thoughts · Uncategorized

home roasting coffee: an introduction

People always seem impressed when I tell them that I roast my own coffee. I think that folks think that roasting coffee is an involved, expensive, drawn-out activity, like brewing your own beer, or cultivating your own wild mushrooms — but unlike homebrewing or DIY mycology, this hobby is neither time-intensive nor costly. Roasting coffee at home is fun, easy, and quite a bit cheaper than what you would pay for high-quality beans at the grocery store or at a coffee shop. Home roasting gets you freshly roasted coffee, rather than something that’s been sitting in a vacuum bag (or worse, a Folgers can) for weeks or months. Roasting your own beans also allows you to fine-tune the roast level, which brings out different flavors and aromas in different beans. Finally, quality green bean purveyors like Sweet Maria’s source their coffee beans directly and in small quantities. I like knowing that my coffee has been acquired ethically, sustainably, and in a way that provides farmers and workers with a living wage.

Got that? In short,:

  • inexpensive
  • fresh-roasted coffee
  • fine-tune your roast levels
  • ethically and sustainably sourced by people who know the coffee trade intimately.

So how dark should you roast your coffee? It’s up to you. Generally speaking, darker roasts have more chocolatey, rich flavors, while lighter roasts are brighter, more floral and/or fruity. What we know as "French" roast coffee (similar to most of the coffee sold at Starbucks) is very dark, which can be a good way to use mediocre-quality beans, but it also obliterates a lot of the flavor. Depending on the bean, Sarah and I like what is known as a "Full City" roast, which is a medium to medium-dark level. Fore more information on roast levels, check out this great article from Sweet Maria’s.

There are many devices you can use to roast your beans. You can buy a $300 Behmor drum roaster, or you can MacGuyver a solution with a gas grill, turkey fryer, or heat gun and dog food bowl My favorite method is to use a popcorn popper. I have a West Bend Poppery II that I picked up at the Capitol Hill Value Village for $5 on my way back from dropping Walter off at his old dog groomer. The Popper II is known in Internet coffee circles to be an ideal model for home roasting, but you can use any air popper that has side vents on the inside. This ensures that your beans spin quickly and consistently while roasting, which means a more even (and safe) roast.

I’m not going to attempt to describe the whole process here, but here is the basic method:

    Roasting up some coffee for the week.

  • Set up your popcorn popper near a window, fan, and/or vent hood (preferably all three). The easiest way to do this is to put the machine on one of your [off, cool] stove burners and turn your vents on high. Open some windows if you can.
  • Put a big bowl in front of the popcorn popper. This is going to collect the chaff from the beans.
  • Turn on the popcorn popper and slowly pour in some beans. Use about 1/3 cup, or as much as it takes for the beans to slowly spin in the popper. Some machines can take more or less; mine will do about 3 oz. at a time. Put the top back on the popper.
  • Don’t leave! Watch the beans carefully (you can take the lid off to peek, or if there isn’t too much chaff flying out of the top, you can leave it off altogether). After a few minutes, the beans are going to start to crack – it will sound like popcorn popping quietly. This is called "first crack".
  • Continue roasting for another minute or so. At about the 5 or 6 minute mark (sometimes it takes longer – I’ve had some decafs that take 8-9 minutes to get to this point), you will start to hear quick, quiet cracks, like the sound that Rice Krispies make in milk or a fire quietly crackling. This is called "second crack". For a medium-dark roast, you should stop the roast now. Unplug the popcorn popper. Working quickly (because now that the beans are not spinning, they can burn more easily), use a hot pad or oven mitt to remove the top of the popper. Dump the beans into a colander. Swirl them slowly for a minute or so to stop the roast.

At this point, you have deliciously roasted coffee that is not ready to drink yet. Your coffee needs to rest for at least 8-24 hours to outgas a little bit. Put the cool coffee in a jar or container and cover it most of the way with a lid (don’t seal it completely yet, since the CO2 needs to be able to escape). Let it sit overnight before grinding and brewing.

It sounds like a lot of work, but home roasting is really pretty easy to pick up. Our friend Pamela was in town this weekend and I showed her the ropes. She got the hang of it really quickly, and was able to identify the different roast stages by sound and by sight.

Roasting some coffee!

Think you want to try roasting some coffee? If you live in the North Chicagoland area, come over to our house and you can roast some with me! Otherwise you’ll need to get your own supplies. There are several places on the Internet that sell green beans, but by far the best is Sweet Maria’s. Almost everything I know about roasting coffee I’ve learned from their articles, YouTube videos, blog posts, and forum. I HIGHTLY recommend spending an afternoon tooling around their site if you’re at all interested in home roasting.

Here’s what to do:

  • read the Home Roasting Basics page on Sweet Marias.
  • buy a popcorn popper either new or used [you can even buy the popper from Sweet Maria’s if you want to get it all in one order]
  • buy some beans. I recommend the 4 or 8 lb. sampler from Sweet Marias – get the regular or a regular / decaf mix
  • read the Sweet Maria’s air popper instructions and watch the video for another walkthrough of the process and so you know what to expect.

Roasting coffee is one of my favorite kitchen tasks. It’s a relaxing, meditative part of my weekend ritual and a really enjoyable hobby. I hope you give it a try!

Banana bread, pour over.

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