Monday, March 26, 2007

adventures in coffee roasting

An attempted photo essay: enjoy!

As many of you know, I roast my own coffee beans. A long time ago, I wrote a whole post about roasting, but now that I have a digital camera, I thought the whole thing might be more interesting with pictures. First thing you need is some green coffee beans: as pictured here. I get mine from an online seller called Sweet Maria's.

Sweet Maria's was a tiny shop in Columbus, Ohio back in the day when I was actually learning to roast. My friend Connie had stumbled in and met Tom who introduced her to the wonders of home roasting. I eventually made my way there and Tom actually loaned me my first hot air popcorn popper to give it all a try. Eventually, I left Columbus and so did Tom and Sweet Maria's. Now he's in California operating a primarilly mail-order business.

Pictured here are both caff and decaf varieties. Because I can hardly stand caffeine anymore, I am roasting more decaf than caff these days. Here's a five pound bag of decaf and a one pound bag of caff. Including shipping, this whole order cost me $41.00 and will last me about 6 months. That's cheap, people. One good reason to roast at home.

To roast at home you'll also need: a hot air popcorn popper, a bowl or two, and a stopwatch. The bowl is for pouring the hot coffee in once the roast is over. The watch is to help you keep track of the time, but there is no way to roast by the clock. You have to listen for the cracks, but I'll get to that in a minute.

When choosing a popper, be sure you get the right kind. In this picture, you can see the bottom of the popping chamber: do you see those air-vents around the sides? Those are the kind of air-vents you want. Some poppers have a single airvent in the very bottom of the popping chamber. Those won't work for roasting coffee. The vents in the sides (like in this one) force the beans to move in a circle, keeping the air nice and even throughout the roast. That is essential.

If you're planning to roast at home, it's better to roast outside for a variety of reasons. Number one: the chaff. Caffeinated coffee beans are covered in a thin skin that dries up and separates from the beans during roasting. (decaf beans don't have a chaff anymore because it comes off during the decaffeination process). This "chaff" (pictured here) blows out the hole in the popper and makes a big mess. Better to let it blow out into the yard than all over your kitchen, although I hear you can put a bowl of water under the popper hole (where you'd put a bowl to catch popcorn) if you want to try roasting in your house. I'd still advise *not* roasing indoors because the process is very hot and smelly and is guaranteed to set off your smoke alarm.

So you've got your popper and your green beans and you're outside with a bowl and a stopwatch: now what? Pour the same amount of green beans into your popper as you would popcorn kernals, about two inches. Close the thing up, turn it on, hit your stopwatch and LISTEN. No matter what your watch says, it's what your ears hear that matters. Roasting coffee involves two cycles, called respectively "first crack" and "second crack." If you're roasting caffeinated beans, the first thing you'll notice is the chaff blowing off. That's pretty festive.

Shortly after the chaff has slowed to a near stop, you'll start to hear first crack: a series of tiny cracking sounds that will start intermittently and build to quite a racket. Soon, first crack will subside, and depending on your beans, a short or longish break will ensue when all you will hear is the whirr of the popper. Pretty soon, though you'll start to hear another series of cracks. The Sweet Maria's site has a really interesting explanation about the cracks: one is endothermic and one is exothermic, etc, etc. However, what you really need to know is that the instant second-crack begins, the coffee is technically done. The rest is a matter of taste. Above is a picture taken while roasting is in progress, in between first and second crack. You can see the beans are pretty brown, but they aren't done yet.

If you stop roasting at the beginning of second-crack, you've got a very light roast. The longer you let it go, the darker it will be, until you hit a french roast. The beans look different at each stage and the Sweet Maria's site has a great bean-color chart to help you match the colors to the names of the roasts. If you get too far beyond a french roast (when you can hear no more cracking at all) you're heading into the region of CHARCOAL and you can't brew charcoal, people. You just can't.

Here's what I ended up with: a sort of medium roast. These are my decaf beans, I chose this pic because it came out better than the one I took of the roasted caff beans. Different roasts taste different depending on your beans and this is a brand new batch for me, so I'm not sure which roast they're best suited to. We'll see. I used to roast all beans to a very dark, french roast, but eventually I realized I was just burning away a lot of the more subtle flavors. I've brewed lighter and lighter and finally settled in the mid-range.

Finally, here's one more plug for Sweet Maria's: this handsome, unbleached cotton bag that you can order your beans in for a paltry buck more (or something like that. I only ordered cloth bags a couple of times, but the bags are cute and I use them for other things. For example, I've been carrying my new camera around in this one until I get myself a camera case.

Anyway, I have no idea how these pics will come out or if the formatting will be ok. This has been a giant experiment. Thanks for bearing with me. :-)


Anonymous roro said...

Fantastic photo essay! Informative - illustrative - and made me want to get to the Merchants of Green Coffee and get roasting! Maybe when I get back to Vancouver and can roast on the balcony . . .

6:50 PM  
Blogger witchtrivets said...

cool! That was fabulous and now I wish I had not given away my air popper when I moved. I have to try this, our coffee budget is too huge and this might bring it down a bit. And it will be fun.

12:30 PM  

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