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the first look - alpenrost first look
Swissmar Alpenrost First Look
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: October 25, 2002
First Look rating: 8.6
feedback: (3) comments | read | write
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Box Front - Click to enlarge.
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Box Back - Click to enlarge

Swissmar has to have one of the most information-packed boxes I've seen in the small speciality coffee appliance business. It makes people want to stop and look, and read. In fact, I took the box complete to a local cafe and roastery to show to someone, and almost every customer in the place wanted to stop and check it out. Some even went up to the counter to see if it was for sale!

The Alp is packed with end pieces of form Styrofoam, with the middle portion of the machine exposed, but away from the packaging walls. It comes complete with a manual and late addition sheet, and all the parts needed to operate the machine, though a measuring scoop is missing (a 1/2 pound measuring scoop would be big).

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One thing that you notice when you unpack the machine is that the control panel is a lot more simple than you might initially think from seeing images. It basically has four push buttons, up and down, start and cool, to change the roasting length or to force a cooling cycle. All other elements on the panel are graphics, except for a LCD readout showing the current roast setting, and a red LED showing the machine's operating status.

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All the parts. Click to enlarge.

The machine is fairly solid. When I first got an Alpenrost a couple of years ago, I worried about the top door possibly breaking off, but it hasn't yet. The new Alp looks almost exactly the same as the old models, featuring a light gray main body, black on the lid and venting accessory and other accents. Inside is a polished metal inner surface along with the heating coils, an aluminum chaff tray, and the bean bin on the machine's left side.

First Use

This one's a bit tricky for me - I have used an Alpenrost faithfully for 2 years now, so a "First Use" on this device is a bit deceiving, and also a bit tricky - I've learned the nuances of my old machine, and I have to forget those with the new one, and try to work as if this is my first time using it.

That said, I did a refresher for myself with the manual - remember, RTFM folks - I'm serious - Read the Freaky Manual, okay? Most machine problems in the coffee world can be traced to the simple fact that people don't read the manual. Go sit on the toilet or something and give it your near full attention!

That's what I did (the reading the manual, not the toilet part), and I was reminded of some things about the Alp that I had forgotten, including a refresher on what the settings mean.

For my first roast with the new unit, I decided to take it outside at night, with the ambient temperature of around 14C to see if the new modifications do the job. To further stress the roaster, I plugged it into an extension cord. I loaded up 227grams (8oz) of Ethiopian Sidamo, a bean type that is sometimes a bit tricky to roast (boy, am I mean to this Alp, or what?), and started the machine up.

One thing about the Alp - it is fairly noisy. The motor makes a lot of noise, the gearing and metal contact make a lot of noise, and the beans make a lot of noise. It takes a lot of practice to be able to hear the "cracks" of the beans. Eventually it will come, but I can remember when I first got an Alp how difficult it was. The lack of any kind of sight-glass further complicates using the unit.

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Alp drum, in place. Note the interior vanes used to stir the beans and dump when the drum rotation is reversed. Click to enlarge.
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The Alp's heating coils generate up to 400C of sizzling fun. Note chaff tray at bottom. Click to enlarge

I have that "practiced ear" and can distinguish the cracks, especially the difficult second crack, which sounds very much like the machine's normal noise output at times. I listened for the Sidamo to reach second crack, then hit the force cool button. I should note here that with almost every roaster I own, I never let them work "automated", as in set and forget, and let the timers or dials figure out when to end the roast. I also recommend to anyone using an Alp to do the same - stay with the machine, listen to it, and you force the cooling cycle. You're dealing with a lot of seriously hot things (a half pounds' worth), and accidents can happen.

Once the cooling cycle completed (where the heat coils are shut down, vents open, and air is drawn through the roasting chamber), the beans were dumped into the bin on the left side of the machine. The Alp achieves this through a nifty vane pattern inside the roasting that when the rotation of the drum is reversed, all the beans are directed out the side hole.

The Alp has a noted problem with cooling beans. Think about it - the machine is in "cool" mode, no heat from the coils, and air coming through the chamber, but the coils and the interior still have a lot of residual heat. The coils continue to "give off" heat even though they are shut down. The result is the beans are dumped into the bin and are still above 270F. This is bad - they are baking at that temperature.

I have a trick I've developed with my older Alp, and while it works pretty well, and it's not labour intensive. As soon as I hear the drum reverse and start dumping the beans, I tilt the machine to its left side to accelerate the beans pouring into their bin. Then I take the bin and dump the very hot beans on a large cookie sheet. The metal in the cookie sheet acts like a heatsink of sorts, leeching away much of the remaining thermal energy from the beans, and has them cooled to skin temperature within a minute or so.

Still, this is a stop gap fix. Swissmar will eventually have to address the cooling issue. Two possible solutions I see are a) ramping up the draw of the interior vent fan so it pulls a substantially greater amount of air through the roasting chamber during cooling, and b) perhaps installing some mini fans next to the bean bin, drawing air from outside the chamber into the bean bin after the beans are dumped.

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Alp with drum in place. Click to enlarge.
Alp with no drum. Note range of heating coils. Click to enlarge.
Alp with vents open (they open during cooling automatically). Click to enlarge.

The finished Sidamo roast was, unfortunately, what Sidamo is - a tough bean to roast evenly. I had a definite "salt and pepper" look to the roast - some beans a light French, some a dark cinnamon roast. This isn't really fair to the Alp, but I have to say in a Hearthware precision, this bean type comes out more even.

The Alp with it's new mods wasn't phased by the cooler temperatures or extension cord I "tortured" it with. Seems the mods work, but it is early days on this yet. I could hear the motor inside the machine vary a lot as the machine worked overtime to rebalance the internal temperatures, when compared to external ones measured with the ambient thermostat.

Cupping the roast the next day showed what I expected from the Alp, and drum roasters in general: It added more body than I got from an air roaster. I like body in my coffee, and drum roasters boost this in many cases. The Sidamo I have is washed, which tends to mute the body somewhat, but the Alp made it come through like a champ. Well balanced was the slight fruity and heady musty/grassy flavours you tend to get from this bean. Overall, the Alp did a much better job with this difficult coffee bean than either a Fresh Roast or a Hearthware Precision did.

Coil Closup

First Few Days with the Alpenrost

I plowed through a half dozen roasts with the Alp in my first three days, producing on average about 185 grams of roasted coffee. There's just something about drum roasting that I prefer over air roasted coffee for many bean types - it tends to mellow out extra bright coffees (like Guatamalan Antigua), and overall just adds more body (and mouthfeel in espresso) to most coffees. Sometimes you want that bright kick, but for me, the bulk of the coffee I roast must be balanced and kicking butt in the body department.

The Alp certainly lives up to this wants and desires. From what I could tell of the new modifications, they seem to work, but it is early days on this yet, and I ask you to wait until my detailed review for any substantial information about how the 2001 modifications affect the performance of the device.

Cooling is still an issue with the Alp. As with my older unit, I have to manually accelerate the cooling of the beans. I'm not thrilled about that, but I've also gotten used to "pulling out the cookie sheet" whenever I get the Alp out to roast with. Still, I hope one day Swissmar addresses this issue with the roaster.

In our Detailed Review, we'll stack this Alpenrost up against several roasting appliances, including a Hottop preproduction model (another + half pound drum roaster, new to market), the first generation Alpenrost with about 300 pounds put through it, and a Hearthware Precision.

Please note that this is a First Look at this product. It is meant to give you an introductory look at the products we evaluate, but is not meant to provide conclusions or detailed evaluations of the product. That's what our patented Detailed Reviews are for.

Once gain, we'd like to thank Swissmar for supplying is with a machine for a long term evaluation.

First Look rating: 8.6
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: October 25, 2002
feedback: (3) comments | read | write
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