Roaster Restoration – Part 1

Salvation of a Steampunk Roaster

I’m the first to admit that I’m passionate about coffee – and in particular, coffee roasters. That probably explains why I decided years ago to collect coffee roasters, and now find myself owning seven of them (not counting my three sample roasters, of course…they’re so petite!) in sizes ranging from a husky half-bagger all the way down to a diminutive three-pound countertop beauty.

Some guys collect cars. I round-up roasters. Same disease, different symptoms.

My current project is an extremely rare, British-built “Whitmee” shop roaster from the late 1910s or early 1920s. Discovered languishing in a junk-filled farmer’s shed outside of a small village east of London the roaster was thought by its UK owner to have a seven pound per batch capacity. However, after getting it to the States, taking it apart and examining it, I have discovered it is actually a much rarer - and more desirable - 14 pound per batch machine! In fact, it’s only the second 14 pounder I have ever seen anywhere in the world, and without a doubt the only Whitmee of any size in the United States.

The old Whitmee roaster - part of their Simplex-class of roasters, which ranged in batch size from 7 pounds to 224 pounds - is a beautiful piece of early 20th century industrial engineering and design. With a style that is almost steampunk in character, the roaster is built of cast iron and hand-shaped steel. Nothing digital or plastic here, thank you very much. I suspect roasting on it will be like driving a fully restored old-school stick-shift pickup truck. The kind of truck that turns heads, and makes you jealous of the guy behind the wheel. Minimal controls, maximum appeal.

My Whitmee roaster is a legacy of the era when Great Britain had few rivals anywhere in the world in building machinery that excelled in both form and function. The roaster features a perforated drum with the gas burner mounted inside – a style of roaster radically different than those built today. “Direct flame” roasters were nearly universal in Europe and the United States in the years between WWI and WWII, but went out of style because of their low fuel efficiency and the extensive training needed to operate them properly – not because their coffees didn’t taste good!

Led by the Jabez Burns Company and their “Thermalo” class of roasters, “direct flame” roasters such as the Whitmee were eventually replaced with “indirect flame” machines featuring solid drums instead of perforated, with the gas burners moved from inside the drum to underneath it. Less cost to roast because of greater fuel efficiency, and less chance of burning the coffee. However, as one of the few people in the country to have an intimate familiarity with both “direct flame” and “indirect flame” roasted coffees, I mourn the passage of these great machines. When operated by someone that really knows what they’re doing, the flavor of “direct flame” roasted coffees can be incredible, with flavors and aromas seldom found in conventionally roasted coffees.

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