Whenever I consult with someone opening a new café I always try to steer them away from working with multiple roasters. As popular as the multiroaster model is right now, I seldom encounter a café that is able to serve coffee from more than a couple of roasters and do it justice. There’s several reasons why.
The Value Proposition:
When multiroaster cafés first started popping up, they were often called “pub style.” Just like pubs serve beer from multiple breweries, why not offer customers a diverse array of roasters? Perhaps the most famous example of this model was the original Barista Parlor, which offered a staggering nine different roasters before switching to doing their own roasting.
Without a doubt, different roasting techniques have a profound impact on flavor, and you’ld be hard pressed to find two companies that roast in the exact same way. (Want to test that hypothesis? Search online for coffee from a famous farm, like Elida Estate in Panama or La Papaya in Ecuador. You’ll likely find a half dozen roasters with the same or similar lots. Buy two or three, cup side by side, and compare.) But the very reason why offering different roasters is interesting is also why it’s almost impossible to pull off.
There’s a big difference between tapping a keg and brewing a pot of coffee, and the barista’s job is more akin to the brewer than the bartender. For example, the company where I used to work was on the lighter side of the roasting spectrum— at least by American standards, in Copenhagen or Oslo they would probably be considered a dark roast. In our cafés, we aimed for maximum extraction, and programed our Fetco brewers accordingly (higher water temps, max prewet settings.) If you tried those same parameters with coffee from another roaster, it might taste ashy and bitter or vegetal and grassy. A lot could be said about optimal roast development here, but suffice it to say your batch brewer needs to be dialed into your roaster. Certainly, modern brewers from companies like Fetco or Curtis allow to save multiple settings, but from experience I find even the best baristas press the wrong button under duress.
What You’re Missing Out On
But perhaps the biggest problem with multi roaster cafés is not what can go wrong, but what you’re missing out on. Whether they admit it or not, every coffee roaster will do more for an exclusive account than a sometimes customer. Exclusive accounts that are buying large amounts of coffee week in and week out will always get the lion’s share of attention.
Running a café is hard. It’s a grueling business with small margins, and it doesn’t take much for things to go off the rails. Whether it’s an espresso machine going down or a new barista to train, the best coffee roasters have an arsenal of resources that can help. Many roasters are prepared to sell equipment at deep discounts, provide free training, cosponsor events, and provide technical support to exclusive customers.
Why Some Multiroasters Work
On the rare occasion that a multi roaster concept works well, it’s always helmed by a passionate and experienced barista and coupled with an extensive training program. A few great examples of multiroaster cafés include Narrative Coffee in Everett, Collective Espresso in Cincinnati, Prufrock Coffee in London, and All Day in Miami. To be sure, if I made a list of my 10 favorites cafés in the world, many of them would be multi roasters.
If you’re a competition-level barista with years of experience opening your dream café and you want to be a multi roaster? Sure, go for it! You likely have relationships with dozens of roasters and you know exactly what you’re looking for. (And, honestly, you’re probably not looking for advice from me anyway.)
But for the vast majority of people opening a coffee shop, you need to find a single roaster that you trust, whose brand overlaps with yours, and is going to be able to provide the support you need. Most importantly, you need to love their coffee.