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A Coffee Roaster in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

by Colin Trieber on

The first time I roasted coffee I was seated on a wooden stool in front of a small fireplace. A softly burning but well kept fire danced over a bed of hot coals. A charred cauldron was placed a foot or so above the fire. It must have been used a thousand times already to be charred so absolutely black. The green coffee was poured into the cauldron by a young Nepalese man, while the homemade, wooden stirring tool in my hands was the only thing I was given to keep the coffee moving so as not to have it burn. 

For forty-five minutes my primary responsibility was to keep those coffee seeds moving in a consistent fashion and to lead them into a nice, even dark roast. I recall that I succeeded in doing so. The cup of coffee which was brewed from the batch I had roasted, to recapture quite simply, was magical.

My Introduction to Coffee Roasting

That was 2011, and I was staying in a Nepalese village named Begnas Tal in the lower Himalayas. The family which ran the guest house was pioneering Nepalese coffee from their remote location, and they were willing to include their guests in the process. The two weeks staying there was my first introduction to the agricultural and production process behind coffee. I learned some things and was thoroughly interested in it all. The coffee was the best I had ever had. Still, when I left Begnas Tal, I would not have believed it that someday I would become a professional coffee roaster. 

Roasting Coffee Locally

In the late spring of 2018 I began my tenure as the roaster at Fika Coffee. Yet this time, instead of a small fireplace and a charred black cauldron, I had a Diedrich! A six-foot tall steel roaster running on propane with a giant exhaust chimney, a 12-kilo roasting drum, and a shiny cooling bin with fan and agitator. Quite a different setting than the one in those rolling Himalayan hills. And not to lead you to think I was complaining, or even comparing (at the time). For the aesthetic at Fika was humble, charming, inviting, and engaging; Fika was unique and all its own.

Immersion is the Greatest Teacher, But Tradition is its Ground

For over two years now I have slowly honed and refined my skills, and established my own style as a roaster. Josh, as my main mentor in this process has contributed a lot. But the weekly roasting process and my immersion in it has been my greatest teacher. Let me tell you a little bit about this process.

(Added 10/13 - I would like to additionally state that while immersion certainly is a necessary aspect of learning, there would be no foundation to learn upon without history, the past, or tradition. It could be that we have actually gone too far in preference of immersion that we have deprived the lessons of history, and the tradition of our ancestry of its substance. Individually and personally immersion and experience is necessary, but socially and culturally speaking tradition is perhaps far more important than the persistent immersion of individuals into new experience. I will leave it at that, but it seemed like an important additional clarification to bring into this.)

Every Tuesday and Wednesday is a roast day at Fika. On a typical roast day, I roast between 16 and 28 batches. Each batch is between 17 and 21 lbs, and takes typically 9 to 12 minutes. During those 9 to 12 minutes, from when the coffee seeds are loaded into the roaster and ultimately dropped into the cooling bin, I spend about half of my time interacting with the roast software (on the computer screen) and the other half of my time interacting with the roaster, the coffee, and other elements in my immediate environment including other human beings. 


Technology and Coffee Roasting

While the computer and the roasting software is a valuable tool to my roasting process, I am thankful that no more of my time is spent looking at the computer. The personal interest which I have cultivated for my work, as well as the perceived value of my labor, I find to be interwoven more so with my actual physical participation with the process. That is to say, I enjoy using my own head and hands to solve problems much more than asking the computer to take responsibility. I also enjoy interacting with the broader environment much more than the computer screen. 

Without exception though, the coffee industry is moving the same direction as the world at large; towards greater technological intrusion into the workspace. Just a couple months ago, Cropster launched an artificial intelligence application to their software, the same software we are using at Fika. No level of restraint could prevent my inner self from cringing at how “the way of the future” was appearing immediately into my own work life. But how could I honestly say I was surprised? Perturbed, perplexed, and concerned, yes… but not surprised.

The Coffee Roasting Dilemma

So, here is my dilemma which I would like to share openly, and to name explicitly, because I believe it includes and involves all of us. It is a dilemma which I believe we all can see in nearly every aspect of life. We are being continually invited to outsource personal autonomy in favor of a technology dominated social landscape. We are consenting to further a social domain dominated by perpetual technological intrusion, and therefore human obsolescence. In other words, a social domain increasingly absent of human participation is being created. 

Outsourcing my Connection

The outcome we are witnessing from our persistence on this path is that in adopting technologies to fulfill tasks and duties I once did, my social value as a human being diminishes. After all, my human social value is not derived by freeing itself from practical work and social responsibility. My human social value is not cultivated through outsourcing my own connection with my work process, handing it over to a computer software system, thus becoming more isolated and independent, yet useless. No, my human value in a social sense is derived by contributing ever more skillfully to a healthy functioning social domain. 

We long to Feel Connected

I believe any human being would feel this way with their work. We long to feel connected to the world around us, and our work is a huge part of that. Today’s technologies, rather than connecting us to the world in more intimate ways, now tend to disconnect us. Technology and its applications are clearly creating, maintaining, and furthering our social voids.

Relinquishing my Own Abilities

Still, there is more to my hesitation than the mere transference of human labor away from practical (hands on) involvement and towards further computer involvement. The bigger reason I resist this transfer of responsibility is that with each adoption of new technology, I actually end up relinquishing my own intellectual and cognitive abilities for problem solving to some degree. I outsource my thinking potential, and therefore inhibit the development of my highest human capacity; indeed the capacity which truly makes me human; the ability to think.

Crossing a Threshold

Adoption of technology isn’t inherently a problem either, and I need to be clear about that. I am not against technology. For many of our technological innovations have been productive and necessary. Many have even contributed to an aesthetical improvement for human life. Still, it is obvious, we have crossed a threshold where this is clearly no longer the case. Productivity matters so little when all aesthetic quality and connection to life is gone, or diminished.

Devaluing the Human Element of Coffee Roasting

Artificial intelligence, even for roasting, represents the giving away of real human capacities so that a machine can carry out the task(s) instead. With very minimal foresight it is easy to see that the path of accepting artificial intelligence ever more so into my work space and even into my work duties, is the path of making my own work obsolete. It is the path of devaluing my human labor, as well outsourcing my internal capacities of cognition requisite for problem solving. It is the path of employing computer programmers in Europe to design more software which ultimately brings me closer and closer to the screen, and further and further from the coffee seed. In adopting this path, I would become less the guiding intelligence of the roasting process, and more the subservient shadow of the roasting technology. 

Questions for You

To wrap this inquiry up isn’t so easy, but for now necessary. So I will try. The questions which I would like to extend into the social domain more broadly, are these:

  • Do you desire to further the now popular social impulse of our time which continues to transfer the value of human labor away from the human being, and onto the machine?
  • Do you long for an economic social sphere which has no need for human labor and ultimately no need for human involvement?
  • And, what will you do with your time and energy, and with your hands, hearts, and minds once you have no responsibility to the social domain of humankind? 

My Goals and Intentions

As a coffee roaster, I fully intend to continue to immerse myself in the actual process of roasting coffee. And therefore, I fully intend to refine my sense perceptions, to hone my observational acuity, and to further my problem solving capacities through practical connection with my work. This implies using the computer as little as possible, and my hands and head as much as possible; as to deepen my involvement with the coffee roasting process, not to confine it ever more tightly into the realm of computer analysis and data determination, my eyes incessantly staring at magic lines on a screen until they are crossed.

Incorporating Technology at Fika Coffee

Undoubtedly, new technologies will arrive that Fika will adopt into its operations. Hopefully, some will be pushed aside. Ideally, some currently used technologies in the coffee roasting landscape I may even relinquish. What I believe is essential though, is to be ever more thoughtful on which technologies truly serve the development of all the people connected to the business, including the employees. While those idealistic Himalayan hills where my coffee roasting adventure began may be an unrealistic expectation for the modern world, I believe we still can and should be moving toward them rather than further away.




Share with us in the comments:

  • Do you desire to further the now popular social impulse of our time which continues to transfer the value of human labor away from the human being, and onto the machine?

  • Do you long for an economic social sphere which has no need for human labor and ultimately no need for human involvement?

  • And, what will you do with your time and energy, and with your hands, hearts, and minds once you have no responsibility to the social domain of humankind? 

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  • I really enjoyed your observations. As a small roaster, I can relate. The main reason I retired from the business world and turned to roasting was I felt a need to reconnect with myself and to enjoy a task again. I’ve visited large, computerized roasteries and come away impressed and also relived that I could return to my small batch world. Roasting allows me a time to meditate and concentrate using all my senses to create something unique. I love sharing my unique creations with friends, family and hopefully, new relationships.

    Steve Newcome on

  • Thoughtful post! I think you would enjoy reading David Brooks newest book, The Second Mountain. You will relate to The themes of his book. You are on the same wavelength!

    Larry Dean on

  • Immersion is the geatest teacher! Well said! If you love what you do, jump in and you will find your way! I totally agree! Our trips up the north shore are always planned around a stop by Fika Coffee for our trip home to Superior. Thanks Josh for that kind smile and asking what’s up! ☕️

    Michael Lucas on

  • First, beautifully written! Thank you for sharing. Second, my simplest answer is: NO. But it’s not that simple, as you’ve noted. It’s such a balance and certainly technology makes life easier in a lot of areas. Personally, I work a “desk job” and hence have been working at home, isolated with only the computer screen to connect me and my colleagues – not ideal. As an introvert, I thought, ‘maybe I’ll enjoy working from home more than my extroverted friends.’ However, I’ve found I miss the connection a great one-on-one hallway conversation provides. Many softly whispered insights only happen when you run into a colleague on the way to the restroom. I buy Fika coffee beans for our daily at-home roasting for numerous reasons-one is that these beans feel special. The people sourcing them, roasting them, selling them feel special. I can almost taste the craft and love that goes into a bag of Fika coffee beans. The special touches and level of care can’t be found elsewhere. The handwritten thank-you cards are my favorite part of the delivery each month. It brings me out of my current isolated reality for a minute, and connects me with fellow Minnesotans many miles north. Please continue to keep up the great work. I adore Fika coffee and start every single day with a cup (or 2) of the best coffee ever. Thank you!

    Sarah F. on

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