ANDY Freeman has turned home roasting into a global business, writes JOHANNA LEGGATT
Coffee, and the pursuit of a decent cup, has reached near-devotional levels of attention in Australia.
Once an interest confined to European immigrants and those newly returned from a trip to Rome, a decent flat white or cappuccino is now expected by Australians whether they are in a Melbourne laneway or a small bakery in a regional centre.
At the fulcrum of our love affair with coffee is the roaster.
Like many of us, Andy Freeman appreciates the humble bean, but in his case that appreciation became an all-consuming interest.
"I used to work in IT and this coffee roasting was just a hobby," he says, gesturing to the bags of coffee stacked in his North Geelong warehouse.
"Now it has completely taken over my life. It's gone nuts."
Andy, of the highly successful CoffeeSnobs brand, started off by dabbling in home roasting, but became fascinated by the science and technique involved.
Ambient temperature, bean density and depth, and low and high acidity - this was the cultish jargon Andy found when he peered in the back rooms of the roasting scene.
He was instantly hooked.
His business is successful because it is multifaceted. There is the CoffeeSnobs' online forum, where customers can discuss ideas, such as the fine points of roasting, while also buying Andy's beans.
His distribution business supplies his roasts to homes and cafes across the country, including to remote parts of Victoria, while his "green bean" business distributes unroasted beans to homes and commercial roasters.
"We bring coffee in from all over the world and sell it all over the country," he says.
"We know that rural coffee has stepped up its game in the last five years. Some of the companies have realised that customers are more discerning than they thought."
Last time he checked, his online Coffee Snobs forum had 24,000 members, about two-thirds of whom are Australian.
In October, Andy's achievements were celebrated at The Golden Bean Coffee Roasting contest in Queensland.
He beat more than 1100 entries from across Australia to clinch the top roasting award. Pretty impressive, considering Andy built his own coffee roaster from scratch when the commercial ones didn't give him what he needed.
His hand-built roaster is run through a computer software program that allows him to control all of the elements of the roast - including temperature and heat profile - to give him consistency.
While a standard commercial roast involves pulling out a sampler and fingering the beans, Andy has his eyes glued to the computer screen at all times.
"I can see if it's going OK by looking at the lines on the graph, and make manual adjustments if I need to. If I tried to roast without it now, it would be as if I was blindfolded with hands bound."
Andy has also developed free software for other roasters to use. It allows them to monitor the roast on a graph and make manual adjustments to hit a certain profile line; he estimates thousands worldwide use his software.
Andy says he sources his beans from "between the two tropics, all over the world".
"Because it's a farm product, the quality of certain beans changes with climatic conditions. What you end up with in the cup starts on the farm - it starts with how healthy the plant was, how it grew, how it was pruned the season before, how it was processed and picked.
"Then it's about how it was shipped, how it was roasted, and then how the barista made it.
"You walk in to a cafe and get a coffee and there is a long chain of people that had to get everything right."
Andy has also set up a charity called Fair Crack, in which he supplies coffee equipment to help support small communities.
In a tiny village in Tanzania, for example, he has bought the plantation a pulping machine.
"Previously, what they were doing was using a bucket and broomstick, and they would get 50c a kilo. We funded the pulping machine, which brought them up to $7 a kilo."
Like all aficionados, Andy has firm views on where the most interesting coffee is grown.
Brazilian coffee does not rate highly in Andy's books - he finds its production-heavy approach comes at the expense of taste.
"Kenyan coffee is very much renowned for its own style. Like a white wine: high acidity, lower sweetness.
"Yet some of those Ethiopians are big, bold, and fruity. Ethiopia is amazing - one of the first coffee growers, and they have a lot of heirloom varieties. They are hard to roast, but the taste is, 'Wow'."