Roast Your Own
The next step in ultimate coffee brewing
As somebody once quipped, “A morning without coffee is like sleep.” But who needs sleep when you’ve got a rich, aromatic cup?
In the continuing quest for a better cup of coffee, some people are going beyond grinding to roasting their own beans. For one thing, the coffee is fresher. Preroasted coffee has a shelf life of one week, no matter how it’s packaged. Unless supermarket coffee is marked with a roast date, it is impossible to know how long it has been sitting on the shelf. So if you’re not grinding your beans hot from the local roaster, you’re starting with stale beans. Green beans, readily purchased online, can last up to a year if stored properly.
Most commercial coffee outfits roast their beans for far too long, to homogenize what might be a willy-nilly batch of blends. Big retailers like Starbucks need a predictable product, and crops are anything but. “Over the year, your crop quality can be affected by things like weather changes, what time of year the coffee was picked, if the beans sat in the sun and fermented,” says Calvin Wood, owner of the Unroasted Coffee Company in San Francisco, a distributor of green beans. “But if you’ve got, say, Colombian Mesa de los Santos on your menu, customers expect it to taste the same all the time.”
Most of us have been taught that a coffee bean should be dark and oily, but in fact this look is the result of the longest possible roasting process. By the time a bean hits the darkest point it has lost most of its volatile aromatic compounds, and thus its complexity. Coffee roasted to lower levels has a higher acid content, less bitterness, and a more “rounded” flavor. Roasting to the darkest level “mutes” the coffee, says Wood, getting rid of the potentially troublesome high and low points. Roasting at home allows the coffeephile to taste “flavors you’ve never tasted in coffee,” enthuses Wood.
Like wine grapes, coffee beans have a unique taste that’s affected by regional climate. Much of this taste resides in the sugars in the bean. “A coffee bean, when it roasts, pops like popcorn,” Wood explains. “There’s first crack and second crack. That second crack means all the sugars in the beans are exploding, and the cell structures are breaking down. A lot of people stop well before that now, so it looks like a medium dry roast. That’s kind of the curve where most of the sugars start to burn.”
According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, only about 2,000 of the approximately 24,000 coffee retailers nationwide roast their coffee on-site. That number may be growing. Wholesale green beans cost about $3 a pound, making a roaster an investment with a sure payoff.
Coffee retailers who do roast their own coffee appreciate the home artisanal aspect of the trend. “I think it’s a lot like home espresso, in the sense that you have to be really, really committed to the equipment you’re using, and really dialed into it,” says Trish Skeie, director of coffee at Zoka Coffee Roaster & Tea Company in Seattle. “A lot of home roasters are doing this because they’re so intrigued by coffee, and the technical aspects of it. It’s not just about the freshness of the coffee.”
James Freeman, owner of Blue Bottle Coffee Company in San Francisco, himself started out as a home roaster. “I had a perforated baking sheet, and I had to wait until my ex-wife—my wife, then—left the apartment, because it would fill up with smoke,” he says. “I’d crank my oven to 500 degrees. It was great fun.”
William Stiles of Seattle began roasting his own more than 10 years ago, when he was a lowly counterperson at a then-modest company called Starbucks. “I was reading this book, Coffee by David—it used to be the bible of coffee roasters—and it had this picture of a frying pan full of green beans,” he explains. “I thought it would be fun to try.” Stiles went on to home roast using an air-blown popcorn popper. He now owns a $1,000 propane roaster that can brown a pound at a time (he also owns Home Espresso Repair, a company in Seattle that repairs and sells espresso machines—but not roasters).
The home roaster can create his or her own blends, tasting and experimenting in the never-ending search for the perfect cup. “It all comes down to control,” says Stiles. “The ability to control the flavors—and, the adventure!”
For every enthusiast, it should be noted, there are scores of disillusioned would-bes. Michael and Rachel Kessler of Seattle attempted to roast beans in a cast iron skillet, following a set of instructions carefully. “It was pretty much a disaster,” Michael says. “Smoke and chaff everywhere.” When cooking, green coffee beans will slough off their feather-light outer skin, called chaff. “After a couple of tries, we gave up,” Michael says.