In a previous post, I mentioned that one strategy for optimizing the freshness and quality of your coffee at home would be to start roasting at home. The roasting process initiates deterioration in the coffee, so roasting small batches on your own will minimize your chances of having coffee go bad; you roast what you need when you need it.
It may seem like an ordeal, thinking about roasting your coffee; but, it wasn’t all that long ago that most people who drank coffee did just that. In the time before plentiful coffee roasters and the need to be constantly on the go, home roasting coffee at home was just what you did.
It was cheaper for a long time to roast one’s coffee, making it a longer-held tradition for the poorer classes in the United States and even for Europeans who likely had more difficult access to the Latin and Middle American coffee industry at that time. Tom Owen of Sweet Marias (a vital resource for any home roaster) writes that “American rural folks who cherished the taste of coffee, roasted out on their porches, over their fireplaces, or atop their cast iron stoves.” This early tradition of home roasting is especially appealing because of the very factor we’re talking about here: freshness. Writes Owen, “[people] appreciated the fact that coffee in the form of raw green beans could be stored indefinitely” and also notes that Sears Roebuck from around 1900 sold two different types of green coffee beans.
Sometime around the mid-1800s, roasting started to go commercial. Arbuckle Brothers were one of the first and for a long time the biggest names in commercial coffee roasting. John Arbuckle, in fact, is credited in his obituary in The New York Times in 1912 as coming up with the idea that would launch Arbuckle Brothers into sustained fame and fortune. Coming from the steel industry in Pennsylvania, the Arbuckle Brothers chose coffee as their industry and first revolutionized commercial roasting by producing easy-to-transport-and-store one pound bags, which made buying pre-roasted coffee much more appealing and realistic. John then recognized that their process of using “fifty girls to wrap up all the packages of coffee the firm sold” was pricier than was desirable. “He set to work with a draftsman and a machinist and invented the machine which filled, weighed, sealed, and labeled coffee in paper packages as fast as it came from the hopper. One machine would do the work of 500 girls.” This cemented their company by giving them, according to the Times, “the control of the package coffee trade of the world.”
It also minimized the necessity for home roasting, even though trade pricing and competition, along with tradition and affordability would make this a stop and go situation for quite a while. The fact of the Arbuckle’s success can be found in the estimation that, upon his death, John was a millionaire several times over, and this in 1912. Blockades continued when “coffee interests” pushed for fresher coffee – which lead to home-roasting appliances emerging into the US market in the 1930s. Although the company producing the new appliances noted that their previous market had been mostly made up of well-to-do families in Latin America, this can be used to show that home roasting was either done in a skillet or pan or being practiced less and less by that point.
These days, a new cycle has come around, with coffee science and investigation re-emphasizing the freshness and quality that comes from brewing soon after roasting, and this has led to more home-roasting practice. The need to slow down, as well, has emerged in response to the decades of industrial and technological-inspired frenzy; it is appealing now to find those practices one can take their time with, whether it be meditation or artisanal crafting or roasting one’s coffee. There are anecdotal and scientific results that show that this slowing down and participating in sequential, creative process and production is good for one’s mental, spiritual and overall well-being.
So how do you do it?
For in-depth details on various methods, I recommend Sweet Marias.
You can go completely old school and utilize your basic skillet; though this is difficult to control when it comes to balanced roasting. Sweet Marias also offers instructions on how to convert a stovetop popcorn popper, which is particularly beneficial if you happen to have one of those in your cabinet (or attic). If you’re going to go the popcorn popper route, they recommend a hot air popper over the stovetop popper because this minimizes the chances of singing and gives you a better chance of a more balanced roast.
You can also roast in your oven; this method is complicated when it comes to close control over the process because it ‘s hard to observe the beans as they roast and, again, no matter what type of oven you use you’ll likely end up with an uneven roast. The difficulty with this method is mainly linked with the need to check and move the beans while they roast, and opening the oven allows heat to escape, thus affecting the balance of temperature and roast. Beans roast best if they are in constant motion, hence why Marais and others recommend an air popper.
You can also shop around for coffee roasting appliances; I promise they’ve gotten better than the ones advertised in the 1930s. Sweet Marias is again a great place to start, for advice or for purchasing as they offer a decent selection of at home roasters.
Once you’ve selected your roasting method, you’ll need your beans. This depends on your knowledge of coffee, to begin with. If you have a preferred region or supplier, that’s great. Maria’s recommends getting a sampler to test out a variety of regions and see which ones you prefer. Maria’s also sells green coffee and offers information about what’s best to know when purchasing it. I trust them as a resource for home roasting information and supply, so, again, they are a good place to start. Other companies are catering to home-roasters like Mr. Green Beans in Portland and Burman Coffee; shop around for quality, origin, and price to find the best selection for you.
Once you start to roast, you’re going to observe several change stages in your beans. If you’re new to the process, I recommend starting with a small amount for practicing. You’ll also probably want to consider purchasing cheaper beans at first until you are skilled enough not to worry about damaging those expensive beans you’re drooling over.
At first, your beans are going to go from green to yellow; then they’ll start to steam as their internal moisture escapes. The first pop or crack is an audible indication that you’re going from a light roast to a medium roast; the noise occurs when water and other molecules escape. This is when the bean’s sugars begin to caramelize, and you’ll start to smell that coffee aroma. Most roasters indicate that it is just before or at this first sound that you’ve achieved a light roast coffee; if that’s your goal, stop here because your beans will continue to roast until they’ve cooled down. That’s a pro-tip: always stop a little before you’re at the roast you want because your beans will get darker even after you’ve stopped.
The second audible cracking or popping sound indicates that you’re going from medium to darker roasts; stop right before that for a solid medium roast. You don’t want to roast too far beyond this point because that’s getting into burned, brittle, charcoal territory. Once you remove the beans from the heat, you want to let them cool in a dry place, and it is recommended that you wait to brew with it for anywhere from 4 hours to an entire day. According to Sweet Marias, you can freeze the coffee just after roasting it to optimize cooling, but don’t return it to the freezer after this or you’ll end up with condensation and freshness problems.
And, of course, remember to keep your coffee stored in a cool, dry, dark container.
Roasting at home gives you the ultimate control over your coffee; you can roast as much as you want to at a time, but remember that you probably won’t want to drink it immediately after roasting, so this takes some planning. You can try out different roasts on the same bean blends to see what gives you the best flavor and the process can be as simple as re-utilizing an old popcorn popper! Give it a try and let us know in the comments how it goes! Where did you buy your beans? What method did you use? Did you experiment at all? We’re looking forward to hearing all about it!