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The trials (and errors) of roasting coffee at home 

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click to enlarge Oven-roasted coffee beans: Good, but no fun in the summer. - BRIDGETT HARRIS
  • Bridgett Harris
  • Oven-roasted coffee beans: Good, but no fun in the summer.

In the last year, I've committed to reining in my weekly budget. The most regrettable sacrifice to that end: saying goodbye to my favorite fancy coffees from several shops around town. I've since learned that becoming your own at-home barista can save you big bucks, but it also means you need to expand your skill set to recreate those nifty coffee shop concoctions. So I recently decided to try home-roasting coffee beans.

A bit of online investigation yielded three methods and a general set of rules: First, you have to keep air circulating through the beans for an even roast. Second, timing is critical — between the first and second crack (the sounds you hear when the moisture in the expanding beans begins to evaporate and makes them literally, audibly, crack), you have mere minutes to cultivate the type of finish you want. Lastly, you have to let the beans rest for 24 hours after roasting.

To give roasting a try, I purchased a pound of fair-trade green Ethiopian Sidamo coffee beans online for $8, and recruited my teen daughter as an assistant. We then turned our family kitchen into a coffee roasting lab to try each of the three most popular at-home methods — with mixed results.

Oven-roasting

Oven-roasting requires you to get your oven to upwards of 500 degrees, so it's not a method you want to try in the summer. Even with the temperature outside at a breezy 70 degrees, we were utterly miserable the whole time we were working.

I placed the beans in a metal colander in the heated oven — the colander holes allow air to circulate. I then opened the oven every two minutes to stir the beans for an even roast. For the record, this step is extremely hot work and not at all pleasant. Once I heard the first "crack" I set a timer for two minutes (the time recommended to achieve a medium roast). After I pulled the beans from the oven, my daughter cooled them by stirring them in the colander (the beans will continue to roast if you don't).

Despite the miserable heat, this was a simple method for roasting, with fairly uniform results. We ended up with light brown beans that had a good aroma and created a mild-flavored cup of coffee the next day.

Roasting in an air popcorn popper

For this attempt, we used an old thrift shop air popper, as older models achieve the high heat required to properly roast. Our experiment began well enough, with only a few stray beans flying out of the chute (you want a bowl or pan to catch these; they're too hot to handle). However, we quickly learned the popper was not meant to run for prolonged periods of time. The heat caused the top to melt and cave in, and we were immediately pelted with burning hot bean shrapnel. We managed to shut off the machine after a bit of hysterics and salvage some of our beans (though none of our pride).

click to enlarge Popcorn-popper beans had a nice, even dark roast. - BRIDGETT HARRIS
  • Bridgett Harris
  • Popcorn-popper beans had a nice, even dark roast.

Despite the involuntary weaponizing of the popper, this method created the nicest, most even results of all three methods. We got a proper dark roast with the oily look found in grocery store beans, and the coffee it created was strong and flavorful. We would try it again with some modifications to the machine.

Pan-roasting

My daughter pre-heated a large, stainless steel frying pan on medium heat and added about half a cup of green beans. We topped the pan with a lid, as recommended by various coffee forums. To aerate the beans in a pan, you have to shake that sucker constantly. The lid is supposed to keep hot beans from flying about the kitchen, but it's only helpful if your lid can be attached to the pan so you don't have to hold it. Ours could not.

Frankly, this method sucked. The beans did not roast evenly when we tried shaking the pan while holding the lid, so we ended up with an awkward team effort that required me moving the pan as my daughter frantically stirred. Our beans were not uniform in roast and we quit with a (mostly) medium roast. Like the method itself, the resulting cup of coffee was unimpressive.

In our foray into home-roasting, the overall winner was the popcorn popper method due to its speed, uniformity and resulting flavor — yes, even with the minor kitchen disaster. For those seeking to attempt their own roasting, I'd still suggest trying all three methods, if only to get the hang of color, cracking, heat management and other parts of the process. But whether you stick with home-roasting or not, experimenting at home definitely makes you appreciate the precision that goes into each cup of coffee you drink.

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