My parents poured boiling water over a heaping teaspoon of shiny brown granules, stirred, and called it coffee. It pried open their eyelids each morning and carried them through the afternoon’s slump. It made me gag.
While in college, I worked as a typesetter for a small publishing company. Printing houses offer an array of aromas all their own, but one smell in particular captivated me forever — the coffee brewing on the break room table. First a sniff, next a sip, and then I was accustomed to having coffee pry my eyes open each morning. I never dreamed it could get better than Maxwell House in my automatic drip coffee pot — until I met Monty.
Monty Ruckman started roasting his own coffee because he wanted to find that perfect taste. When he realized the guys in the office wanted to drink the coffee he roasted and not what was provided in the break room, he started selling blends to his co-workers. Unable to keep up with the demand, he retired from his job, earned a roastmaster certification, and started Cabin Creek Roasters in Edinburg, Virginia.
I met Monty at a local farmers’ market, and after I sampled his iced coffee — the smoothest coffee I’d had in years — we started chatting. Eventually, he offered to show me the art of producing a quality roast each and every time. Always the student, I scurried over to his cabin on the creek, along with my coffee-dependent 17-year-old, and spent three hours roasting beans.
Why roast your own
I may have first tried roasting my own coffee for the fun of it, but I continue roasting for the superb, smooth flavor. The perfect taste, nostalgia, economics and flexibility are additional reasons folks have given me for why they roast their own coffee.
Home roaster Nick Meyer of Harrisonburg, Virginia, says he roasts his own coffee “because it’s better than anything you can buy in the store. That, and I know that what I buy is a fairly traded product.”
Rachel Hoff and her husband, home roasters from Vallejo, California, wanted to duplicate the flavor of coffees they enjoyed during their honeymoon in the United Kingdom. All of us began roasting with the same simple equipment, a hot-air popcorn popper.
How to get started
“Normally,” says Byron from Sweet Maria’s Coffee in Oakland, California, “we suggest starting off with a hot-air popcorn popper since they are extremely affordable, very simple to use, and produce great results.” You will need a popper in which the air enters from side vents to blow the chaff out the top and away from the heat.
Next, you will need some green coffee beans. If you cannot find them locally, look online. Ruckman recommends starting with a sample pack of several different varieties. Try them as they are, roasted to different degrees, or mixed together. Heather Fischer, home roaster and contributor to From Scratch Club, says, “Each region of the world has a different type of bean, and believe it or not, a different taste. The type of bean you use and how you roast it can lead to many different combinations of flavors.” Half the fun of coffee roasting is creating your own flavor.
Assemble your supplies:
• Popcorn popper as described above
• Green coffee beans
• Pot holders — you will be getting the beans up to about 450 degrees, and the popper will be extremely hot.
• Metal colander — if you have two, you can use them both.
• Large bowl to catch chaff
• Long-handled wooden spoon
• Fan or hair dryer that blows cool air
“Though the coffee smells great after it has been roasted,” Fischer says, “the roasting process is a different story. As the bean chaff and oils burn, the smell permeates everything.” With this in mind, most folks prefer to roast their beans outside. Also, because of the risk of fire that comes with roasting things at a high temperature, you do not want to leave your post. Make sure you have at least 20 minutes before you begin. That said, let’s get started.
The roasting process
Warm up the popper for about 30 seconds, and then pour the amount of coffee beans into the chamber that is recommended for popcorn. If needed, stir with the end of a wooden spoon to start the beans spinning, and then put on the lid.
About 2 1/2 minutes into the process, you will notice the chaff coming out of the chute. Place your bowl under the opening to catch it. (Timing will vary depending on the variety of bean used.)
After 3 to 4 minutes, and at about 320 to 385 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll start to hear a crackling sound. The inner walls of the bean breaking open produce what is referred to as “first crack.” If you stop here, you will have a light, or “city,” roast coffee. If you want to go darker, start monitoring the color of the beans. According to Ruckman, the best way to know when you have the perfect roast is by color. I compare the colors to other things in my mind, like milk chocolate. You will also want to take note of the fragrance of the smoke and the amount of cracking taking place.
If you continue roasting past the first crack, about 5 to 6 minutes into the process you will start to hear a different kind of cracking sound. According to Fischer, it sounds like someone crinkling plastic wrap. At this point the beans will begin to emit oils and appear shiny. Stopping here produces a medium, or “full city,” roast. Going darker than a full city roast is the Viennese roast, and then the darkest is French.
Once the beans are almost where you want them, unplug the popper and pour them into your metal colander. Use pot holders as they will be very hot and will continue roasting until you cool them down. Stir with a spoon, toss from one colander to the other, and hold the colander over a fan or blow with a hair dryer on a “no heat” setting to get them cool enough to touch.
Roasted coffee beans will emit carbon dioxide for about a week; therefore, do not seal them tight in a jar for at least 24 hours. Store them out of direct light in a cool place; but not in a refrigerator or freezer as cold temperatures cause the oils in coffee to go rancid. Roasted beans will go stale in about a week if exposed to the air. Meyer advises that you roast no more than you can consume in three to five days. “After seven days,” he says, “they are no better than store-bought.”
The consistent roast
Some folks like to modify their popcorn poppers to use a thermometer. Using a thermometer will give you a more accurate read on how hot the beans are than simply relying on the sound of the crack, the color or the smell. To do this, purchase a needle-style candy thermometer that measures up to 500 degrees. Drill a hole through the side of your popper at just the right place and angle so that when you insert the thermometer, it does not touch the bottom of the chamber but will be in the middle of the beans. When you roast, watch the temperature. If you like what was roasted to 430 degrees, you know where to stop the next time.
Use a digital scale. Coffee bean varieties weigh differently. Also, the beans lose moisture in the roasting process. For instance, 4 ounces of green coffee beans roast out to about 3.2 ounces. Using a scale to weigh your beans will assure accuracy each time.
If you are roasting outside with a popcorn popper, the ambient temperature will affect the time necessary to reach that perfect roast. That is another good reason to use the thermometer. You might want to consider using a wind break of some sort, or roasting in an outbuilding.
Those with experience give varied advice for achieving consistent results. Fischer suggests buying your green coffee beans from a trusted seller. Meyer slows down his roast after the first crack. Roasting too fast at the high temperatures, he said, gives coffee a “burned grass taste.” And according to Hoff, “You get a feel for it with practice.”
Roasting your own coffee will not just give you a great cup of java, it will also give you a new awareness and appreciation of what goes into that cup. If you have to drink a few cups of “burned grass” while you’re learning, that’s still better than those shiny, brown granules my parents added to boiling water each morning.
Read more: Explore the results of the latest studies in Serving Up 6 Healthy Perks for Coffee Drinkers.
Freelance writer Carol J. Alexander roasts her coffee in a West Bend Poppery II hot-air popcorn popper, cold brews it in a Toddy Coffee Maker, and serves it with crushed ice, milk and two tablespoons of sugar.
Resources for the home coffee roaster
Sweet Maria’s Coffee
1115 21st St.; Oakland CA 94607
Sweet Maria’s Coffee sells green coffee beans, home roasting equipment, coffee brewers, espresso equipment, grinders and more. For the best in roasting tutorials and how-to information, see Sweet Maria’s website.
975 Detroit Ave., Unit D
Concord, CA 94518
800-600-0033 or 800-823-0010
More Coffee is another one-stop-shop for the home coffee roaster. In addition to beans, they also sell roasters, brewers, grinders and more. More Coffee also offers starter kits for less than $100.
Burman Coffee Trader
2140 W Greenview Dr., Suite 2
Middleton, WI 53562
Burman Coffee Traders aims to treat its customers as family and offers the best coffees it can find. They sell all the equipment a home roaster would need, as well as a wide array of beans.
Coffee Bean Direct
P.O. Box 538, Stockton, NJ 08559
No equipment here. Coffee Bean Direct sells roasted and unroasted coffee beans, loose leaf teas, and various gift items. They also offer wholesale accounts and free shipping on orders weighing more than 25 pounds.