After spending around $50-60 a month on roasted coffee that would eventually begin to stale, I decided to begin researching the idea of home roasting. Not knowing where to begin, I first looked at the Behmor, Gene Cafe, and Hottop. All three seemed like qualified and extensively tested roasters, but the Hottop had the qualities that I was looking for. I was looking for a solid machine with full user control from the charging temperature to the cooling cycle. For those looking to purchase an electric roaster, do your research and choose the machine that fits you! Now, on to the details...
Right out of the box, the machine is nice to look at. It's heavy and looks like a quality product. Upon adding the heat fins (not sure of their real name) to the drum's outside, the roaster even impressed my non-coffee drinking wife. It has the look of a miniature professional drum roaster in a home-friendly package. While there are plastic parts to the machine, they do not detract from the machine's build quality and rather add a nice touch.
Upon turning it on for its first roast, I was a bit nervous and highly excited. I had my first 250g batch of Guatemalan coffee weighed out, my notebook ready, and a separate timer handy. The control panel is very simple to use and features a line for the time, drum temperature, fan speed, and heat power. The buttons to the right of those columns are: a bean eject button that is red to distinguish it from the others, a button that acts as a cursor to cycle through the various options, and an up and down button. For my first roast, I started the machine up, set max time and temperature, and hit start. The machine started up simple as that and hardly made a noise. It goes through a preheat cycle before beeping loudly to signal the time to add the beans. The temperature on the roaster read 165 at this point and I waited an extra minute or so until it read 210 to drop my beans in. For my first roast, I was very impressed with how simple the startup process was and even though I was flying by the seat of my pants a bit, I am still very impressed with how well that first roast went.
Flash forward to my 6th roast and I feel like a pro behind the controls. I am still roasting the same Guatemalan beans from Sweet Maria's and am dropping 250g at 210 degrees F. My goal roast level is City+ for this particular bean. I roast at 100% power with no fan until about 3 minutes when the beans begin to turn a brighter green. At this point I turn on the fan for about 30 seconds to clear moisture from the drum. At 3:30 I turn the fan off and continue at 100% power. After another minute or so, when the roaster begins emitting strong grassy vegetal aromas, I dial the heat back to 70% power and turn the fan on to 25%. On my display, the temperature reads about 285-300 at this point (I don't have my notes with me at the moment, so I can't give an exact temperature, but it is the same exact temperature on my display every time). Around 5:30, the beans begin losing their green color and turning a more earth tan color. This signals the end of the drying phase, so I turn my heat back to 100% and the fan off. As soon as I begin seeing smoke come from the bean chute on top of the roaster, I turn the fan to 25% to help lead the smoke out the exhaust in the back of the unit. According to the display on the Hottop, and this goes for all new Hottops in my experience, first crack happens at 375 and is active by 380. So, at 365, I dial the heat back to 70%. At 375-380 when first is active, I turn the heat down to 50%. When first is winding down, I turn the heat down to 30% and use the fan to help keep the temperature rise on the display under control. I then allow the beans to develop at this level for about 1 minute (display reads 390-392) and I hit eject. Voila, a perfect City+ roast that I was able to repeat on four roasts each separated by a week. The reason for writing this little roasting log out is to explain how easy it is to build a profile/procedure and repeat it on future roasts. While the display temp does not give you the bean temp, the cracks happen at the same time EVERY time, so you can easily predict them once you target those temperatures. 375-380 for first crack and 400-403 for sec on crack.
The roaster definitely requires you to understand the roasting process, but roasting coffee is NOT a set it and forget it process. This roaster in particular has several safety features build into the roasting process that ensure that you are standing right there to continue the roast. If you are being irresponsible and are not near the roast, it will beep for 10 seconds at set times/temps, and eject the beans if you aren't there to hit any button (to continue). Some may find this annoying, but it's a non-issue if you are paying attention (as you should be). Take the time to read the included manual and search the web for "Advanced Hottop B Profiling" for a good starting point. I would recommend taking your first batch to second crack to get a feel for the temperatures and times. Then begin building a profile with the start of your second roast. I am still amazed that after two roasts, I was able to dial it in and produce consistently delicious results. From roast to roast, the temperatures on the display were within 5 degrees on a minute to minute basis when comparing roasts.
With regard to cost, this is NOT a cheap roaster. It offers full control of the roast process and gives the user the ability to build, store, and adapt profiles based on the bean and desired roast level. The external cooling tray adds a whole other level of control to the roasting process that no other widely available electric roaster has. You've reached Full-City and want to stop the roast? Just hit the eject button. With other roasters, your beans might coast into 2nd crack, so you have to do things 20-30 seconds beforehand. That's not the case with the Hottop.
When wrestling with how much I was willing to spend on a roaster, I initially thought that $800 was WELL out of my price range. That quickly changed when I realized that buying a roaster is an investment, just like purchasing a grinder or an espresso machine. You are purchasing a piece of equipment that could potentially last you a long time. With that in mind, I began looking at customer service backing and found many positive, some glowing, reviews on Hottop's customer service and presence. In addition, Hottop's website has a section with replacement parts and detailed instructions on how to install them. Another plus for me was finding out that a Hottop rep visits a coffee company about 45 minutes from me every once in a while and is able to help if ever there was a serious problem.
A lot of things have been improved in this roaster since many of the reviews on this site were published. It appears to be a safer and more dependable unit now. In addition, it has a new K-type thermocouple built into the back of the drum that gives the user consistent results on the display and faster reaction times for heat changes in the drum. This is supported by the consistency of 1st and 2nd crack during all of my roasts (this seems to not have been true with earlier models). They have also added a voltage regulator internally, so the roaster is less sensitive to voltage fluctuations (no variac needed). I am roasting plugged in to a standard wall outlet in an old apartment and have seen absolutely no variation roast to roast. This is supported by the temperatures on my display and the almost exact times of my roasts. I achieved identical results with almost identical minute by minute temperatures on the display. In the end, this is just my opinion, as I am not an electrician, but I have seen no variation from roast to roast, as users of older models mentioned.
The biggest question for me when purchasing this roaster was the smoke output. Let's face it... not everyone has a perfect area in their house with perfect ventilation or a commercial range hood to handle roasting smoke. I was extremely concerned about this when buying the roaster. Many Hottop users, and home roasters in general, roast outdoors, but that was not an option for me. Instead, I bought a $25 window fan, placed it in my kitchen window and set the Hottop on a small folding table with the exhaust fan pointing towards the window. With my wife upstairs during my first roast, she came down right as the beans dropped and immediately commented on the smoke being sucked right out the window. I asked her if there was any lingering smell and she said no. As the rear filter gets worn in, it will show a slightly diminished ability to handle all the smoke, but the window fan picks up the slack in sucking the smoke out. At worst, I get a bready/popcorn aroma hanging around the kitchen for 20-30 minutes, but again, no lingering smoke or pungent smells. The best part of roasting in doors is that you don't have to worry about ambient temperatures. The window fan with the exhaust pointing outwards keeps cold air from entering through the fan. If more air circulation is needed, I crack the kitchen door or an upstairs window and this seems to create an air channel to whip the smoke out.
The only two negatives that I have experienced, and I am hesitant to call them negatives, are the chaff control and beans being stuck in the drum fins. The chaff: as the drum spins during the roast cycle, chaff comes off the beans and falls into a tray that slides out of the grinder (similar to a toaster's crumb tray). While it catches A LOT, the beans are always left with a good deal of chaff in the cooling tray. To combat this, I put the beans into a colander over the sink and slowly shake them and blow into them. This forces the chaff to either fall out the bottom or float into the air and into the sink, which I can then wash out. Honestly, this is hardly an annoyance and I am not sure how it could be better controlled, so it's not really a "negative." Stuck beans: After each roast, it is important to examine the drum (once it has cooled) to make sure there are no beans that got stuck. There are small nooks and crannies that can hold onto a bean or two. Again, not an annoyance or a negative... just something to keep an eye on.
Overall, this is a fantastic roaster that produces wonderful coffee if done right. It is easy to use, easy on the eye, and gives you all the tools and control. With that freedom comes a need to understand the roast process and how to interact with it, so be sure to read the manual from front to back and do some online research. I am really pleased with this roaster, especially since I took a leap of faith and bought the Hottop as my first roaster. It has turned my home roasting adventure into a hobby that I know is here to stay.