We’ve been back from our visit to our manufacturer in China, North Coffee Equipment, Ltd of Shenzhen, for over a month. If it wasn’t for shipping nearly 40 roasters, attending the SCAA show in Seattle, and launching our Focus on the Roast competition last week, I’d probably feel a little guilty that it’s taken me so long to share some of our trip with you.
I’ll spare you the gory details about an 18 hour flight in a seat only a sardine could love and several days of being dragged shopping in recompense for translation services courtesy of my wife.
What I will share with you is how impressive the guys at North and especially Mr. Wong, the owner and chief engineer really are.
Mr. Wong is a very talented and capable engineer with 20+ years of experience designing and building commercial coffee roasters. He’s originally from Taiwan and splits his time between his facility in Shenzhen and his home and factory in Taiwan. He’s a real coffee guy and a dedicated amateur roaster himself . He’s got a couple of coffee shrubs planted outside his office and shared several exotic coffees he had roasted himself including a very nice Geisha.
He and Mr. Tim arranged for our hotel and transportation from downtown Shenzhen to their facility. They booked us in at the Venetian Hotel and chauffeured and entertained us at the best restaurants they could find. As a farm kid, I’ll eat whatever is set before me without complaint, but the truth is I’m not all that hepped up on Chinese cuisine. If it wasn’t the food, it must have been the company. I have never had a more enjoyable business trip. Mr. Wong and Mr. Tim were and are entirely delightful people. Spending time with them talking coffee and coffee roasting was a joy and I hope to return the hospitality when they visit for SCAA next year.
Their shop is compact and staffed with craftsmen from all over China. These guys build every single machine to order by hand under the watchful eye of Mr. Li, Mr. Wong’s production engineer. To an outsider, it looks and sounds like chaos. Grinders grinding, welders welding, and hammers pounding. It’s a full-fledged welding shop and fabrication facility and filled with boxes of components for their many different models stacked on every horizontal surface whether the floor, shelves or tables. It’s the way low volume durable goods are batch processed everywhere with a minimum of floor space and a maximum sense of urgency to fill orders. I don’t know what you see in the pics, but I grew up in facilities exactly like this; it looks like home to me.
A good coffee roaster is more than price or looks. It’s airflow and drum speed and heat output and control. It’s easy to make one look right. It’s takes much more skill to put the pieces together to make one work right. If all you want to do is turn green coffee brown, you can buy a roaster from anyone. And while a great roastmaster can coax great coffee out of just about any machine, it’s enormously easier to learn to artisan roast on a good one. At our price point, that’s probably where we really shine.
What you need to know about North is that they’re not just another Chinese company flogging knock off roasters. Those are easy to find on Alibaba and are strictly a “buyer beware” type of thing. They’ll probably send you something for your money, but they don’t know much about roasting coffee
Make no mistake, as impressive as Mr. Wong and Co. are, China is the literal Wild West of the East. Mr. Wong has been so successful there’s even a company that is copying his roasters! The copies are close enough in appearance that even I was confused by the pictures. This was one of the big reasons we had to make this trip.
Mr. Wong wasn’t fooled for an instant. Like a guy knows his kids, he knew those machines weren’t his. He also knew immediately where they came from. A former distributor looking for fatter margins and a bigger territory had taken one apart and was selling copies hyped as “improved originals.” Cute. Only in China. Or the US. Or anywhere else someone sees easy money selling fakes and trying to take advantage of the little guy that actually needs a capable machine with real warranty and tech support to get his business off the ground.
Fortunately, Mr. Wong is the real deal. His roasters are set up right. Solid plate construction for thermal consistency and extra heat and precise air control to make them nimble when the profile calls for it. He imports his 430 stainless for the drums from Japan to make sure it’s food safe and because 430 doesn’t expand. This allows for tighter tolerances. It’s also magnetic and closer to carbon steel for thermal conductivity. He imports his electronics from his home in Taiwan, because cheap Chinese copies of everything are so ubiquitous they are often get accidentally slipped into orders by otherwise honest vendors.
Mr. Wong is trying to build world class roasters out of Shenzhen China and he’s got a tough job, but he’s living his dream. Meeting him in his shop, it’s easy to see that he has a lot of pride in what he builds. It’s obvious he thinks his design and his customers (that would be you and me) are worth the effort.
And as long as we’re talking about the design, please don’t buy into the stainless drum nonsense. He’s designed the drum and burners to prevent hot spots. If you need to, visit the shop and we’ll measure drum temps with my laser thermometer together. There are no coffee scorching hot spots in his roasters.
If after reading my posts it sounds like some of this ticks me off, it’s because it does.
Over the last couple of years, while my semi-retirement hobby went horribly wrong by morphing into a six day work week, I’ve wrenched and roasted on a bunch of roasters from a bunch of manufacturers. Mr. Wong has a better machine than most for less money than them all. He’s worked hard to do good and he’s built a team of guys that feel the same. They too work 6 days a week and 12 hours a day and go home a couple weeks at a time once or twice a year. They’re sending money home to the farm to support their families and raise kids and take care of aging parents. They are in every way admirably hard working and industrious. I like them. They’re loyal to Mr. Wong and deserve every success. I’ll do whatever I can to spread the North gospel that they do good work, make nice stuff, and stand behind what they sell.
I know this is a little kooky, but I want you to know where your machine comes from and who built it and why you should care.