Get off my lawn.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Roasting Coffee: Episode 1

The great thing about a vacation is the extra spare time you get while on one. And with the extra spare time comes a chance to do things you've wanted to do for awhile. One thing I've wanted to do for awhile is to try roasting my own coffee beans. I like good coffee, and fresh-roasted coffee tastes amazing. Looking around on the web, I found some resources for home roasting, such as Sweet Maria's. There's a lot of good information there.

But what I really needed was some raw beans, and some advice from a professional. I found them both by talking to Ben at Benetti's Coffee in Raytown, MO.

Ben is the man. You know when you talk to an artist about their art, whether the artist is a musician, a painter, a writer, wine maker (vineyard guy?), or whatever... Ben talks about coffee roasting in the same way. He knows the nuances of the process. There's a lot more to roasting beans than throwing them on a fire until they turn brown. I knew that, but I had no idea how much more. There are all kinds of things to keep track of: Carmelization, molecules separating, chaff, the progression from one temperature to the next, how different types of coffee react at specific temperatures, and on and on. Ben took some time out of his day and explained some of those things to me in layman's terms. He had some good suggestions and tips as well. He suggested I try roasting some Sumatra, and set me up with some. I also bought a roasted pound of it, so I would have something good to gauge my progress against.

Armed with my new-found information, no dedicated equipment, and no discernable skill, I arrived home and figured the obvious thing would be to roast some beans in a pan on my Big Green Egg. So I fired it up, ran it up to 500 degrees, put on some oven mitts, and grabbed my wife's vegetable strainer. I roasted a small amount in 3 separate batches.

Overall, the process is a little like popping corn. The coffee beans are green and they smell a little like grass. As they get hotter, the smell put off by my grill slowly changed from a "grill" smell to the grassy smell, and then suddenly, the smell of coffee. About at this point, I could hear the "first crack", which is when the beans start popping and shedding their shells, which come off like chaff. After this, you can supposedly brew coffee from them. I wanted a darker roast though, so I kept the beans on the fire in anticipation of the fabled "second crack". The second crack, from what I gather, is basically a coffee bean's last gasp. That's where you have a decidedly "dark roast", and the taste generated by the roast takes over the taste generated by the bean itself. If you wait too long after the second crack to remove the beans from the fire, the beans basically turn into charcoal briquettes. The margin of error at this point is fairly small. (Small enough to serve as one of several things that separate the n00bs from the professionals, I'm sure.)

Anyway, I got the beans roasted, and they smelled pretty good. I processed a handful of them in a French press and tried actually drinking the resulting coffee. Here is my "connoiseur" assessment:

Strong, complex melange of flavors with just a hint of robust beefiness, and a smoky finish.

...and the translation:

"Strong and complex melange": The roast was inconsistent. (Note to self: Shake the pan so the beans don't scorch, and all of them end up more or less the same color.) The "hint of robust beefiness" is probably the result of last night's KC strips on the same grill. ("Beef Coffee" may just catch on. It's not bad!) The "smoky finish" is the taste of carbon which lingers after the beef taste dissipates.

Ben suggested, and Sweet Maria's confirms, that the most foolproof way to roast at home is with a specific type of hot-air popcorn popper. I'm going to hunt one down and try that. That said, I think the "pan" approach could work with a bit more practice.

In any event, I thought this was pretty fun to do. I have a ways to go before I know what I'm doing, but it should be fun figuring it out.


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