Coffee Roasting: A 500 Year History

When coffee was discovered, it is believed that its first human consumer ate the berries straight off the plant, as he had seen birds or goats or some historically undetermined animal do. He discovered that the berries, which seemed to give these animals a tremendous amount of energy, were extremely bitter and not pleasant to eat. He decided to cook the beans, becoming the first coffee roaster, to see if the bitterness could be cooked out. The problem with that was that roasting the fruit made the resulting beans hard and difficult/unpleasant to consume. His next thought was to boil the beans to soften them; when he did this, you guessed it, he ended up with an aromatic brown liquid that quickly became known as a “miracle drug” and earned this alleged discoverer/inventor of coffee, sainthood.

Another version of the roasting discovery is far more accidental. A man discovered the fruit, this time because of goats specifically, and took them to a local monk. The monk disapproved for some reason–maybe religion/meditation are the only acceptable drugs–and tossed them into the fire. The smell emanating from the roasting beans enticed his fellow monks, who apparently did not have such disdain for non-godly drugs. They crushed the dried and roasted beans and dissolved them in water. Most believe that this is just a folk tale, like a creation story, made up to explain otherwise unknown origins.

Both of these stories took place centuries ago. However it started, coffee roasting is still practiced today. Most likely, you are trying to build a career and brand around a practice that started out essentially accidental, and which, now, is a scientific and formulaic craft.

Wherever coffee consumption, roasting and preparation got their start, they definitely gained their popularity in the Ottoman Empire and Persia sometime around the 1400s. At this time, roasting utilized a shallow dish, the description of which reminds me of a pan used for sifting gold. This pan had long handles and would be held over an urn of sorts that contained hot coals. The beans were stirred while they roasted. This method only roasted a small amount of beans at once because it was handheld.

Sometime in the middle of the 1600s, someone invented a crank-controlled cylinder roaster so that the beans could be kept in perpetual motion without having to be stirred; this theoretically roasted the beans more evenly and likely allowed more beans to be roasted at once. The cylinder still had to be held over the brazier to roast. This machine became popular in France, the Netherlands and Italy, all of which came out with their own distinct versions of the method. These variations spread and popularized throughout Europe, England and the colonies in America.

In the 1800s, the United States and Europe saw an influx in patents for commercialized roasting machines that would allow the roasting of much larger quantities of coffee. Despite this, home roasting remained the primary method for the majority of people until coffee began to be sold by the pound in 1864.

Commercial coffee roasters had to battle to sell their roasted coffee, especially as home roasting appliances continued to improve through the 1850s, including one specifically designed to work on a wood-burning stove. Even with these advancements, people were still most likely to use metal sheets in the oven, roasting a layer of beans at a time, or beans stirred in a cast iron skillet over a fire.

The one pound bag of pre-roasted coffee sent the commercial coffee roasting business into the success it had been struggling for for decades. This meant that one could have ready-to-brew coffee immediately, and more of it than most home-brewing methods could produce at one time. By the early 1900s, commercial coffee roasting had bypassed home-roasting in the United States. This trend only continued as patents for electrically run roasters came out, in the United States as well as Germany. Commercial roasting took a little longer to take hold in other parts of the world, as in France, where it did not surpass home roasting until the 1920s. This had a lot to do with the rural population density; as people migrated to urban and suburban areas, space and time became more limited, making commercially ready products far more desirable.

At the same time that instant coffee became a thing, specialty coffee shops began to open up to serve a nostalgic and tasteful coffee crowd. No, it didn’t just start with hipsters. These were the hipsters of the 50s, resisting modernization and urbanization, and the mass-production of capitalism, just as many coffee elitists do today. Specialty coffee shops saw a boom in the 70s and this was the first time that a wider variety of roasts was offered as well as coffee beans from a diversity of locations around the world. In Germany around this time, a new home roasting device was invented and marketed; it involved a fluid bed roasting process and was marketed to the hangers-on to the home-roasting lifestyle. It was designed based on a commercialized hot-air roasting method.

The US emerged with its own hot air roaster in 1976, giving US consumers a cheaper alternative to the German device. Home roasting was not dead; through the 80s and the end of the 90s, an influx of home-roasting patents were filed. These devices were drum roasters and different types of fluid-bed roasters.

Gourmet and specialty coffee continue to focus on degree of roast and diversity of origin. Home roasting also continues for the more luxurious-minded and the coffee “purists.” Coffee roasting technology continues to develop with the times, growing in size and adding more and more user control. We are entering the time of the digital coffee roaster, which will offer even more control and specificity; it will perhaps even offer a wider spectrum of roasts as we can control more and more of the process.

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13 Comments

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  1. The history of coffee roasting is definitely unique and very interesting. Everytime I read some new article on coffee and how to roast it I realize how little I know about it. It truly comes as a surprise to me, especially because i thought I knew a lot more. Oh well, I guess you never stop learning new things. 😀

  2. That’s some nice info there. The monk story made me giggle a bit, but yes the article rightly termed coffee as a non-godly drug. That’s funny! Also, it’s good to be a hipster, when it’s related to coffee, isn’t it? 😉

  3. This is a wonderful trip down time. To think that coffee brewing had such a troubled history. Too bad the real origin of this technique was never truly documented. Still, what matters is how it has progressed from an accident to an exact science over the years. Most people won’t even realize how lucky they are now. They didn’t have to experience the growing pains of coffee development throughout history.

  4. This was a really interesting read. I had never really thought about the origins of coffee before now. It was very informative. I didn’t really know much about the roasting process either, especially that there were machines made to do it from home. I do wish that the actual discovery of coffee had been documented though, as it would be nice to know how it truly happened. Oh well, fun tales and speculation make for a good origin story. 🙂

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