Espresso, cappuccino, mocha – even if the way we drink coffee bears little resemblance to the crowded and bustling coffee shops of Rome and Venice, the language we use to describe it is all Italian. As are all of the best-known brands for roasting and brewing the delicious bean. Except, that is, for one: a small Joburg-based startup that has got so good at building roasters that it currently has a custom job on order for the four-times roasting champion of Italy itself.
Even better, the machines are built using a controller board that is based on Arduino, a small and open electronic brain that is often found in 3D printers or home-made robots, and was originally made in… Italy.
The story of Genio begins in 2009, when North West University engineering student Neil Maree was building amateur coffee-roasting machines as parts of his studies. Today, Maree has shipped machines to 30 countries around the world, including the UK, Turkey, Switzerland and Germany. Each is hand-built to exacting standards. There are only around 50 Genio roasters in the world, and the firm is planning to assemble just 30 more machines in 2017.
The roasters are sold under the Precision Series brand, explains Maree, and are capable of roasting 6kg, 15kg or 30kg of coffee at a time. The secret to the machine’s popularity with professionals, however, is the exceptional level of control users have over each roast. At the heart of every black metal Genio roaster is a modified Arduino board called the Due, which is made by local electronics experts at HHRL. Another South African firm, Kazazoom, is responsible for a software app designed to run on an off-the-shelf tablet, which acts as the control interface of each machine. Kazazoom cut its teeth developing games for the now-defunct Mxit social network.
By using standardised and off-the-shelf hardware, Maree can keep his costs down and focus on continually improving the overall design. While each roaster does have a traditional control panel with physical buttons and knobs, it also comes with a docking station for the tablet.
Inside the app, everything is programmable using a simple dash. From the heat on the burner to the speed of the roasting drum and the careful control of the air inside the machine, parameters can be modified and saved to a “roasting profile”.
While Maree has achieved a certain level of global success, his aim is to establish himself more fully in South Africa.
“Having done installations in 10 countries, we have found that South Africa has a relatively easy business environment,” Maree explains. “In Europe, and especially Germany, one often sees the pitfalls of overregulation, and how difficult it can make getting simple things done.
“Being on the tail end of exchange rates also raises a lot of issues,” he continues. “While there is the opportunity to gain exports from a weaker rand, the volatility ensures that you rarely come out on top when doing lots of international trade.”.
Coffee beans are best when roasted close to the site of consumption, and ground just before a brew is made. Maree says Genio’s machines are designed for “decentralised roasting”: chains can draw up basic roasting profiles to maintain continuity of their flavours, while allowing individual shops to roast and adjust for quality on site.