Sustainable coffee roasting: Is electric the answer?

Yker Valerio
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March 22, 2024
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In recent years, it’s become increasingly important for coffee roasters to focus on sustainability. This focus should extend to sourcing traceable and ethical coffee and considering the environmental impact of roasting it. 

Much of the industry’s focus tends to be on sustainable coffee production and distribution. That said, it’s important to consider other aspects of the supply chain, including roasting. In line with this, more specialty coffee roasters are working to reduce emissions and costs by investing in more efficient and sustainable machines. 

I spoke to Ioana Iliuta from ECOCAFÉ, Switzerland, to learn more about the brands coffee roasting practices.

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Sustainable coffee roasting: A whole bean perspective

Several environmental concerns surround coffee roasting. Along with the carbon emissions and other hazardous gasses released as a byproduct of the fuel combustion in the roaster, coffee roasting also generates smoke and other harmful particulates. These emissions can be dangerous for those operating or working near the roaster, as well as contributing to greenhouse gas pollution.

A systemic approach that considers all factors and stakeholders is necessary to create a more sustainable global coffee business. Ioana is the roasting manager at ECOCAFÉ SA and believes that “sustainable roasting always starts with the bean—the green coffee. It’s about where it comes from, how it’s processed, and the attention paid to the crops, flora, and fauna, and not least to the people who work there.”

Recent statistics show that the number of eco-conscious consumers is increasing. Understanding consumers’ attitudes toward sustainability and how to influence change is important all along the specialty coffee supply chain. Sustainable coffee roasting is a fundamental component of the entire value chain and aims to reduce emissions, energy consumption, and waste as much as possible.

“The challenge is to continue to buy quality coffee and to improve the know-how,” Ioana explains. She adds that tools like the 100% electric coffee roaster from IMF have helped the brand realise how much equipment can assist the team. “It helps in the process of sublimating the aromas and the initial efforts made by the producers. A high-performance tool enables us to adapt to the specific needs of the market: consume less but more qualitatively.” 

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The role of technology in sustainable coffee roasting

An electric roaster with advanced control and visibility over temperature is a significant advantage for any coffee roasting business. Conventional roasters waste a lot of energy because they quickly discard hot air and smoke. However, more advanced technology enables a heat recirculation process, such as the patented Vortex system from roaster manufacturer IMF.

Heat recirculation systems help to reduce energy consumption and emissions. Additionally, they prevent energy waste by reusing hot air while removing waste such as chaff, gasses, and smoke.

“Trends in specialty coffee are frequent, and you have to keep up,” Ioana says. “These trends have led coffee roasters to tools that can measure roasting data live and, above all, intervene at any time to modify the prefix parameters. This is a real advancement, and while the probes and measurement programmes are certainly in need of improvement, they’ve helped to push roasting further.” 

“That said, I’m sticking to my starting point, which is that the basis is the bean and its processing,” she adds. 

Two avenues are worth considering regarding the environmental impact of coffee roasting businesses. The first one comes from purchasing decisions and business relationships. This includes conducting transparent and ethical trade with producers and green coffee buyers. 

Furthermore, it is crucial to take all the details related to storage and packaging seriously. Remember that 40% of single-use plastics come from product packaging, so picking compostable and recyclable packaging options is key.

The second avenue corresponds to implementing more advanced technology in coffee roasting. This includes using equipment capable of reducing energy use while mitigating air pollution and carbon emissions.

Overall, in terms of the external business context and the internal roasting operations, both avenues should lead to more efficient and sustainable businesses while offering top-quality coffee.

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Differentiation through brewing methods and positive impact

Certain roast profiles work better with specific brewing methods. Beyond this, some brewing devices and recipes better highlight the sensory attributes of specific coffee beans. Therefore, developing a brand that focuses on specific brewing methods and positive impact can be a powerful business strategy. Alternatively, it can become more than a strategy, developing into an appealing way of practicing business infused with a way of life inspired by sustainability.

This is the case of Brew Society: the newest brand from ECOCAFÉ SA. As Ioana explains, “Brew Society entered the market just over a year ago, and we’re proud of it. However, we’re also concerned about the impact that geopolitical and economic factors in our regions will have on coffee consumption. 

“We hope to continue buying and offering quality coffee, promoting diversity through the choice of coffee and extraction methods. The major challenges remain the competition, especially from the big market leaders, and to succeed in training and adapting to the challenges of this fascinating and constantly evolving world,” she says.

Creating a sustainable coffee roasting business is challenging. However, there’s no denying that the coffee industry’s focus on sustainability is going to become more and more prevalent in the years to come. As part of this, the need for coffee roasters to invest in more energy-efficient machines and eco-friendly packaging is only going to increase.

A survey of UK consumers revealed that over a third of shoppers have stopped buying from brands without eco-credentials. Over 60% feel that a brand’s sustainability credentials are important, while one-third plan to buy more eco-friendly businesses in the future.

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 coffee 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.

Discover how other coffee brands are building sustainable businesses. Read our exclusive interview with Artisan Roast Coffee Company, which is reducing organic coffee waste by upcycling used coffee grounds into marketable products. 

Images courtesy of ECOCAFÉ, Switzerland and Brew Society

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