Sunday, April 11, 2010

Home Roasting: Part 1

This post has been a long time in coming. I've had the opportunity to roast over 50 ultra-micro batches of coffee by now; this makes me feel like I can comment on the home roasting experience more thoroughly than a month ago, but where to start? In part one I'll outline the pieces of equipment and my bean selections, then in part two, the process and results.

My roaster of choice is the Toastess hot air corn popper. This machine is capable of roasting about 1/2 cup of un-roasted "green" coffee beans (actually are the seeds of the coffee fruit) at a time, equivalent to about 75 grams (1/6 lb). Obviously this popper is not designed for coffee, but does function surprisingly well. Any more than 1/2 cup and the beans do not circulate effectively and become very unevenly roasted. This uneven roast is especially noticeable in lighter roasts where the outside and ends of the coffee are the only areas effectively roasted. This uneven roasted effect is referred to as "tipped" coffee, not a flattering label. First thing you want to eliminate from the package is the plastic hood that is on top- that thing will start melting after 3 or 4 roasts, even less if you do them back to back. Also, if you plan on roasting to French or Viennese (God forbid), make sure you clean the popper out as best you can  after each roast to make it go more miles with you.

The popper does a decent job, but nowhere near the professional level of a drum roaster used by Northwest Coffee Roasters, Kaldi's Coffee, or Stumptown. Obviously, this popper and the roasting I'm engaging in is for educational purposes primarily. I have, however, already sold about 10 pounds of coffee to a few interested friends which helps pay for the bulk raw bean purchases also needed. For these raw beans and the intel on how to get the best roasted product out of them, I turn to So far, I've gotten their ugly Sumatra grade 1 Mandheling, FTO Ethiopia Oromia Yirgacheffe, Guatemala Acatenango- Finca La Soledad, Rwanda Gkongoro Nyarusiza, and their mass produced Brazil Cerrado Fazenda Aurea. I'm not including the names of these regions and farms just to impress, but also to show that they do their sourcing directly with farmers which pays the farmers more for their product and also ensures that Sweetmarias obtains a better product. I'll save my analysis of these individual coffees for another post.

CorningWare French White 20-Ounce Mug Other pieces needed for the roasting process are: two steel colanders for air-cooling of the roasted beans, a timer, a large bowl to catch the chaff blown out of the popper, a wooden spoon for stirring, and some porcelain containers with airtight locking lids for storing the fresh roasted coffee (right).

Also, something that I've found increasingly useful is a small 3 cup size french press to sample the coffee you've roasted; this is to make sure that the roast time you've used is what works best for the coffee. You wouldn't want to roast 3 pounds of an expensive Rwandan coffee too dark before you cupped it and noticed it tastes like St*rb*cks! Actually, the more I think about it, I want to buy a second small press to use for a comparison. This way I can have a previously roasted batch of the same variety side-by-side with a new batch and see what I like and dislike about each, changing the roast appropriately. Lastly, get a nice digital scale for weighing out correct amounts of beans in case you want to sell some. Scales can be used for weighting accurate amounts of water for brewing consistently, as well as weighing the raw beans you want to roast- very handy.

All-in-all, the popper is worth the purchase, the experience is worth the hassle, and the savings you see by buying raw beans (roughly $5-6/lb vs. $10-12 roasted) helps to recoup the wallet abuse, especially if you can manage to sell a few pounds to friends in your church willing to experiment with your hobby. I have a great time roasting, and I know you will too, just don't take yourself too seriously ;-).

Lord, thank you for creativity and curiosity. I pray these character elements would remain in good proportion in the life You have given me. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Time For Reflection

I've taken quite a bit of time off from blogging, as you may have noticed. My personal life went through a bit of an overhaul and my attention had to be focused on more pressing issues. Vida Coffee Co is under construction, but I am no longer employed there. My mission to get this project off the ground was a success, so I felt my consulting job there could end fulfilled.

Over spring break, I've traveled around quite a bit, keeping me busy and off my blog. I do have substantial home roasting experience now, and do plan on sharing these experiences soon, possibly as soon as this week. Since this post is basically just designed to reassure you that I am still alive and blogging, I'll leave you with a short story.

While having Easter dinner "down home", I had a conversation with my brother-in-law, a barista for Starbucks. He showed me his new "Elite" training manual for only the most valuable baristas. His enthusiasm for the coffee company is muted a bit due to my regular injection of reality into his coffee knowledge (sharing the truth of how Starbucks is getting less and less 'special', and losing influence because of it). After reading through this 'confidential' manual full of run-of-the-mill coffee facts with knowledge accessible to anyone with Wikipedia, I found that this 'elite' training was no more than what I would consider standard for my employees. I think this standardized underachievement policy, promoted by Starbucks and others like them, significantly retards the advancement of coffee knowledge the "Third Wave" is trying to develop.
In March 2008, Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold of the LA Weekly defined the third wave of coffee by saying:

“The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peet’s and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure."[1]
Without knowledgeable baristas in our coffee shops (coming standard), our customers will miss their greatest opportunity to learn about the true potential specialty coffee has to offer. Things like micro-roasting, single-origin espressos, single-cup brewing, cupping knowledge, and the like will all be passed over because these topics only are fitting for the 'elite' among us. Bologna. These topics should be common knowledge and commonly discussed with our customers to help broaden their coffee horizons, and in effect, widen the reach of our commercial interests.

Lord, keep my head deflated and on straight. I pray You would bless me in my new work. Help me to perform well and keep my coffee standards high. Here we go.
  1. ^ La Mill: The Latest Buzz LA Weekly, March 13, 2008