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the first look - iroast 2 home roaster
iRoast 2 Home Coffee Roaster
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: September 9, 2006
First Look rating: 8.5
feedback: (86) comments | read | write
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Up here around CoffeeGeek central, we've had visits from gourmets, we've had looks at serious precision, and we've even looked at various home innovations. Of course, I'm talking about the Hearthware Gourmet roaster (circa 2000); the Hearthware Precision roaster (circa 2002), and the rebranded Home Innovations Precision roaster (circa 2003).

But somehow, we missed the boat on the Hearthware iRoast when it first came out. I really don't have an excuse as to why - other than perhaps I'd moved on a bit from my air roasting coffee days to drum roasting, which delivered me more of what I liked in coffee - body. Which goes to show you I wasn't giving the right amount of thought towards what the iRoast was all about.

By the time Hearthware came out with the Hearthware iRoast 2, I'd done enough research and reading about the previous model that I figured it was time to get back to air roasting; more importantly, it was time to get back to discovering what one of the longest-standing companies in the home roasting field was up to.

CoffeeGeek was going to buy an iRoast2 - I was literally about two clicks away from completing an online purchase I'd been mulling for weeks - when t an email from our old news editor. She stated that she had just received contact from a rep from Hearthware, asking if we would be interested in reviewing the latest offering.

It was surreal. ;)

So bing bam bing, three weeks later, and we have the attractive shipping box on our doorstep. So what's this roaster all about anyway? Let's talk a walk down roasting technology lane, shall we?

Profiles and Fluid Beds

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Chamber Detail
Coffee flows up the central half-tube, and flows to the outer parts of the chamber thanks to the inverted cone.

The iRoast2 is a consumer hot air fluid bed coffee roaster that has both preset and programmable roast profile abilities.

That's a mouthful, and I probably just said about three or four things that the non-home roasting coffee lover would be scratching their head over. So let's tackle each portion.

When you really get down to it, there's two main ways to roast coffee. There's something called "fluid bed" and there's something called "direct heat".

Okay - there's other methods too. Infrared. Pan fried. Stone baked. Oven fried. But I digress. Two major ways to roast coffee exist in the pro world: using a gas fired drum roaster that heats with direct application of heat to a rotating, agitating drum; or a fluid bed system where super heated air is forced through a bed of coffee. The flow is strong enough to agitate and evenly roast the beans.

Of course, this is over simplified, and to confuse matters more, there types or roasting which use different types of technologies, like the Gene Cafe air / drum hybrid roaster. But this isn't the Gene Cafe roaster First Look. This is the iRoast2 First Look and I'm doing my best to provide a primer on the types of roasting technologies.

The iRoast2 is a fluid bed, hot air roaster. It forces super heated (much hotter than boiling) air up through a bed of green coffee beans fast enough that the air flow will move the beans, constantly agitating them.

Another term I used above was "roast profile". This is where the iRoast 2 is kind of unique in the home roasting market. So what is a roast profile?

Any pro roaster knows this like the back of their hand, but most coffee lovers wouldn't know that most coffee is roasted according to a roast profile, or a temperature "recipe".

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Inside
Inside the chamber, perforations allow hot air to flow through.
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Body
The body of the roaster, showing the air flow grate (also where the heating coils are located)

Typically, coffee ends up being baked when the roasting temps are below 350F, and something called "second crack" doesn't usually happen until around 425F to 450F (depending on the bean). Many roasters wouldn't want to roast above 450F in real temperatures in the drum, and most certainly wouldn't want to roast below 350F, because technically, they aren't roasting - they are baking. Baking coffee = bad.

But between those two temperatures of 350F and 450F? Lots of interesting things start to happen. And they happen in different ways depending on how long it takes to get "up" to a specific temperature, or how long the roaster holds at that specific temperature before going higher, and how much of a "dance" the roaster decides to give his beans in terms of where ideal temperatures should be.

Is this confusing? Let me give you a typical example of a roast profile for a Kenya AA coffee.

Usually, the goal is to get up to 375F (or thereabouts) as fast as the roasting machine is capable of. So we do that, and the curve of the machine's temperature up to that time may take four minutes. Once there, a roaster may leave the temperature steady for another minute, then decide it's time to introduce something called "First Crack" (this is when the oils and liquids inside the bean start to boil and crackle inside), so he or she may raise it up to 405F to have a prolonged First Crack - maybe he or she has discovered that the bean develops better the longer First Crack lasts. Maybe he or she is striving to maintain as close a colour match between whole bean and ground coffee as they can.

So the roaster holds the 405F temperature for three or four minutes. Then it's time to take the roast to its final colour, which may be a Full City style roast (dark brown, no surface oil). The roaster may take the machine up to 450F (the machine may take as much as a minute or more to go from 405F to 450F), then hold it there and let Second Crack (this is when the surface of the bean starts to have tiny craters develop as little pieces blast themselves off) develop. He or she may roast for another minute or so, then dump the beans (the cooling process).

So the profile might be 4 minutes to get up to 375F. Then hold for 1 minute (5mins total roasting time so far). Raise the temperature to 405F, which takes a minute (6mins roasting time by this time). Hold at 405F for 4 minutes (10mins roasting time). Raise to 450F which takes one minute (11min roasting time), hold there for 1.5 minutes (12.5 mins roasting time). Then cool dem beans down, but quick. Total roasting time is 12 minutes 30 seconds, and a recipe was used: a temperature recipe. Or, as they say in the biz, a profile. Got it?

For nearly a century now, professional roasters learned how to do this, how it could make a bean better, and how to finesse it. It was usually done manually, but these days many large roasting companies have programmed profiles they put sack after sack after sack of green through.

With home roasting equipment, we only really had one profile - full on heat. Climb, climb, and climb some more. Some roasting machines for the home did have some rudimentary preprogrammed "profiles" built in, but consumers never had a roaster that would allow you, the home roasting enthusiast to do it, at least until the iRoast came along.

So there you have it - a primer on roasting technologies, and where the iRoast 2 sits in this technology tree.

Unboxing the Hearthware iRoast 2

A new feature that some first looks will have from now on is a step by step "unboxing" of the product, something that seems to be popular on many 'geek sites. Here's our look at unpacking the iRoast 2 from Hearthware.

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Opening the Box
Opening the iRoast 2 shows a lot of cardboard and a lot of plastic.
Little things
On the side of the box's interior were the locking lid, measuring scoop and a brush.
Chamber and manual
The manual is... challenging to read, to say the least. An insert explains the "2" functions. The chamber is wrapped and has stuff inside.
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Chaff filter
The chaff filter is wrapped in tissue paper (kinda weird!).
Chaff filter
Well, it's very shiny, perhaps tissue paper keeps it more safe than plastic.
Roast Chamber
Still lots of stuff inside, the product is very well packed.
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Lid off
The main lid of the roasting chamber (not to be confused with the locking lid over the chaff area) is removed.
Chimney mount!
The iRoast 2 comes with this strange looking thing - you go down to your hardware store, pick up standard flexible heating duct tubing, and attach it to the roaster. Wallah - vented smoke.
Inside the chamber
Inside the chamber shows the venting holes and the "shroud" like area that helps agitate the beans.

More features of the iRoast2

Should I cover the changes between the original iRoast and the iRoast2, or just detail the feature set of the roaster... yeah, I'll do the latter, with comments in parenthesis where things have changed over the original model.

Materials Used
The iRoast 2 features strong ABS heat resistant plastic in the outer body construction and parts (mainly the top) of the roasting chamber. The roasting chamber has heat resistant glass and in the centre is a shroud of sorts (the thing that agitates and mixes the roasting coffee) made out of steel. The base of the chamber is primarily steel.

Roasting Capacities and Limitations

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The iRoast2 is designed to roast between 130 and 150 grams of green coffee. This is double the capacity of the older Hearthware models and most hot air popcorn popper roasters. The roaster's software is designed so that it will only roast for a maximum of 15 minutes, no matter what profile you program in - done for obvious safety reasons - coffee can literally instantly combust at high temperatures, burning down kitchens and entire homes. Don't laugh - it's happened to people in the CoffeeGeek forums.

The roaster allows up to five programmed settings per profile (up from 3 on the original iRoast)

Hearthware has a big yellow sticker on the machine that says do not use more than 7 times a week or more than twice in one session or..... something dire will happen. Maybe it will blow up. Seriously though, their previous products were so over-used by some home roasters that they had a very short shelf life, and Hearthware nearly went bankrupt from dealing with all the product returns and warranty work. Hearthware puts this warning on to let people know this isn't a product you use 24/7, or for that matter a product than should be used to roast 5 pounds of coffee in one day. They also state quite clearly the limitations of their warranty.

Programming
I'm not supposed to do any editorial on this First Look, but I can't help it here - this roaster is a PITA to use. The controls are not user friendly or intuitive at all, and while they added capabilities to the "2" version of this roaster, they didn't change any of the buttons or display panel. For instance, while you can now have up to five settings in your profile, there's only three indicators on the display for which stage you're at (the original iRoast had 3 stages). The manual is confusing, to say the least. I actually had to go online, doing a lot of research on various sites (including our own forums) to completely figure out how to program this roaster.

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Control Panel
Not the best in usability design, but you'll eventually figure it out.
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Roasting Chamber
Showing the patented design for agitating the beans

But this baby can be programmed, and as an improvement from the original iRoast, it will save up to ten preset profiles you create, as well as use the two default profiles built in. Also, it remembers the profiles even if the roaster is unplugged.

The default profiles are as follows:

Preset 1: Stage 1: 450F for 10 min.
Preset 2: Stage 1: 455F for 6:00min; Stage 2: 400F for 4:00; Stage 3: 435F for 1:30 (total roasting time of 11:30)

Roasting Chamber
The iRoast2 has a very unique (and patented) roasting chamber that features a central "tube" for coffee to flow up with the airflow, and spill out into the outer part of the chamber, where it will eventually move back to the centre and start its ride all over again. Very efficient design.

The chaff collector (chaff is a silverskin that comes off the bean as it roasts - very light and it flies everywhere) is also well designed, and improved over the original iRoast.

The roaster will not operate unless the roasting chamber is entirely secured to the machine.

Cool Down
The beans are cooled down inside the roast chamber once the roasting session is over. Initial tests show that the beans get down to about 130F after the programmed 4 minute cooling cycle is done.

Other changes between iRoast and iRoast2
As indicated, things like the programmable profiles (10), the chaff collector (improved), and the amount of stages you can program (up to 5 from 3) are all improvements. Here are some additional improvements.

  • Preset profiles changed
  • Chaff collector lid has a tighter fit, less vibration
  • Settings saved even if the roaster is unplugged
  • Improvements to the thermoreflector inside the roasting chamber to make it more durable.
  • Better fit and finish.

Conclusion.

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We've been using the iRoast 2 for a while now with some very interesting results. I don't want to get into too many details because (I'll say it again), that's for the Detailed Review, but I'll say this much - a whole new added dimension for fluid bed air roasting in the home comes alive with this machine.

In the not so distant past, it was often said that using air roasting (be it popcorn popper, or other older fluid bed air roasters) resulted in bright coffees - coffees with a lot of acidity, and perhaps less body than if the same bean was roasted in a drum roaster.

In my opinion - and remember, there are many people who know more about home roasting than I do - this brightness and lack of body is a direct result of the rapid introduction of heat up to a maximum level. I've also seen it in the bean - coffee roasted in a Precision or a Gourmet or even a popcorn popper has a much darker outer surface when compared to the bean being ground. A lot of heat applied very quick does this - overcooks the outside surfaces and undercooks the inside.

By being able to control the profile so that you don't ramp up to maximum heat, you can, in effect, become the Junior G-Man (or woman) of the roasting world with a tool that gives you amazing control over the process of roasting coffee.

We did one test with the iRoast 2 that confirmed this theory about overly bright coffees from air roasters. We roasted the same coffee (a very nice El Salvador) to the same roast colour (outside surface) - a genuine Full City style roast. But we used four different profiles to roast four batches. We went from fastest ramp up, to a slowest ramp up with long pauses between temperature jumps.

The resulting beans showed not only wildly different colour ranges between whole bean vs. ground, but showed differently in the cup as well. By far and away our favourite sampling was one that featured an even ramp up to 385F, held there for a minute, ramp up to 430, held for 3 minutes, then finished off at 465F for 2 minutes, roughly (I introduced cooling as soon as I felt the exterior colour matched the other samples).

The iRoast 2 lets you do this, and lets you do it for a surprisingly economical cost - you'd have to go up to about $550 before you can find another device on the market that lets you do anything similar. Because of this, it's a very interesting product to own if you're someone who wants to take their home roasting to a different level.

First Look rating: 8.5
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: September 9, 2006
feedback: (86) comments | read | write
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