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The Coffee Quest by Nathan Slabaugh
Oh Hottop, are you the ONE?
Posted: February 24, 2012
Article rating: 8.6
feedback: (7) comments | read | write
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Hottop... it sounds like some kind of vintage sports car doesn't it? Well, it doesn't have wheels, but it will make you smile until your face hurts because this thing is serious. And by serious, I mean it will churn out tasty profile-roasted coffee for years -- and by years I mean hundreds of pounds of coffee. You may think I'm exaggerating, but this little workhorse of a roaster has been a solid part of my coffee life and has never let me down. Thus, it is, in my opinion the best home roaster on the market. So, read on to find out why, and you too can have your little home roaster hearts fulfilled.

So how does a person come to roast hundreds of pounds on a roaster that only handles 9oz at a time. Well, to know that, you need to know a little about my life, and that starts with the circus. Yes, everything that just leaped into your mind (tigers, clowns, macchiatos with elephants), it's all true. I had always enjoyed a cup of coffee as much as the next person, but it wasn't until I joined the circus that this past time turned into a passion.

Over my 6 years years in the circus I traveled roughly 48-50 weeks a year. We would play small towns that you'd never heard of out in the middle of Iowa all the way to cities like Memphis and New York. Originally I was content traveling town to town, trying to find my way through new countrysides and enjoying the RV lifestyle. But, as is my nature, I became restless and looked for something to occupy my down time. And so, my quest for coffee shops began.

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Susie the Barista
Star barista "Susie" visits Circus Coffee for a quick doppio before strutting her stuff in the ring.

I would search Google Earth for all the coffee shops in a town, print out the maps (this was before iPhones existed), and hop on my motorcycle to try and visit and taste a mocha latte at each one before the week's end. So, when you multiply that by roughly 48 towns a year, it didn't take long before I had visited and catalogued over 500 coffee shops in North America -- that's a lot of coffee! What had originally been a hobby was now a passion. The more I tasted, the better my palate became. Also, as the Internet was becoming increasingly easier to access, that is where I turned to learn and soak up all the coffee information available. I would learn about brewing, machines, methodology, and eventually roasters.

I had gotten to the point where I had become tired  - and quite honestly, saddened - by the consistently dismal quality of the coffee I was finding in each town, and so it was time. Time to take matters into my own hands and begin my journey into home roasting. Now, I could have gone immediately to an off the shelf home roaster, but I wanted to start out like most of the people on that beloved alt.coffee board did way back when: with a popcorn popper. Thus, I promptly went to the closest corner market and picked up a popcorn popper and began my journey into coffee alchemy.

Popcorn popper roasters: there is a certain simplicity to it, but unless you're ready and willing to setup a variac device, there's not much choice in temperature or a roast profile. But, I did learn a few key things: a) different origins have different sounds for 1st and 2nd crack, and b) roasting is messy! So after an encouraging month of successes without burning down all of the trailers on the circus lot, it was time to graduate.

But, which direction should I go? At the time (roughly 2007), there were a handful of tried and true roasters on the market. Each had their own advantages and disadvantages; some things they did well and then there were other things that were glaringly sub-par. Ultimately, my choice came down to this: I needed a solid roaster that could profile, handle at least a half pound of green coffee, and roast loads back to back. That's a pretty tall order for a home (or RV) roaster enthusiast, but Circus Coffee deserved no less.

Wait. What is Circus Coffee you say?! Well, remember those 500+ coffee shops I visited? Those were an education, and that education turned into an experiment: Circus Coffee. Circus Coffee became a cafe of my own, and oddly enough turned out to be a little microcosm of what happens in the rest of the world. I got to bring delicious coffees to my friends' tastebuds and introduce them to tastes they didn't know coffee was capable of. "Ah-ha" moments were a weekly occurrence, and in many cases, my colleagues were ruined on corporate coffee forever.

So, back to the search for a roaster. After much research and consideration, I invested in a Behmor 1600. It was pretty good -- for about a month and then I blew out a resistor and a motor. So, in the end, it wasn't up to the task and actually never really was able to roast the 1lb. roast load it claimed (although in all fairness Behmor did replace the resistor and motor under warranty). And so, once again I realized "you get what you pay for", and my obvious choice was clear, time to buy a Hottop.

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Hottop Front Glass
Roasting setup in the Flying Dutchman RV kitchen. (Location: somewhere in North America)
Typical Roasting
It's a perfect afternoon to roast coffee, Hottop RV style!

I love my Hottop coffee roaster. And yet, I withheld this love for quite some time so that I wouldn't flinch when my shiny little roaster would surely fry itself to a smokey electrical death. And so, I would roast pound after pound of every origin possible and would roast in all conditions in interesting elevations like Loveland, Colorado to the scorching summer heat of Hidalgo, Texas, to the winter snow of Pikeville, Kentucky. The funny thing was, week after week, and ultimately year after year, this thing never missed a beat. It proved itself stout and capable of handling life on the road with the bumps and all the variable voltages that were thrown at it.

In fact, the only thing that I've had to change over its life have been the air filters, and that is no small feat. So, below is a list of a few pros and cons along with some tips I've learned along the way (and often the hard way!) when using the Hottop roaster.

Hottop Pros:

  • Same roasting drum and cooling tray setup as professional roasters
  • roast profiling!
  • Back to back batches (plus faster cooling of the roasting drum because the coffee is dropped into the cooling tray)
  • replaceable filters
  • voltage regulator
  • will survive falls onto ceramic tile off an RV couch whilst driving
  • well built, longevity
  • good airflow during roast
  • awesome real-time temperature, heat, and fan display
  • heavy duty housing retains heat well
  • easy removal of front "hood" and access to the roasting drum
  • heavy duty motor for the roasting drum
  • roast time and temps are consistent, you can rely on that gauge!

Hottop Cons:

*rear filter clogs quickly

  • viewing window darkens quickly
  • sometimes beans get stuck in exit shoot
  • heating element warps over time
  • leaves a little too much chaff within the finished coffee in the cooling tray

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    The smoke filters - before and after.
    Hottop Controls
    All the information a home roaster will ever need.

Tips for using the Hottop:

  • Your first roast of the day will be darker than you expect. This is a result of the heating curve being more aggressive when starting from a completely cold roaster. I have found this is the same on professional roasters as well...it's a fact of roasting life.
  • Keep a funnel nearby for loading the green coffee, and then bang the lid a few times to make sure all coffee has fallen into the roasting drum
  • Flip the rear plastic air filter 180 degrees for extended use. This filter often clogs quickly from the smoke, and usually clogs on the top half of the filter. So, look for the small plastic snaps holding the actual paper filter in place, gently pry them open, and flip the filter 180 degrees to use the clean bottom half.
  • I find that venturing anywhere into second crack will sometimes leave some rogue beans stuck in the exit shoot. As a result, the next time you drop green coffee into the drum it will "leak" the green coffee and you end up having to drop the whole unroasted batch, and then have to restart the heating process all over again. A way to work around this is to either a) Put green coffee in right away and press the "End" button immediately to drop the green coffee into the cooling tray; effectively clearing the exit shoot, or b) unscrew and remove the "hood" and then stick a long object (I use a knife sharpener) through the roasting drum and hit the exit door at the back of the chamber.
  • After dropping the batch, pull out the chaff tray, rear air filter, and front "hood" in order to accelerate the cooling time in order to shorten the turnaround between batches. Then, reinstall everything when the temp has dropped to around 173F so you slow the cooling curve, thus the roaster doesn't have to reheat as long in order to get back up to the beginning 168F roast cycle temperature.
  • the outside of the roaster gets HOT, so always be on your guard.
  • this roaster works best when perfectly level (as my RV often was not). If the roaster is not level the beans will not be evenly distributed in the roasting drum and they will take longer to drop after the roasting cycle has finished...thus some beans end up being roasted longer than others leaving you with an uneven roast.
  • After every few batches, make sure to blow or clean the chaff from the inside of the roaster. You would surprised how much chaff actually misses the chaff tray. If you don't keep up on that rogue chaff, you are in danger of starting a chaff fire in your roaster!
  • Clear the cooling tray of roasted coffee before dropping the next batch of green into the roaster. As I mentioned before, larger beans (usually past 2nd crack) tend get stuck in the door and allow the roaster to "leak" the green coffee you just dumped in. So, if you have left roasted coffee in the cooling tray, you will spend the better part of your morning picking green beans out of the roasted ones.

So there you have it, the reasons why I dearly love my shiny Hottop, and now you all have my secrets for a happy life with your very own Hottop. And you WILL have a Hottop because in the end, you do get what you pay for, and in this case I believe that the Hottop coffee roaster is the highest quality and most durable home roaster on the market. If home roasting is in your future, you know which machine to get. Now go roast and be merry!

Article rating: 8.6
Posted: February 24, 2012
feedback: (7) comments | read | write
The Coffee Quest Column Archives email author
Nathan SlabaughColumn Description
Tales of the adventurous, offbeat travelling side of coffee and espresso from a former circus performer, musician and roaming barista.  Nathan Slabaugh's story-telling style will catch your attention and give you an education about coffee roasting, brewing and tasting.  Having recorded his impressions of the coffee served at over 600 cafes while touring the U.S. he's the man for the job!

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