If you like the freshest, best coffee and enjoy experimentation and the excitement of creating your own roasts, the hottop will get you just where you want to go.
Positive Product Points
Great, practical design, intuitive and extremely easy to clean. Consistent roasts when sound, color and smoke intensity used to judge level of roast, cools beans very efficiently, very easy to view and hear beans during roasting, good directions(with enormous help from Sweet Maria's site) nice and easy chaff collection and removal. Great for darker roasts.
Negative Product Points
Smoke filter pretty useless, takes quite a bit of time to cool (removal of screwed in front cover and hopper plug greatly decreases cooling time) will not really allow roasting until pretty completely cooled, the roasts are different in terms of time and darkness depending on if it is first, second or third consecutive roast, some of the parts could be heavier duty plastic or metal, such as the chaff collector,
I have been reading alot about roasting ones own beans and was intrigued, particularly because due to my natural inability to plan far ahead, I was either without sufficent fresh beans (mail ordered mostly from Intelligensia or other great roasters learned about from CoffeeGeek) or had too many on hand and sadly watched them go stale. I also heard tell that once you start roasting your own, there is no turning back to buying roasted beans.
I love esspresso, and usually have two or three a day, and my wife thankfully loves lattes. I have a Tea and a Rocky that have both been great(although the Tea has needed lots of little repairs over the 2 1/2 years I have owned it) I had a 50th birthday coming up, so instead of fooling around with machines that roasted in such small batches, I took the plung and got the hottop. I Purchased it from Sweet Maria's with the digital temp control separately, but have not hooked it up yet, wanting to learn to roast more by sight, smell and sound.
The hottop came in perfect shape, beautifully packaged, and great instructions, supplemented by the awesome Sweet Maria's site. I have probably roasted 25 batches so far, and have had great results. I understand now why people who home roast would really not think to go back to purchasing roasted beans. I must say, the results have been awesome. Been careful not to burn the beans, but have gotten some full city plus roasts that have tons of flavor. I have roasted Monkey from Sweet Maria, alot of Sumatra, some from Intelligensia, Brazilian, Columbian and some Ethiopian, all of which the hottop has handled very nicely. It makes a good solid half pound at a time, which makes it very conv ienent, and I have had no trouble doing 2 pounds consecutively, so long as I do alittle dissassembly to make sure it cools more quickly between roasts. I roast under a hood, vented to the outside, and there is definitely some smoke, although a towel over the opening during the end of the roasting and when they are dumped goes a long way to keep the smoke down. It is lucky that my wife likes the smell, since it does permeate the house, and it does not smell like roasting coffee, much more pungent and a smell not everyone will like. I can't comapre this to other machines, but it is very easy to hear the rist and second cracks, which, from what I have read, is really crucial in the whole process. I can't imagine buying a machine that was loud and drowned out these important sounds.
Cleaning the hottop has been a snap. I take the drum out every 4th roast, and the chaff comes out easily. I also empty the chaff tray after every roast as recommended. Using esspresso machine cleaner does a nice job with the window on the front cover, and taking it apart takes about 1 minute. the design is really simple but very functional, and extremely well thought out. I was afraid it would be a chore to have to roast beans on a regular basis, but because the machine is easy to use and clean, and makes a good size batch, I have not found that to be the case.
I think the most exciting thing about home roasting is experimenting with different beans and blends to get a coffee that is tailor designed for your taste and those of your family and friends. Although I am a pathetic amateur, I have taken a stab at blending, following some guidelines in Sweet Maria's, and the results have been pretty decent. I would love to come up with an espresso blend, but this will take some time. I have had good luck really with all the beans I have roasted, and honestly think, largely because of the freshness and the roast level that is geared to my tastes, that I have had, bar none, some of the best shots since getting my Tea and Rocky. If you can spring for the money, and love coffee the way that I do, I really think that roasting with a hottop is a great jump in the right direction and really satisfying as well as challenging. Also, being able to buy green beans at half the price without the fear of them going stale is a great aspect of home roasting, something that I think cannot be beat.
Just a few somewhat negative points. Price is high, The numbers for the roasts are really not that helpful, and I have begun to follow the advice that it is better to put it on 6 or 7 and listen and watch for the roast you are want. I am interesting in seeing how the temp gauge works, which I have not hooked up yet, not wanting to get dependent on it quite yet, but it should be a real help when I get into it more and start to see some of the subtleties of the various roasts. Since I like darker roasts(not super dark, more in the full city plus range) I have been doing those mostly (best way I can describe it is I let it go about 20 to 30 seconds into second crack). I therefore do not know how the lighter roasts may be, and I have heard that you don't get quite the brightness of the air roasting. I don't like particularly bright coffee, so that is not a huge issue for me, but it is something to consider in buying one of these.
If you are afraid to take the plunge with home roasting, like I was, the Hottop really made it a very easy. I would definitely give it a shot with this roaster or another that suits your needs. I don't think you will regret it.
Honestly, I ordered the machine from Sweet Maria's on line with a bunch of green beans, ordered some more green beans, and have never had to contact them for anything, since I have had zero problems. Their website is absolutely full of very helpful information that has really helped me tremendously in getting into the groove with this machine and home roasting in general.
Three Month Followup
It is hard to believe that I have had the hottop for 3 months. I have roasted one to two pounds of coffee a week and I have not bought a single roasted bean since. The machine has performed extremely well, and has been very reliable. I am becoming more confident in controling the roast degree by smell, color, appearance and cracks, and I have enjoyed roasting the same beans to different roasts to compare the flavors. I am just beginning to understand some of the talk on this and other sites about roasting and the ways of extracting the most flavor from beans, either by highlighting the bean's natural characteristics, using the roast to obtain a certain flavor, or a combination of the two.
I have a digital temperature control, which I purchased separately, which I have still not installed, because I am still enjoying the experience of watching and listening to determine roast level, and do not want to start being driven by temperature. As far as performance, I usually set the control to 6 and manually eject when I feel I am where I want to be. It is rare that I need to add time, since I am still cowardly about going too dark.
As far as cleaning, every 4 roasts or so I take off the glass front cover and tip the machine over, giving it a few good shakes to get all the chaff out. Every 8 or so roasts, I take the front screws off and remove the front plate and really do a thorough cleaning. I also clean the glass and other parts that get crud on them with Urnex, which works pretty well. If I were not lazy, I would probably do the more thorough cleaning every 4th roast. I have noticed that chaff collects right below the chaff tray in the front, bottom, and I usually try to push this stuff out after every roast. There is accumulated chaff deeper in the machine that must be shaked out or more properly removed with the front cover off. There are not really too many places the chaff can hide that you can't get to with minimal effort. I have also learned that there is an enormous difference in chaff production depending upon the beans used. The Monsooned Malabar has almost no chaff, but the Ethiopian Dry-Process Ghimbi, both from Sweet Marias, has a ton of the stuff.
I was afraid to take the plung with home roasting because I figured that I could never match the level achieved by commercial roasters who really know what they are doing. I must say that, according to my pretty unsophisticated taste, with my Hottop, Rocky and Tea I am making esspressos that are as good if not better than the espressos I made from the beans I bought and used within 7 days from the best roasters.
I have also made alot of coffee for friends and they all like it, which means either that they are really good friends or I am doing something right and not completely self-delusional. It also makes great gifts, which gives you the chance to spread the word about how good coffee can really be if the beans are good quality, freshly roasted, and properly ground. I would continue to recommend the Hottop for someone who really wants to advance their own understanding and appreciation of coffee, and who enjoys the process and joy of taking something from scratch and creating a quality product that is uniquely their own.
One Year Followup
I have now been using my Hottop for more than one year and it has operated flawlessly. I have developed confidence in my roasting, largely because my roasts are so consistent, regardless of the bean I use. I started out liking the slightly darker roasts, but I have recently roasted lighter, particularly the Central American coffees, and I am starting to really enjoy alittle more acidity and brightness.
I have tried to follow the recommended cleaning and filter changing, and so far I have not had any mechanical or other problems. Since buying this roaster, I have not bought roasted beans, and it has provided me with a steady flow of excellent coffee for my Tea espresso machine and pump pot. I have still not installed the digital temp gauge, but I may do so just to get a better idea of what I am doing now only by sight, sound and smell. I have read that the temp gauge does not truly measure bean temperature, but I do wonder whether it will just give me another frame of reference, which should not hurt.
While I used to write down every crack and combination of beans, there are many times where I will grab a bag, weigh out 250 grams, set the timer for 20 minutes, and just go for it without any further ritual. The Hottop really lends itself to that approach because the cracks are so easy to hear, the cooling works so well, and it is very consistent and predictable. I continue to strongly recommend, based upon my experiences.