A Craigslist Coffee Roaster [CC#9]

I had scoured Ebay, Craigslist and coffee forum postings for 6 months. Nothing was turning up to meet my need: a batch roaster rated 5-12kg (10-25lbs) at a price we had budgeted in our business plan. Although frustrating, six months provides a great timeframe to patiently watch the market, understand the value of used equipment and see what sells (and what doesn't sell).

From watching the market I learned several things:

  • Probat (German) and Diedrich (American) machines sold for the most and sold quicker than other models. 
    • I knew it would be hard to get one of these, but at the same time in the future we could sell it higher and more quickly.
    • Others like San Franciscan, etc. also appeared but didn't sell quite as fast and didn't have the positive feedback in forums which Probat or Diedrich commanded.
  • Nice 5-7kg (10-15lb) used roasters were selling for $10-16,000 USD.
  • Larger 10-12kg (22-30lb) used roasters were selling for $18 - 22,000 USD.
  • Much older, classic cast iron drum roasters (typically 10-12kg) sold immediately for $20,000+.

It wasn't easy staying on top of the listings. Contacting sellers through Craigslist or coffee forums proves to be slow and frustrating. Demand for great machines was much greater than supply. Well priced roasters sold immediately. In the course of 6 months, there were a few machines (I still remember the Blue 7kg Diedrich!) that I wanted to pull-the-trigger on, but at the time I didn't have the capital.

Right around the time I was registering, getting capital commitments and expediting papers across the USA the perfect machine popped up. A 2007 Diedrich IR-12 (Infrared 12kg) roaster was listed for sale on Craigslist near Tucson, AZ. I immediately contacted the seller because his list price of $15,000 was much lower than the $20,000 prices I was accustomed to seeing. If purchased new the Diedrich IR-12 retailed $35-40,000. These were the manual roasting days, before computer aided roasting programs and profilers became ubiquitous. 

At that time in 2012, my wife and I were operating a non-profit Educational Exchange that recruited teachers for ESL teaching in China. "Zhong Relations" was on-boarding a new teacher that year from Tucson, AZ. I called Joel in Tucson and asked, "Hey man, would you be willing to go kick the tires on this roaster for me and make sure everything looks up to snuff?" He didn't know anything about coffee roasters but agreed to check out a few of the areas I alerted to him.

2012 Diedrich IR-12 used roaster

My Instructions and Requests to Joel included:
1. Do a basic walk around - ensure the roaster looks standard, nothing busted or out of place and that it starts up easily.
2. Listen to the machine heat up, and confirm it makes no strange sounds (Like it needs to be oiled or as if metal rubbing together somewhere).
3. Let the sellers talk, are they transparent and sharing plenty of details or does it appear they are hiding something, drawing your attention away from trouble spots.
4. Try to inspect the drum rotating on it's center shaft, is it concentric and smooth in rotation or is there wobble with an oblong shape (indicating it was not cooled properly and that the metal had warped).
5. Look underneath, behind, inspect bearings front, back, lower for excess oil or any rust or dryness. 
6. Is the machine generally clean or is there old buildup in the cooling chamber and chaff collector. Are there coffee fines or oil buildup?
7. Does the machine produce good looking roasted coffee in your opinion within a 10-15 minute roast period? Do those fresh roasted beans cool to the touch quickly (in less than 5 minutes)?
8. Do you smell gas or propane when it's roasting?
9. Take lots of photos and videos to send to me please.

I had never purchased a coffee roaster but I grew up on a farm. I figured buying a used coffee roaster would be similar to buying a used car. There's only so much that can be checked in a 60 minute inspection and then you drop a wad of cash and drive off hoping nothing blows up.

Joel reported back well, sent reassuring videos and photos and even got himself a couple free bags of coffee. Ron (the seller) and his team were experienced roasters and machine refurbisher/resellers in America's Southwest. I bargained a bit and got the price down to $14,500 which included assistance loading the machine onto a fumigated export-approved pallet with delivery to a local logistics center. 

The whole time I was thinking, "man I should get on a plane and fly out there in person" but the exchange went so well and the terms became increasingly attractive (that machine could have sold for $20,00 if Ron and his team wanted to hold it longer) ... so together with Louis' and Paul's approval I sent payment and bought the Roaster!

I forget how that 450kg machine got from Tucson, AZ to the port of shipping in Oakland, CA, but it made it. Costs were either included in the sale price of $14,500 or included in my international shipping expenses. Looking back now, I feel that was also a significant work accomplished.

Finding a logistics company which would ship our new baby across the Pacific Ocean effectively was no small task. I knew a guy named "Henry" in Wuhan, from the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) Central China Chapter, who was in logistics. He and his colleague "Monica" hooked me up with their Oakland partner "Kevin" who quoted me $5,000 to pack and ship the Diedrich IR-12 to Wuhan. I was concerned about taxation, inspections, customs and tariffs so we had to get a bit creative.

China and the US have always had a few disagreements when it comes to import exports. I knew firsthand after living in China that the last thing I wanted was to get the roaster 95% of the distance and then get stuck in customs.

Kevin and I devised that we add an extra stop along the way. From Oakland the roaster traveled to Taiwan. It was unloaded and registered as a Taiwanese (a.k.a. "Chinese") shipment. The roaster was put on a truck and shipped north to Taibei where it went from Taiwan to Mainland China - stopping at the docks in Wuhan. America to Taiwan no tariffs or scrutiny. Taiwan, "China" to Mainland China also no problem. That extra jaunt by truck in Taiwan added some fees, but avoid any taxes and expedited the whole process.

The last unexpected hiccup occurred at dock in Wuhan. I spent an extra $1,000 to transport the machine the final 30 miles to the door of our roastery. Unbelievably a giant industrial hydraulic lift-truck showed up (as if it were moving an entire 20-40 foot container!) The oversized crane set our cargo palette on the ground, from where we pushed it to the door. Getting the 1,000lb machine up 3 stairs and into place was adventure but with 5 anxious men pushing and pulling the job was finished!

From Tucson, AZ to Oakland, CA to Taiwan to Wuhan, China and into the ROCC Roastery, I spent a grand total of $6,000. It was a lightning fast 20 days from start to finish. I shouted a quick praise and hallelujah to God Almighty and high fived Paul & Louis. We were on to new adventures in roasting!