few years, electric-powered roasters have shone a light on the environmental impact of roasting.

Low-emission and run entirely on electricity, they stand in stark contrast to the traditional natural-gas-powered machines that produce as much as 90% more carbon per cycle.

With calls for businesses to go carbon neutral becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, growing numbers of roasters and coffee shops have adopted electric-powered roasters. Despite the effects of Covid-19 on the hospitality sector, Bellwether Coffee, a leading company in the sector, has enjoyed some of its highest sales over the last 18 months.

However, in some corners, gas-powered machines continue to dominate, with claims they offer higher output and more precise temperature control during a roast. While sustainability remains a chief concern, many specialty roasters remain reluctant to move away from the models on which they learned their craft.

Which begs the question: are electric roasters really the future of coffee roasting? I spoke with Bellwether Coffee’s Chief Coffee Officer, Arno Holschuh, to find out more.

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Roasting with a traditional roaster accounts for around 15% of the overall carbon footprint of coffee

What are the problems with traditional roasters?

Like every stage of the coffee supply chain, roasting has an impact on the environment.

During a typical roast, smoke, odours, and pollutants, such as nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and carbon dioxide, are all released into the atmosphere.

As well as polluting the air we breathe, they contribute to an increase in the overall temperature of the earth, known as global warming. Over time, global warming could have catastrophic consequences for the planet, including rising sea levels, forest fires, and mass extinction.

While filtering systems and external afterburners may reduce the impact of roasting, they also rely on the burning of fossil fuels, the main contributor of emissions.

On average, the roasting stage accounts for around 15% of the overall carbon footprint of coffee.”

On average, the roasting stage accounts for around 15% of the overall carbon footprint of coffee, equivalent to 1.2 pounds of carbon emissions.

Arno Holschuh is Chief Coffee Officer at Bellwether Coffee, a manufacturer of electric-powered roasters based in Berkeley, California. He tells me that the carbon-intensive nature of traditional roasters is hampering the coffee industry’s ability to reduce its environmental impact.

“As the coffee sector looks for ways to meet its sustainability goals, roasters are recognising that fossil fuelled machines aren’t sustainable in the long term,” he says.

However, it’s not just about sustainability. Significant start-up costs and red tape involved with traditional roasters have kept many from entering the market, making it a relatively exclusive profession.

“Fossil-fuelled roasters require construction, gas lines, venting, fire suppression, and expensive and onerous permits,” Arno explains. “Plus, there’s the constant labour required over its lifetime. These are barriers to entry that many can’t overcome.”

There are a number of differences between electric-powered roasters (left) and gas-powered roasters (right)

How do electric-powered roasters differ?

New regulations and growing consumer pressure for more sustainable practices have caused a sharp rise in the number of electric-powered roasters in recent years. 

For many coffee businesses, they’re now considered an essential part of becoming carbon neutral and working towards a more sustainable future.

One of the main differences compared to traditional roasters is the way in which the drum is heated during a roast. As well as using an electric heating element, roasters like the Bellwether clean and reuse the air to provide consistent temperatures throughout the roast cycle.

This is opposed to a traditional single-pass system, which intakes fresh air from outside, flash-heats it to roast the coffee, then releases it as exhaust through ventilation stacks.

“In 2020, Bellwether roasters reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 896,096 pounds.”

Arno tells me that, over many roast cycles, this produces a considerably higher carbon footprint than electric-powered models.

“In 2020, Bellwether roasters reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 896,096 pounds,” he says. “That’s equal to keeping a car off the road for 985,706 miles, turning off the electricity in 90 homes for a year, or keeping 179 tons of waste from landfills.”

There’s also an argument to suggest electric-powered roasters are easier to use than traditional roasters, even for those who have never encountered one before. 

Part of the reason for this comes down to the difference in software, with the Bellwether allowing roasters to draw their own roast curves rather than following and adjusting one.

“It’s intuitive enough that employees who haven’t been trained can roast coffee with ease,” Arlo tells me. “This means a head roaster can design a roast profile and employees can execute it on any Bellwether anywhere in the world as intended. 

“The labour associated with roasting will only take a few minutes, so employees can roast as side work while completing other tasks, which frees up their time to work on other parts of the business.”

In addition, Arlo explains that the Bellwether’s software allows roasters to create their desired roast profile ahead of time, programming precise controls for charge temperature, rate of rise, end temperature, and roast time.

“The unprecedented thermal stability inside the drum combined with automated roasting means that every roast is executed to your specifications every time, without the need to labour over each roast to get it right,” he says.

Electric-powered roasters like the Bellwether have the potential to make roasting more accessible

But are they the future?

The Bellwether runs on electricity and recycles the air instead of emitting it, producing significantly low emissions. It has the lowest carbon footprint of any commercial roaster and is also the only one that can operate solely on renewable energy.

For specialty roasters who want to stay relevant in today’s highly competitive market, these credentials could be invaluable.

A recent survey of UK consumers revealed that over a third of shoppers have stopped buying from drink brands without eco-credentials. Over 60% feel that a drinks brand’s sustainability credentials are important with a third planning on buying more eco-friendly drink brands in future.

It also has the potential to make coffee roasting more accessible to those who typically can’t afford it. 

“While some people will still choose traditional roasters, we’ve seen that the accessibility and low barrier to roasting the Bellwether provides has allowed people to become roasters who otherwise wouldn’t have had the time or resources,” Arno explains.

While the Bellwether produces emissions and is more affordable than other roasters, it would not have a future if it wasn’t able to perform to the satisfaction of those using it. 

Arno tells me that, over time, it’s been able to win over those unsure of whether its performance can match up that of a traditional roaster.

“The first thing roasters wanted to know was whether the Bellwether could roast coffee as well as a conventional roaster,” he says. “The response to that question has been a resounding yes. We’ve converted skeptical roasters who weren’t sure you could achieve the same results if you didn’t manage the roast in real time. 

“They’re now reporting that the ability to program their ideal roast curves and let the machine do the executing has enhanced their ability to deliver consistent, repeatable roasts without detracting from it.”

For specialty roasters to become truly sustainable, they must also switch to recyclable or compostable coffee bags

As concerns over the environmental impact of the coffee supply chain grow, electric-powered roasters are becoming increasingly popular. 

Thanks to their low emissions, ease of use, and rising quality, more and more businesses are turning to them as a viable alternative to traditional roasters.

However, for specialty roasters, sustainability isn’t limited to the roasting stage. Providing sustainable coffee bags is a crucial part of reducing their carbon footprint and giving customers an environmentally friendly product.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer 100% recyclable and compostable coffee bags for specialty roasters and coffee shops. All our packaging can be customised with additional components, including recyclable degassing valves and resealable zippers. 

For information about our sustainable coffee bags, contact our team.

Photo credits: Bellwether Coffee

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Janice Kanniah
Janice Kanniah

Janice is freelance writer based in South Africa and has written for MTPak Coffee since 2020. Her interests are in writing about sustainability, the circular economy, and the future of the environment.

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