Flashback to April 2017, SCA Expo in Seattle. (For context, The Crown — the building — is still nearly 2 years from completion.) At Expo, one of the buzzworthy booths was a funny-looking small-batch electric roaster called Ikawa. You’ve surely heard of them by now, the Bluetooth-enabled device that roasts 50g of coffee with customizable and shareable temperature and airflow profiles.

Some of Royal’s customers had begun asking us about sharing our roast curves with customers who had already bought into the device. In typical Royal Coffee modus operandi, we tossed the idea around over a discussion that lasted nearly two months before committing to buy not one but four of the company’s professional V2 machines: two for our offices here in California, and one each destined for our agents based in Ethiopia and China.

I fell in love. We started using the machines for additional roast analysis on our Crown Jewels, and I’d frequently recommend them for nerds like me who enjoyed the idea of having exportable excel tables, programmable profiles, incredible repeatability, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I love manual sample roasting, but the Ikawa eliminates a number of potential “operator error” moments and provides unmatched repeatability.

roasting coffee using IKAWA

V3, Firmware 23, Open Loop, and Cropster Integration

On June 12, 2018, we published a blog of our favorite roast profiles and some tips and tricks we’d discovered while playing around with the machine.

On June 21, 2018, Ikawa dropped an unexpected bombshell: their brand new Professional V3 went to market. The next day an app update to match the new hardware was announced, as well as an overhauled firmware update that applied adjusted algorithms for airflow.

In the meantime, in July of 2018, I was invited by Cropster to begin beta testing direct exports of roast profiles from Ikawa to our online database. This was a thrilling addition. Cropster could now display our Ikawa roasts on a desktop and link the roasts directly to quality analysis.

I ran into an interesting conundrum – the 4-digit Ikawa serial code that identifies the machine is also used by Cropster for its data logging. It turns out that you can’t roast simultaneously on two Ikawas (and thus two mobile devices) logged into the same Cropster account. I had to create a new user profile and associated email address in Crospter to roast on two machines at once.

And while Cropster’s integration is indeed working pretty well, there are a few areas where there might be some room for improvement. First, glaringly, the fan speed profile, critical to the operation of the Ikawas, is not uploaded to Cropster. Viewing it still requires the Ikawa app, and the data can only be downloaded by tapping through “Roast Graph” to “Export Data” and then emailing yourself the spreadsheet. Second, to upload to Cropster you must have your lot saved as a sample roast. Green coffee lots aren’t accessible in the Ikawa app.

We continued roasting, business as usual until I noticed one of our units had a fan speed inconsistency when ejecting the coffee. Firmware update 23 included an option for “open” or “closed” loop settings, essentially a fan speed option that was intended to hotfix a prior firmware update. Per Ikawa’s website, “by selecting [the open loop] setting, the power application to the fan motor controlled to enable a smooth acceleration of the fan speed which should overcome the issue you have experienced.” Sounds like a good thing.

Unfortunately, while the open-loop setting did help to fix the underpowered fan issue, it significantly altered my roast profiles. I couldn’t roast my previous closed-loop profiles on an open-loop setting and expect to get the same results. I sent multiple emails in the next few months, none of the responses were able to adequately explain my experience.

Ultimately, I ended up reverting to Closed Loop. It’s the factory default setting and would be what the vast majority of other users were experiencing.

Service & Maintenance

By October of 2018, Ikawa had convinced me that the best option for getting my fan speed issue into calibration was a new product maintenance scheme. We sent off our two US-based devices for servicing, including updated thermocouples for better temperature readings, fan motor and heating element service, and deep cleaning. As pilot members of the product maintenance, we were offered preferred pricing and a loaner machine.

This type of service is now part of an annual recommended update to keep the Ikawas in good condition. In principle, this is completely reasonable; most roasters are already doing this kind of regular preventative maintenance on their machines (or at least they should be).

In practice, it means you’ll be spending a few hundred dollars annually on service to an already expensive machine whose design restricts maintenance at the user level. Even basic cleaning of the coffee dust and oils that accumulate after just a few roasts requires precision and care to avoid bumping the highly sensitive thermocouples out of alignment.

Regular cleaning tends to be easiest if done before your session, rather than after. You don’t have to fight the hot metal to brush away the dust. I like to use little denatured alcohol pads to wipe down the roasting chamber walls, and I’ll use canned air to blow away loose dust.

Shanghai Bathroom Roasting, V2 vs V3

By the end of March of 2019, I found myself accompanying Royal to Shanghai for the annual Hotelex convention, a massive multi-industry trade show that’s been an anchor for regular visits with our colleague Sara Zhang, based in Beijing, with members of the Crown and of course CEO Max Nicholas-Fulmer and International Sales Team Leader Peter Radosevich, whose Mandarin is more than sufficient to help us navigate the ins and outs of the world’s most populous city at 24+ million residents.

Roasting on Ikawas in hotel bathrooms (with the overhead vent on, of course!) is a coffee road trip staple. I posted to my Instagram and polled the audience: two of every three respondents had been in the same position. It’s yet another benefit of the Ikawa – portability, and convenience. We got fresh coffee to cup every day, and the only price was a slightly roasty-smelling hotel room for a few days. (Be careful with that, by the way. If your hotel’s no-smoking policy is especially strict you could be in trouble!)

chris kornman roasting on ikawa in a bathroom

We’d borrowed a V3 for the week; our US-based 110V V2s wouldn’t have worked on the 220V coursing through China’s electrical veins. I noticed immediately a peculiarity — the fan setting on one of my standard roasts full-force ejected the entire batch into the chaff chamber before the end of the roast.

I emailed tech support, and created new profiles on the spot – I didn’t have time to wait for a response, we needed the coffee the next day. After a few back and forths with Ikawa over the course of about 2 months, the conversation ended with no real explanation or advice.

Fan Failure and Customer Satisfaction

In June and July, I shared some profiles with a customer, standard practice. I regularly share my in-development roasts, especially with Sara Zhang, so we can taste coffees roasted similarly and better compare notes. This customer (who fortunately happened to be a Bay Area micro-roaster) noticed that my profiles were behaving strangely.

“I was wondering why the Naturals profile drops the fan speed to the point that the beans stop moving?” they asked me.

I had them check their settings, fan loop profile, firmware version, etc., and all checked out. I then asked if they’d be willing to swing by to roast together at The Crown, and they agreed. We confirmed the differences in roasters for what should’ve been the same profile, and had some good discussions about roast theory and the practical aspects of adjusting airflow profiles for the Ikawa. But at the end of the day, we couldn’t figure out who’s roaster was out of calibration.

Turns out, it was the Crown’s. Ikawa accessed roast data remotely, and I was able to confirm fan speed irregularities between our two machines by downloading the data from the app. Once the diagnosis was confirmed, Ikawa paid for shipping and repairs. All told, despite servicing by the lead tech in-person in London, I was only without the machines for about 10 days.

I felt lucky to have had a vocal customer in my corner and to have run into Ikawa’s lead tech in Boston at the 2019 Expo just a few months earlier. Ikawa’s typically tepid and shrug-emoji-inspired responses can be challenging for both basic and advanced users to navigate. It seemed that the direct line to Ikawa’s support, plus my customer’s urgency lit a fire.

roasting on two Ikawas side by side

Back to Square One

Upon the return of the roasters, I set about roasting using some of my favorite profiles. Sure enough, nothing turned out the way I’d expected. I was getting darker roasts than I’d been used to and fan speeds too low to lift the coffee in some cases. It was all very confusing.

For how long had I been sharing bad profiles? The machines had been serviced less than a year before! Did they drift gradually off-spec or did it happen suddenly? And why did both machines (despite some differences) generally roast more similarly than a properly calibrated Ikawa?

Answers to most of these questions drift into the realm of speculation. Far more useful for everyone now, rather than looking back and postulating unprove-able theories, would be to address the practical aspects of creating viable new profiles.

The next installment in this series will examine the process of creating a profile from scratch, and adjusting the parameters to suit a number of different purposes.