The Alpenrost calls to mind that cruel cliché about seeing your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your new Ferrari.
The promise of an inexpensive, high capacity, easy-to-use consumer drum roaster that only involves measuring out ½ pound of green coffee beans, dumping them into the removable drum, and pressing a number between 1 and 15 corresponding to the degree of roast you desire is an irresistibly seductive proposition to any coffee aficionado. Unfortunately, what the Alp promises and what it actually delivers are worlds apart.
In all fairness, I must state up front that the Alpenrost is my very first coffee roasting experience. Sweet Maria’s strongly recommends against the Alp for the home roasting newbie such as me, but I’ve never been one to listen, so why start now? The only sensual cue one gets from the Alp is audible. If you’re not already intimately familiar with 1st Crack, 2nd Crack, etc, then be prepared for a great deal of frustration and a substantial learning curve. I would’ve been much better off had I ordered a cheap Fresh Roast Plus initially or along with the Alp to learn the requisite skills necessary to proficiently operate the Alpenrost. Also, without knowing the “character” of each bean you’re roasting, the same amount of time can produce wildly differing results—one origin might be a light roast, while another will be reduced to carbon pellets.
Fortunately, I had enough sense (surprised even myself) to seek out others with abundant experience on the Alp prior to using my new machine. Some users, on Alt.Coffee, were kind enough to post precise roasting times for a variety of different beans, along with ambient temperatures at the time of roasting. This allowed me to approximate what I was hearing with regard to the various crackling going on inside the machine. Only my first two batches were incinerated beyond recognition. The remainder have ranged from barely consumable (either too dark or too light for my tastes), to right on the money—but most have been pretty close to the latter. This leads us to perhaps the greatest deficiency with the Alpenrost—the inability to actually *see* the roasting process, neither is there any mechanism for sampling the roast either. It’s all or nothing. Also, any attempt to open the roasting chamber to view the progress is not advisable for three reasons. First, as previously stated, the Alp is a smoke generator. Don’t even bother using this thing indoors without adequate ventilation. Second, the holes in the drum are too small to see through, so it’s almost impossible to get a visual cue as to the roast’s progress. Third, you’ve just exhausted all of the heat inside the roasting chamber, extending your roasting time by who knows how long, making an already difficult situation worse. Just hit the “Cool” button and go hang yourself. Ultimately, you will need to keep an accurate “Roasting Log” to eventually get a respectable handle on the character of the Alp—including ambient temperature at the time of roast, type of bean(s) you are roasting, whether it’s your first roast or another batch (warm Alp vs. cold Alp), what degree of roast you’re aiming for, roasting duration, cool-down time and method (whether you let Alp cool the beans or you yanked them immediately and cooled them manually), etc, etc. After a lot of time and even more coffee, you should be able to get a decent handle on your roasting. Additionally, the Alp will produce vastly different results under power fluctuations, which most people experience unless you have a line conditioner. Basically, no two roasts will be identical but you should be able to get acceptable results consistently after time.
The Alpenrost potentially offers three distinct advantages over other home roasters currently on the market: 1) “Large” capacity, reducing the frequency of roasts to a weekly event versus every couple of days with smaller capacity hot air roasters. 2) Longer, deeper roasting profiles, which produce much better roasts for espresso and for those who prefer a heavier-bodied, deeper flavor in their cup. 3) You can carry on a normal conversation in close proximity to the Alp while roasting. Though I’ve never used any other roaster, the intense “hair dryer” noise produced by the hot air roasters is legendary. With the Alp, you can roast while others are in bed without worrying about waking them. If you can’t live without any of these three or you *can* live with the Alp's deficiencies, then the Alpenrost is currently your only choice. If these are not crucial attributes or you are new to home roasting, then you may be better off with an alternative like the Hearthware Precision, Fresh Roast, or Caffé Rosto.
Once "mastered", the Alpenrost is actually a nice little machine. Some people love it while others hate it, and I can see the reasons why on either side. Cleanup is a pain, and there are a number of steps involved in the entire roasting process, so if you consume only a small amount of coffee, or if you like to have small amounts of a variety of different coffees on hand, then the Alp may not be worth the hassle. And please, for the love of Pete, do not use the "money saving" excuse as justification for an Alpenrost, or really any other roaster for that matter. It's MUCH easier to just find a local roaster rather than put up with all of the time-consuming hassles of home roasting--unless you don't value your time. This is a "hobby" for those passionate about reaching the pinnacle of the coffee neurosis. After you factor in the cost of shipped green beans, the cost of the roaster, electricity, time, etc it becomes clear that this is not about economics. The Alp is an exercise in compromise. It's capable of producing an excellent finished product in larger batches than anything else for the home--but you pay for it in cost, maintainance, learning curve, and the myriad of other "features" that require you to get used to.
There seem to be three key individual components in the home espresso-making universe that single you out as someone who is insanely passionate about this "hobby" and rockets you into a very small, very elite group: The Pasquini Livia 90, the Mazzer Mini, and the Swissmar Alpenrost. Armed with these three tools, there is nothing--and I mean nothing--that stands in your way to the espresso promised land flowing with milk and honey. Those who aren't there simply don't know and will never "get it" until they too "arrive."
If you’re like me—someone who just has to have the latest and greatest—or you’re simply a newbie who is a glutton for punishment, then take your best shot and get an Alpenrost. Otherwise, only experienced roasters need apply.