I started roasting a couple of years ago with a Fresh Roast. What I liked about it was that it was cheap, quiet and fast. What I disliked about it was that the batch size was teeny-weeny, it smoked like Charles Bronson in "Death Wish", the glass roasting chamber and handle got unbelievably hot after a couple of rounds (I disregarded the warning about multiple consecutive batches), and it roasted so quickly that you had to watch very carefully and manually stop it as soon as the beans were done lest they turn to ash. It was hard to be really consistent, but hey, it wasn't bad.
I bought the i-Roast thinking it would address most of those concerns and knowing it would not be perfect. I am pleased to say that I got just about what I expected.
I'm more a poet than a mathematician, however, when I buy something like this, I always end up doing sort of a simple cost-benefit analysis. I originally approached the home-roasting conundrum with the following logic. Given that I can clearly taste (and love) the difference between freshly roasted beans (from a local Whole Foods store that roasts daily) and, say, Starbucks (bought in the large bag at Costco @ $7-ish/lb)... how much would I be willing to pay for fresh-roasted beans? Well, the fresh-roasted coffee was $10-12/lb. Worth it, I decided. Without getting into higher math, I get green beans delivered from Sweet Marias for $6+/lb. So, buying the Fresh Roast was a no-brainer. Paid for itself in no time (unless I considered the time I spent gazing into the chamber every time I roasted). And the coffee was, in a word, yummm. The i-Roast at three times the cost... I thought long and hard about it. The tipping point? I like Sweet Marias coffee a lot better than the local fresh roast. I still think about how much I spent on the i-Roast, but, I'm constantly reminded that it's a good value. And it still irritates me just a little every time I use it.
Despite the higher math above, I'm not the kind of person who obsesses over this stuff. Sometimes it's not the journey, it's the destination. I just want to drink a good cup o' joe. I've read comments from people who actually use different length extension cords to precisely control the electrical current when they roast and, well, let's just say, not my style. Plug it in. Hit the switch. Go away. Come back. Perfect beans. So, you're going to get a poet's review here. I'm not gonna stick probes up anything and I'm not gonna use an atomic clock.
Plain and simple... if you adhere to a bit of discipline, here's what you get after a bit of trial and error. Consistently GREAT coffee roasted exactly the way you like it. And let's face it, isn't that what this is all about? So, here's the rest of the story.
The i-Roast itself seems well-built. It's functionally attractive and has the right heft. Most everything fits together well. The design is pleasing and it seems like they used quality materials. You get the picture. When you go to use it, most of that still holds, but... the cover doesn't always align properly and there are a few sharp metal edges around the circumference of the chamber. No need to point them out; you'll find them pretty quickly. So, as it sits on the counter, not bad. If you don't consider what has to be one of the ugliest stickers ever. Big yellow sucker telling you not to use the machine very often. We'll get to that later, meanwhile, good luck scraping off the sticker. Gorilla Glue would have been less of a problem.
Then you plug the i-Roast in. Then you read the instructions. There's another yellow sticker in the manual, so don't sweat the one you half-scraped off on the machine. I'll confess, I never really read all the way through the instructions. I tried. But it just didn't seem that complicated. If, by some stroke of good fortune, you actually like one of the pre-set roasts, the machine is no more complicated than a blender. If you go for the custom program, I had to re-read that section every time I roasted for the first month. If you screw up the sequence with the buttons, you basically have to start over. Frustrating if you 're not so good at remembering the sequence of keystrokes between roasts.
So, after you read, or don't read, the instructions, you unscrew the top and pour in the green beans that you measured out. Depending on how much you've read, you either use the included measuring scoop, or you weigh out the beans based on the manual or one of the sweetmaria threads that tells you exactly how much to roast. I (luckily) found that the weighed beans (150 grams) and the scoop measurements were the same. Sometimes it's fun to be me! Anyway, seems as if a lot of people obsess over the precise number of beans to roast. I didn't. I measured once, use two scoops, and the results are consistently great.
Put the cover back on. Get a band-aid for the finger you cut trying to get the cover on. Unscrew the cover and rescrew it so it's properly aligned, and you're good to go. Now, you could press the pre-set button. There are two pre-sets. Here are the time/temps:
Preset 1: (stage 1) 485F / 6:30min; (stage 2) 440F / 3:00min; (stage 3) 485F / 1:30min
Preset 2: (stage 1) 485F / 5:00min; (stage 2) 440F / 5:00min; (stage 3) 485F / 1:30min
These time/temps simply don't work at all for me. I spent a little time on the sweetmarias list looking at posts regarding time/temps. You can do that , too. The gist of most comments was that you get a better and more consistent roast at lower temps. I found with the pre-sets that it was just too hot and I had to manually end the roast during the second stage. So I experimented based on what I'd read.
Here's the time/temp that works for me:
(Stage 1) 330F / 3:00min; (Stage 2) 340F / 3:00min; (Stage 3) 380F / 6:00min
The beans come out somewhere slightly beyond Full City (per Sweetmarias website). In fact, as an added benefit for reading this far, I struggled with understanding exactly what Tom considered just the right roast. So I ordered a pound of his pre-roasted Moka Kadir blend. Then I took it down to the local Ben Moore dealer and had them match it ground and unground to a swatch. The best color match was Tudor-62. So that's what I roast to. Yummmmmmmm.
I won't go into a protracted discussion of time/temp... there's plenty of that on sweetmarias board... suffice it to say that the lower temps and more gradual temp increase produces a remarkably consistent roast. I literally can now set it and forget it (though when I'm first trying a new bean, I have to calibrate the length of the stage 3, though I keep the temp the same).
All this sounds great, huh? And it mostly is, but the programming.... ugh. First, the i-Roast cannot store the custom program with the machine unplugged. So you have to re-enter the program every time you roast. A pain that seems like it could have easily been avoided with one of those teeny-weeny button batteries. Maybe not. And the programming is not particularly intuitive given that you need to do it every time. Press and hold these two buttons... then press this button... then that... then this. You get the picture. The sequence is twelve steps long. Ugh. But I now have it committed to memory. And since it doesn't remember time/temp, you have to write down your time/temps so you don't forget them. All right... so it could be worse, huh? Well, it can be. If your machine is not at a warm-ish room temperature, it won't work. Understand that there's a doohickey in the machine that measures ambient temp. If your machine is even a little cooler than about 70 degrees F., it won't start. I store the machine in a cabinet that is close to an outside wall. In the winter, I need to take the machine out of the cabinet and let it sit on the counter till it warms up. Yes, there is a goofy way to trick the machine into thinking it's warmer, but it's goofy... press this button 20 times... no thanks. Worse, if the machine spits the bit because it's not 70 degrees, you lose the program you just punched in. You start over from scratch. Ugh. So I've learned to just take the machine out well before I'm going to use it. And, note that this precludes using the machine outdoors in anything but 70 degree weather.
Another little annoyance is that if you hit the wrong button by mistake during the roast, the machine changes modes. I suppose that makes sense, but I sometimes hit a button thinking it will do this, and it does that. Come to think of it, the machine is probably fine. I'm the little annoyance. But if you get the program keyed in properly, if it's not too hot and not too cold (you get it just right, Goldilocks), and you keep your hands in your pockets till the roast is done, bingo... great coffee. That being said, you can add time to Stage 3, though I can't tell you how many times when I'm roasting a new type of bean that I've pressed the wrong button trying to do that, so I just make Stage 3 longer than I want and press the cooling button when it's done. Take notes and then sort out Stage 3 for that bean type.
And there you have it. Except the noise. Did I already tell you the i-Roast is really loud? Think vacuum cleaner loud. So, my family likes it best if I roast when they're not home and almost as much if they're not in the kitchen.
I devoted a fair amount of ink to the annoyances. In truth, I have figured out the roast. I use the program above and I make sure the machine is at room temp before I start. So the process is now pretty painless. I leave the room when it's roasting. And because I use lower temps, the roasts are amazingly consistent even if the time is off by 30 seconds.
Clean-up is relatively easy. I just toss the stuff in the dishwasher per the instructions. There's an attachment to add a 4 inch pipe for exhaust. Haven't used it.
Now for the goofy yellow label. It says not to roast more than 7 times a week. Or more than two batches at a time. Allow 30 minutes between roasts. Gimme a break. I don't drink enough coffee to roast more than 7 times a week, but I do roast 3 batches at a time. I wait between roasts, but 30 minutes? Not really. I don't know if this will affect the machine, but it seems a bit ridiculous. And also a bit odd since the quality of the machine seems to be quite good. The motor sounds heavy duty, etc.
If, after reading this, you come away thinking "B-" that'd be just about right. On a good day it's a B. Bad day a C. That being said, if you compare it to what's out there, it could be an A. It is dramatically better than the Fresh Roast. You can roast a reasonable amount of coffee to a consistently predictable result. And you can customize the roast to your liking. I'm not aware of any other machine that can do that for under $200. So maybe that makes it an A.
How could they easily make it an A? An internal battery would go a long way. Don't make me reprogram it every time I use it especially if you have that doohickey that measures ambient temp and doesn't let you recover your program if the machine is not at 70 degrees. And maybe have that doohickey be a bit more flexible. It'd be nice if you could roast outdoors. Figure out the sharp edges. I can live with the noise. Somehow it seems appropriate to require that much noise to roast that many beans. Anyway, I'd give it an A if they took care of those few things.
Final caveat: Some people have had problems roasting certain beans. Couldn't get them dark enough or something. I have had no problems at all roasting Sweet marias beans. And the results are simply great.