Love my woman, love my baby, love my biscuits sopped in gravy.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Home Coffee Roasting

What makes good coffee? If you can't tell the difference between the office coffee and Folgers, you probably think you're not a candidate for home roasting but I think if you asked around, nobody else could either. And although flavored coffees are interesting and fun in a new flavored Kool-Aid kind of way, the truth is they are probably just masking the harsh flavor of the cheap stuff.

I started out trying to roast my own coffee a couple of years ago, and the difference between that coffee and the $20 bag of Starbucks from Costco was enough to make me continue. The differences are freshness, taste and price. It's not hard or time consuming, either. If you've read at all about coffees on high end retail or roasting sites, you may have seen this home roasting referred to as an art. To me, that's doing a discredit to real art, which takes talent. Roasting coffee is more like a task than art. The guy who fixes your flat at the tire shop is not an artist, and this is similar, only more fun and easier. The above picture is art depicting work, and has nothing much to do with coffee roasting, except to display what art is, in the form of a painting by Charles Russell.

Speaking of cowpunching, do you think the American cowboy carried roasted coffee with him? I think Cookie probably kept green beans on the chuckwagon, because they would keep indefinitely and he could roast them as needed. The beans were probably loaded with sticks and rocks, but I bet it wasn't bad. It reminds me of the Red Badge of Courage by Stephan Crane, where in the Civil War coffee is used as an elixir on a young, damaged, soldier.
He made his patient drink largely from the canteen that contained the coffee. It
was to the youth a delicious draught. He tilted his head afar back and held the
canteen long to his lips. The cool mixture went caressingly down his blistered
throat. Having finished, he sighed with comfortable delight.

So how do you go about it? There is plenty of information about it on the web, but it can be overwhelming. This should help make it easy.

The first thing you need are green coffee beans, available from Sweet Maria's. They are fast and reliable. The downer is that unless you live in San Leandro, California, they will charge for shipping, but with the amount of money you save on coffee, you still come out ahead. Green beans range in price from $4 to $15 bucks a pound, but generally, the good stuff is only about $5 a pound. I have tried some of the more expensive stuff, but I couldn't tell a difference between it and the $5 batch. As you get familiar with beans from different parts of the world, you'll probably nail down a region that produces flavors that you like. I've noticed that African beans taste more exotic and earthy, and Central and South American coffees taste more tropical and fruity.

It takes about about ten minutes to roast coffee, and I usually do enough for about three days, since it will start to stale after about five days.

I've found that old hot air popcorn poppers work great, since they were designed to do this and are cheap. You can buy an expensive roaster but it seems like driving one of those Cadillac Escalades when all you need is a Ford pickup. The main thing is to make sure your popper has vents on the side of the hopper instead of on the bottom of it, so that the chaff doesn't fall into the heating mechanism and cause a fire. My wife had one from college that her grandma gave her and since they've invented microwave popcorn, it was just sitting in a box, so it was a low risk investment for me.

I have roasted a batch on a pan on the stove, but it was a lot of work shaking the pan the whole time so the beans would roast evenly, so the popper is still the best method I've tried.

When you throw this stuff into the popper, you'll hear it crack after about five mintues. It sounds like popcorn popping, but the chaff of the bean blows off, which you can collect in a colander and throw out. It is flavorless, so some of it in the grind won't matter. After another four or five minutes it will crack again. You can use sweet maria's little guide to figure out what roast you're coming up with. Here's what I ended up with recently with a full city roast.

Once your coffee is roasted, cool it quickly by stirring it with a spoon. I use a big wooden one, and that's perfect. The quicker you can cool it the more likely it is to stop roasting itself. If you let it cool itself, it may roast a shade darker in the middle of the batch so this helps keep it even. Put it away in a cool dark place after that, and many people recommend storing it in a paper bag or something that can breathe. I use old Illy's coffee cans, and crack the lid a bit for the first few hours. After about four hours the oils and flavors in the beans will have hit their peak so that's a good time to start grinding a brewing the coffee. It will lose over half of it's flavor in two weeks time but you'll be done with it by then if you have a pot of it every couple of days.

I've read by some coffee companies that as long as they package their coffee a certain way, you'll still get all the benefits of the fresh roast. I am not sure if I buy that 100%. I would say you will get some of them, but not all. I think they have to say this to sell coffee. I would as soon roast it myself, know it's fresh, and save the money they would keep. The markup on roasted coffee is pretty high. If I can buy green beans for $5 a pound they must be able to buy it cheaper by the ton, yet they sell it for over $13 a pound (based on $10 for a 12 oz. bag). You're paying them for the roast, shipping, coffee jerk, facilities and name brand.

Final thoughts on this:

Much of this is recycled from an email to a friend of mine, but I get a lot of people interested in the topic so I thought I would share it with you, whoever you are!


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