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Loring Smart Roasters’ incidental success

From the January 2013 issue.

The sustainable Loring Smart Roaster has taken the global specialty coffee industry by storm.

Mark Loring Ludwig, the inventor of the Loring Smart Roaster, is surprisingly rapt to be receiving some press.

“It’s strange for me,” he tells Global Coffee Review from his home base in California, United States. “We still see ourselves as this small, start-up company.”

Interviews like these, however, are likely something Ludwig will need to get used to. Last year, he was recognised by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE), receiving the ‘Innovation’ Award for Coffee Excellence. After just over a decade on the market, this “small, start-up” has sold equipment to roasters as far as Europe, Japan, and Australia.

Interestingly, what’s capturing the attention of the coffee industry is a patented roaster design that Ludwig explains he came across “serendipitously”.
With a background in food processing equipment, Ludwig was familiar with various types of burners before his start in roasting equipment. When he grew tired of all the travel, in the early 1990s he leapt into the coffee industry, starting the US-based Loring Coffee Company.

Even with this new business, the ever-active Ludwig needed extra activities to keep him busy, and he started learning Computer-aided Design (CAD) on the side, while also teaching himself some welding and machinery.

All this experience came to a head as he got to know the coffee industry, and realised there was an opportunity to create more environmentally-friendly roasting equipment.

“People put the idea in my mind, that if someone could invent a smokeless roaster, that could roast well without an afterburner, then they’d be set,” he says. “With that in mind, I started toying around.”

After 20 or so designs, Ludwig found himself staring at a schematic that seemed to meet this need for a smokeless roaster. “I just couldn’t figure out why this one wouldn’t work,” he recalls. 

This design – which is called the Flavour-Lock Roast Process and is commercially available today from Loring Smart Roast Inc. – is what Ron Kleist, Loring’s Vice President of Sales, describes as “a miracle”.

The key to the Loring roaster is the highly efficient gas burner placed inside the cyclone, something unique to the Smart Roast system. The heat from the gas burner is divided by the cyclone into two zones. One zone heats up to such a degree that it incinerates all the smoke and odour before leaving the roaster while the second zone is at the right temperature for roasting the coffee. The result is a completely enclosed system that simultaneously roasts coffee and incinerates the smoke and odour that occurs during roasting.. Because the smoke is incinerated in-situ (at the source), there is no need for an after-burner or filter of any kind.

This makes the Loring amazingly efficient: compared to a traditional roaster with an afterburner, the Loring can save as much as 83 per cent on fuel costs, which means it produces 83 per cent less CO2, a known greenhouse gas. A huge additional bonus is that there is no need to clean the cyclone or stack; in fact the complete air passage for the air used to roast the coffee remains clean for the life of the roaster because the machine is in a constant, inherent “self-cleaning” mode. The result is also safer equipment, with minimal risk of roaster fires, and less roasting time lost due to cleaning.

The other zone generates the heat to roast the coffee. Here, Ludwig discovered a few rather convenient and valuable features of the enclosed systems. Firstly, with virtually no contact to the outside atmosphere, the consistency of the roast is guaranteed. Whether the roasting warehouse is steaming from a sweltering summer day, or personnel are rugged up on the coldest of winter nights, the enclosed atmosphere of the roaster stays the same.

The second major bonus, one that Ludwig admits is entirely incidental, is the decreased oxygen and increased level of humidity produced within the roaster. Because the burner is fired on a stoichiometric  ratio, there is little or no residual oxygen left in the air. Oxygen is considered an “enemy” of the flavour of coffee. And the burning of gas produces water vapour resulting in this amplified humidity in the Loring because it recycles the air and the humidity.

A study by the University of Zurich confirmed that increased humidity leads to a higher quality roast. Because the beans are less dried out during the roasting process, more oils are contained within the beans, leading to better results.

Kleist calls this Loring Smart Roast design a truly “sustainable” model because it balances business requirements with cost savings, all the while reducing a company’s environmental footprint.

With a background in venture capital and finance, Kleist says that maintaining this balance of cost efficiency, while reducing the environmental impact of operations, is absolutely critical to a successful model. “It’s important that people don’t lose sight of the fact that when a business slips, the first thing they do is look at their costs,” he says.

It’s this balance of reduced operational costs and consistently clean coffee flavour, coupled with in-built smoke reduction, that Kleist says has catapulted Loring roasters forward into mainstream attention.

An important factor, however, of what’s really helped the  company gain international attention among specialty roasters has been the quality of the roast produced, says Kleist. No matter the efficiency of a machine, he says no roasting technology will be truly “sustainable” among top roasters unless it consistently produces great tasting coffee. Ludwig made use of advanced digital controls in his design so the every roast master could enjoy improved control of the roast environment.

“If you think about the holy grail of what specialty roasters are looking for, it’s the ability to be able consistently reveal the native flavours of high quality beans,” he says. “To be able to correctly balance that acidity, sweetness, and mouth-feel, that’s what roasters are looking for.” Coffee roasted in Loring roasters took first and third place at the 2012 World Roasters Cup in Taiwan, adding to first place awards at this year’s Nordic Roasters Forum in Stockholm for both espresso and filter coffee.

It took several years to get Ludwig’s design, that is able to meet these needs of the specialty coffee industry, from paper to reality. It wasn’t until he met Chris Martin in early 2002-03 that the first prototype got off the ground. Ludwig can’t help but laugh at how far they’ve come, remembering their first prototype. They opted to skip on the cooler to save on costs. As they started roasting, they were absolutely enamoured as the coffee was gently roasted without smoke. That was until they started dumping the beans into a tin garbage can without cooling them off, filling the room with smoke. They had to laugh as they could hardly see across the cloudy room, as they tested out their first “smokeless roaster”.

A decade after the cooler was soon added to the first fully working prototype, Ludwig has enjoyed taking advantages of modern advances to continue to improve the Smart Roast equipment. He says he’s amazed to see how slowly some companies have taken to adding on these technologies. He recalls one US$350 million-factory that’s still using Relay Logic to control the system, a set of buttons that are individually wired and rather “antique”. On Smart Roast equipment, Ludwig has wired up complex Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) systems that allow the user and programmer advanced control via touch screen technology.

Moving forward, Ludwig is looking to take advantage of this technology to move towards iPad control and other advances. Today, anything seems possible after seeing his small design has come to life on such a global scale. It was a risk he says he’s never regretted taking.

“To think for a minute that I could compete with all those big companies, some of whom have been building machines for a century, it was rather naïve of me,” he says. “But I just kept pushing forward. At the end of the day, I’m pretty happy I was so naïve.” GCR

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