My Hearthware i-Roast and I got along well for 1.5 years of almost daily roasting. Near the end of its useful life, it was time to replace the Hearthware with something a little better suited to my needs. My requirements were:
1) Robustness: The Hearthware is a neat toy, but it is not built for frequent use. During about 400 roast cycles, I managed to lose one carafe to breakage, and two lids due to cracking. While not outright failures, the bean distributor armor in the carafe was falling apart, and it was not uncommon for the chaff lid or entire lid assembly to come loose with a particularly chaff-heavy roast. I need a roaster that can last me several years, with user-maintanable parts.
2) Larger batch size: I like roasting, but I lack the time to do it every single day. In order to get consistent degree of roast out of the i-Roast, I couldn't comfortably roast more than about 100g of beans, and even then it was a bit of a crapshoot.
3) Fast set-up: The i-Roast had programmable curves, but they weren't resident after machine shutdown, and took too long to set up by hand (I have to plug in my roaster each time I use it). Roasting doesn't have to be a one-button process for me, but all too often I hit program 2 and stopped it when it was done, rather than do anything fancy.
4) Ability to use my senses: The i-Roast is awful for noise. I would often put it out on the porch and watch it from inside the house, just to escape its deafening roar. I want to smell the beans changing, and hear the start, acceleration, and retardation of first crack. I need to make sure I can hear the start of second crack.
In rather short order, I realized there were two competitors, the Hottop, and the Gene Cafe.
Dispatching the Gene Cafe was difficult. I have a great fondness for machines with simple yet powerful controls -- one of my favorite appliances is a Dualit toaster. It has a mechanical lever to lower the toast, isolated heating elements, a timer to turn the elements on, a tray for crumbs, and a switch to select how many slots are on. It is a decidedly analog machine with no fancy digital controllers, and only the necessary user interface. As such, I could instantly see the appeal of direct control of the roaster with its elegant system of dials.
In the end, it was a tough call, but the main factors that had the Hottop winning out were:
1) Product longevity: The Hottop has been around for a while, and folks in the industry have experience with how to service the unit. The Gene Cafe is a relative newcomer, and there are few people with years of roasting on the device.
2) Cooling: I want to take a roast that is done and stop it immediately. It seems, based on some research, that the Gene Cafe would require a lot more roast surfing after the roast had "finished," which meant to me a lot of uncertainty about being able to dial in an exact degree of roast.
3) Ease of cleaning and servicing: From looking at diagrams only, it appeared that it would be easier for me to tear down, clean, and re-assemble the Hottop on a regular basis. For the parts that matter, they are all made out of steel or glass, things that are easy to repair and clean.
All of that said, I'd still like to give a Gene Cafe a go sometime.
The roaster came well packed by the manufacturer, and was double boxed. An adhesive tape was used to hold the bean chute cover in place, which leaves a glue mark on the top of the roaster, but the packaging was otherwise uneventful. The instruction booklet is detailed and well illustrated; unlike the i-Roast, I've had no need to refer to supplementary documentation to get the most out of the device. Initial disassembly found a few stray beans inside the roasting chamber which were easily removed.
I fired up the roaster on a 20 minute cycle and waited for the "add beans" beep to start.
Coming from a fluid bed consumer roaster, the silence was stunning.
For my first run I enjoyed the sensory experience of roasting Sweet Maria's Puro Scuro blend, noticing that, compared to the i-Roast, I had a lot more ability to smell the changes in the beans. It was possible to hear as first crack began, and it was easy to hear its acceleration and deceleration. Second crack was very easy to hear, and is in some ways louder than first crack on this roaster (unintuitive coming from the i-Roast, where second crack is difficult to hear). The viewing window works decently to watch the roast, though I wish it were at a slight angle so more light could get through to judge the roast progress visually. As it is, one has to maintain a steady watch with the viewing glass at roughly eye level to get an accurate sense, which can be a little frustrating.
I ejected my first batch when it looked right based on my experience with the i-Roast, rather than by the book (eg when second crack started rolling well). This lead to the beans roasting for a few more seconds as they left the roasting chamber, and ending up pretty deep into a Vienna/French roast, which was not my intent for my first go. Despite this, I was amazed with how quickly the cooling tray managed to halt the roast and cool the beans to room temperature -- bravo!
Of course, all was not perfect. I had expected a great deal of smoke with this roaster, but what I hadn't expected was the quite shoddy seal formed by the roast chute cover. More smoke escapes through this chute than anywhere else on the roaster; there is a visible 1/16" gap along most of its arc. This piece should be provided a gasket, or at least a more mechanical means of seating against the roaster, as it causes a great deal of the smoke to bypass the filter, and cause a lovely accumulation throughout and around the chute. Secondly, it is almost impossible to pour from the cooling tray into a valved bag. The book suggests using the provided chute funnel -- good luck with that; my first attempt had me dumping a good 10% of the beans into the sink. The system I've come up with at the moment is to dump the beans into a large paper bag, and then pour from the bag into the offgassing/storage vessel. Adding a chute to the cooling tray would solve this problem with ease.
Otherwise, the first experience was pleasant, beyond that I'd managed to ignore the instructions, trust my past experience, and come up with a lovely batch of burned beans. I was overly cautious with the next few roasts, keeing careful notes of the various stages and when I halted the roast, and how many seconds of post-ejection roast I seemed to have, and after the fifth roast I was pretty comfortable with getting the beans right where I want them. The degree of control available, despite having a preset curve, is worlds better than with the i-Roast, due in large part to the roast consistency, access to sensory information, and much longer roast times.
The first cleaning was relatively straightforward. I discovered that there was quite a bit of chaff leftover in the roast chamber despite emptying the chaff tray after every roast, and several chunks of roasted beans lodged in various spots. I don't know if this is due to generous tolerances in the engineering, or just the nature of the beast, but it seems like it could be improved. Otherwise, chamber removal was straightforward if slightly time consuming, and a quick hit with the vacuum cleaned up most of the mess. Cleaning the viewing glass proved somewhat more difficult, I've yet to figure out the optimal means to do this.
With specific regard to the chaff tray, I've found that it tends to dump quite a bit of chaff upon removal (which, due to its incredibly cheap construction, is not trivial or reassuring), both inside and outside of the roaster. All said, this part is probably the most disappointing aspect of the roaster.
Beyond that it's ugly. The Hottop is as ugly as ugly gets. I realize this is a more subjective topic, but my Mazzer Mini, Dualit, KitchenAid, and Quick Mill Andreja Premium are works of art in the kitchen. I am embarassed to have this roaster in public view, and keep it hidden away under the counter. The ugly plastic exterior is apparent beneath the rather hastily assembled chrome roasting section (the tint of the chromes don't even match); it looks like some sort of do-it-yourself kitchen appliance in need of a visit to a dumpster.
All told, I am still happy with the purchase. The end results I am getting are very consistent and full-bodied, in comparison to my i-Roast. I feel like I have much more access to the roast experience, and much more control and consistenty in my end product. Both my wife and I have been happy with the end results (which to this point have been triple ristrettos and doubles).
I think there are a lot of minor incremental improvements that could be made with the roaster, but it suffers from no major flaws. More to come after I've lived with the beast for a few months.