Coffee Roasting Physics Explained

Coffee Roasting Physics Explained

Coffee roasting is an art and a science, and understanding the physics behind it can enhance your appreciation of this crucial process. Whether you’re a home roaster or an aspiring barista, delving into the principles of coffee roasting physics can provide valuable insights into how to achieve the perfect roast.


Heat Transfer in Coffee Roasting

The coffee roasting process involves three primary modes of heat transfer: conduction, convection, and radiation. Each of these plays a vital role in transforming green coffee beans into the aromatic, flavorful coffee we love.

Conduction: This is the direct transfer of heat from one molecule to another. In coffee roasting, conduction occurs when the beans come into direct contact with the hot surface of the roasting drum. This type of heat transfer is crucial in the initial stages of roasting, where the bean’s surface starts to heat up and turn brown. The efficiency of conduction depends on the contact surface area and the thermal conductivity of the materials involved.

Convection: This involves the transfer of heat through a fluid (in this case, air). Convection is significant in most modern roasters, which use hot air to roast the beans. The hot air circulates the beans, evenly distributing heat and ensuring a uniform roast. Controlling airflow is essential for managing the roast profile, as it affects both heat transfer and the removal of chaff and other byproducts.

Radiation: This is the transfer of heat through electromagnetic waves. In roasting, infrared radiation from the roaster’s heating elements contributes to the overall heating of the beans, though it plays a less dominant role compared to conduction and convection. Radiant heat can penetrate deeper into the bean, affecting the roast’s evenness and overall development.


The Roasting Stages

Coffee roasting can be divided into several stages, each involving distinct physical and chemical changes.

Drying Phase: Green coffee beans contain about 9-12% moisture. The initial stage of roasting involves drying out this moisture. The beans are heated to around 160°C (320°F), and the process takes about 4-8 minutes, depending on the roasting method. The beans will turn yellow and emit a grassy smell. Proper drying is crucial as it sets the stage for subsequent chemical reactions.

Browning Phase: Once the moisture is driven off, the beans enter the browning phase, where Maillard reactions occur. These reactions between amino acids and reducing sugars create complex flavors and brown the beans. The temperature rises to about 220°C (428°F). This phase is critical for developing the coffee’s flavor profile. The timing and temperature management in this phase greatly influences the acidity and sweetness of the coffee.

First Crack: As the temperature continues to rise, the beans reach around 196°C (385°F), and they begin to crack. This is known as the first crack, a crucial milestone in roasting. The beans expand, and the release of steam and CO2 creates an audible cracking sound. The beans’ structure changes, becoming more porous and lighter. Monitoring the first crack helps roasters decide when to slow down or speed up the roast for desired flavor profile.

Development Phase: After the first crack, the beans enter the development phase, where the roast profile is fine-tuned. The temperature is carefully controlled to develop the desired flavor characteristics. The duration of this phase affects the balance between acidity, sweetness, and bitterness. This is where the roaster’s skill comes into play, as too short a development time can lead to underdeveloped flavors, while too long can result in a flat or overly bitter taste.

Second Crack: If roasting continues past the first crack, the beans will eventually reach a second crack at around 224°C (435°F). This is a louder and more intense crack, and the beans become darker and oilier. Roasting to this stage produces darker roasts with bolder, more intense flavors. However, going beyond the second crack can lead to burnt and smoky flavors, which may be undesirable for some coffee drinkers.


Chemical Changes During Roasting


Chemical Changes During Roasting

Several important chemical reactions occur during roasting, contributing to the coffee’s final flavor and aroma:

Maillard Reaction: As mentioned earlier, the Maillard reaction between amino acids and sugars produces a wide range of flavor compounds, contributing to the complexity of the coffee’s taste. This reaction is similar to browning in cooking, creating depth and richness in flavor.

Caramelization: The breakdown of sugars during roasting leads to caramelization, adding sweetness and depth to the coffee’s flavor profile. This process occurs at higher temperatures and continues into the development phase, influencing the coffee’s sweetness and body.

Pyrolysis: At high temperatures, pyrolysis occurs, breaking down complex molecules into simpler compounds. This process affects the bean’s aroma and flavor profile, often contributing to smoky or burnt notes in darker roasts. Pyrolysis is responsible for the creation of aromatic compounds that define the coffee’s character.

Dehydration: During roasting, the beans lose a significant amount of water, which concentrates the flavors and alters the texture of the beans. This loss of moisture also contributes to the beans’ weight reduction and increases their brittleness, making them easier to grind.


Controlling the Roast

Successful coffee roasting involves controlling several variables, including time, temperature, and airflow. Modern roasting machines come equipped with sophisticated controls to help roasters achieve precise results. Monitoring the roast’s progress through visual, auditory, and olfactory cues is essential for perfecting the roast.

Time and Temperature: Managing the roast time and temperature is crucial for achieving the desired flavor profile. Too fast a roast can lead to uneven development, while too slow a roast can result in a flat taste.

Airflow: Proper airflow management ensures even heat distribution and the removal of chaff. Adjusting airflow can help control the roast’s progression and influence the bean’s surface temperature.

Cooling: Once the desired roast level is reached, rapidly cooling the beans is essential to halt the roasting process and preserve the flavors. Effective cooling prevents over-roasting and ensures a consistent roast profile.


Understanding the physics of coffee roasting can deepen your appreciation for this intricate process and improve your roasting skills. By mastering heat transfer in coffee, recognizing the different roasting stages, and controlling chemical reactions, you can unlock the full potential of your coffee beans and create a perfect cup every time.

Whether you’re experimenting with light, medium, or dark roasts, knowing the science behind each step allows you to make informed decisions and achieve consistent, high-quality results. So next time you roast a batch of coffee, remember the physics at play and enjoy the delicious outcome of your efforts.

Need tips and tricks on different coffee roasting methods? Follow us on Instagram or like us on Facebook for more. Or, speak to our team today.

Back to Top
wa-icon Whatsapp Us