Inside Genio – South Africa’s coffee roasting machine factory
In September of this year, North-West University alumnus and Genio’s founder Neil Maree was showing off his smart coffee roaster to a discerning crowd at a German expo.
As is usually the case with these types of shows, everything was only shored up the day before the curtain went up. Maree was using software created by another South African company – Kazazoom, which was tested here in Joburg but never loaded onto the Germany machines before. Luckily everything went off without a hitch.
“It all went perfectly!” says Eric Clements, CEO and founder of Kazazoom. Maree’s four coffee roasting machines worked just as they should and he and Clements chatted over WhatsApp to discuss the next version of the software.
Fast forward a month and we were allowed to visit the Genio Roasters factory and talk to Maree and Clements about the story of Genio. What makes it special lies in both the hardware and the software.
Genio’s Precision Series is unique in the world for creating roasters that use open source solutions. Each roaster has a heavily modified Arduino Due at its core, which users control with an app on an Android tablet. Maree had the idea to start the company after he was a finalist in the SA National Barista Championships in 2009.
“I wanted to combine my engineering and coffee making, so I built a coffee roaster and then started manufacturing full time,” says Maree.
His first crack was a fully analogue machine, but that didn’t last long. Another iteration brought a programmable logic controller (PLC) to make it decidedly less analogue.
Then the open source renovations began. Another version used an Arduino running software Maree programmed himself in C++. When even this solution wasn’t quick or flexible enough, Kazazoom was contracted to create an app for the project.
“Neil was different from our other clients, he knew exactly what he wanted,” says Clements.
“And I knew more on the technical side,” Maree interjects.
Maree’s had sketched out the skeleton of an app, which could communicate with the Arduino, controlling everything about the roasting process – we got to see this first hand. All of Genio’s roasters have a control panel with a variety of traditional switches and knobs, and then a not-so-traditional tablet mount. The app sends a “roast profile”to the roaster over a Bluetooth connection.
This profile is a unique set of instructions that can be changed depending on the bean and how one would like to have it roasted. A lighter roast, for example where the bean only cracks once in the immense heat, is very acidic. On the other end of the scale, you can create something that looks burnt. This kind of roast is after the bean cracks a second time and creates a coffee that will be very bitter, but lacks the acidity.
The Genio roasters can hit both of these extremes and any level of roasting between the two. The roast process starts with raw, green coffee beans that are loaded into a hopper where they fall down into a rotating, double drum. A gas burner heats up the outer layer of the drum, which, in turn, heats the air in between the two layers.
This is essential to the roast as exposing the beans to the raw flame or even the brutally hot metal would burn them or make the roast more difficult to control. Instead the aim is to heat the air inside of the drum.
After monitoring the heat inside of the drum as well several other metrics with a real time graph in the Android app, the beans are roasted. They’re released into a smaller cooling grate and when they’re ready, three automated arms push them out into the opening where waiting bags are filled with fresh beans.
We got to see the “Genio 6 Precision Series” in action. The number 6 denotes the fact that this machine can roast six kilograms of beans at once. Genio also produces a larger varient that does 30 kilograms in a single roast.
As impressive as it all is, Maree says that it can be improved. Maree even tells us of installs he’s personally done where the machine is completely automated. Loading the raw beans in, roasting them, and collecting the result is all done without winding up with dirty hands.
On our tour we saw to see the Arduino Due in the centre of the machine. It looks nothing like a stock Due, as it’s modified by another local company – HHRL.
After remaking the electronics of the Genio every year for the past three years, it will be left as is. “I’m gatvol with redesigning,” says Maree.
Despite this, thanks to the design being scalable, a new model will be rolled out soon. Sitting between the 6 and 30 series, a 15 kilogram machine will be created. This is in response to Genio’s existing customers who have bought a 6 series in the past and have expanded their businesses and needs beyond it.
Currently the bulk of Genio’s sales are in South Africa, but you’ll be able to find a machine in in many countries such as the UK, Turkey, Switzerland and Germany – where the second highest amount of these machines exist.
Software is also on the docket for expansion. The roast profile import and export system will be worked on to facilitate sharing between franchises of a company.
This concept, referred to as “decentralised roasting” will allow every franchise to create the same roast despite the many variables in the process. The first customer to use this new feature is based in Stellenbosch.
Other improvements include the ability to rate the taste of these profiles, as well as a bigger push from Genio to making their machine completely digital. The gas gauge, for example, is soon to be replaced with a pressure sensors. This allow greater pressure monitoring and helps make each roast more consistent.
As we take a final tour around the factory it’s difficult to believe that such machines are made right here in South Africa. The name plate signed by those who made it looks like something you see on the engine of a supercar, not a coffee roasting machine made in Honeydew, Johannesburg.
The machine, the electronics and the software is all made right here under our noses. So the next time you have a cuppa at home or abroad, there may be more South African engineering in it than you know.
Thanks to Genio Roasters for proving the images in this story after our SD card became corrupted. You’re going in our book of grudges, Transcend.