DIY coffee: Roasting beans at home

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why on earth would you roast your own coffee, you say? For the same reason you'd make your own pasta or ice cream, brew your own beer, make your own vinegar or tonic water, or in fact create any edible or potable product from as close to scratch as possible, I say. Maybe you think you can do better than the pros. Maybe it's cheaper, not as hard as you might think, or somehow therapeutic. Or maybe you just think it would be a hoot to try.

Maybe you're just a coffee geek.

The jump into the rabbit hole of roasting can start with simple desire. Five years ago, when Petworth resident Joel Finkelstein scoured the Internet and thrift shops looking for old popcorn poppers that could heat up and turn green beans brown, "all I really wanted was access to really fresh coffee, and I didn't have that in Washington," he says. "No one was saying when they roasted their coffee, or how they roasted it, or in some cases even where it came from." Finkelstein ended up building his own roaster and even turning pro, selling his roasted beans at farmers markets and last year opening Qualia Coffee in Petworth, roasting six days a week. "Honestly," he says, "the reason I got into it was there was no shop like the one I eventually opened."

In those early days of his home roasting, one of Finkelstein's resources was Sweet Maria's, an online purveyor of green (unroasted) beans and roasting machines, whose owners had a startup story similar to his own. When Sweet Maria's started a dozen years ago, it was because co-owner Tom Owen couldn't find decent coffee in Columbus, Ohio, and couldn't persuade roasters to sell him unroasted beans for less than the cost of roasted ones. Business has increased by 15 or 20 percent every year since, says his wife and co-owner, Maria Troy, and now they sell more than 70 varieties of green coffee and dozens of roasters and other equipment.

So what's my excuse? I have better access to roasted-within-a-week beans than Finkelstein did when he started; for one thing, Petworth isn't so far from my home in Dupont Circle. Still, I dived into home roasting partly out of journalistic curiosity and partly as the next logical step in a highly caffeinated, obsessive series. I have been treating my beans better for many years, buying lighter roasts (to better showcase the individual flavors of origin; don't get me started on "Charbucks"), keeping them sealed airtight and grinding fresh (to stave off the flavor-depriving effects of oxygen), transitioning to a more expensive burr grinder (for a more even grind), then stripping down the brewing method to its individual, controllable elements. Really, there wasn't much left to obsess over but the roasting itself.

It turns out that it was as easy to jump into as a few points and clicks on my computer. I read up on machines and techniques on the Sweet Maria's site, a veritable encyclopedia of home-roasting information, and settled on a roaster by Nesco (about $150) that uses a catalytic converter to drastically reduce the smoke. (People roast coffee beans in skillets, woks and, yes, those popcorn air poppers, but they require the kind of ventilation my hood-free apartment doesn't possess. And besides, opening a window and turning on a fan at this time of year is mostly out of the question.) I also perused Kenneth Davids's excellent "Home Coffee Roasting: Romance & Revival" (St. Martin's Press, 2003), which, among reviews and instructions, tells a fascinating history of home roasting, a practice common in America as recent as the early 19th century.

My first roast, mere weeks ago, started off smoothly enough. But then I thought I must have bought a defective batch of beans, or must otherwise be doing something wrong. The roasting smell was lovely while the little machine whirred, but once the coffee had cooled, those beans might as well have been plastic, for all my nose could tell.

Then I remembered an important instruction: I should let them rest. Coffee beans, it turns out, emit carbon dioxide for a period after roasting, and their flavor and aroma don't peak until after the emission stops. (Davids puts the window at four to 24 hours, but others say it can be days later, depending on the variety, roast and other factors.) Sure enough, when I sniffed them in the morning, their intoxicating aroma enveloped me. It grew fuller when I ground them. And brewed, the coffee was bold without being bitter, a little tangy without being sharp.

In a word, it was fresh: possibly the freshest coffee I had ever tasted. But that wasn't the only thing that was immediately apparent. The other was that this process was going to be complex enough to lead to a world of possibilities, not to mention complications, if I continued.

Unroasted beans aren't just cheaper (half the price or even less) of roasted beans; they also keep for months before going stale, which makes the options for experimentation greater. To that end, I had ordered an eight-pound sampler pack of beans from Sweet Maria's. At $32 plus shipping, that's only $4 a pound, but the savings diminish when you factor in the 15 to 20 percent loss in weight as they roast.

While I awaited the sample pack's arrival, I played around with beans I'd gotten from Silver Spring resident Sonia Bunch of the EverGreen Home, a fledgling company that is selling both roasted and unroasted beans at Giant, in addition to online. Bunch had given me a quick tutorial when we met at Chesapeake Bay Roasting Co., showing me how the small, dense, hard, pale-green beans (which smell slightly grassy) expand during roasting to as much as two or three times their size, expelling moisture. Bunch, who offers home-roasting parties, has taught at First Class in Dupont Circle and sometimes demonstrates the process at Giant, called home coffee roasting "the fastest-growing home hobby in America."

"If we can just make it not so scary for people, help them pick up just one little can, then maybe we've got 'em," she said.

The EverGreen beans, which sell at Giant for $9.99 a pound (compared with the same price for 10 ounces of the company's roasted beans), are a blend of Ethiopian and Central American coffee, organic and fair-trade certified. Bunch's excitement about her product is infectious; she's particularly proud of the environmental commitment, including the recyclable steel can. But I was also interested in seeing how single-origin beans, rather than a blend, responded to the roaster.

When Nick Cho, formerly of Murky Coffee, heard via Twitter that I had bought a Nesco machine, he offered to come "evaluate your roasts." I wasn't quite ready for a critic, given that my experiments had just begun. I made him a deal: If he would bring a few types of unroasted coffee (Sweet Maria's delivery hadn't arrived yet), we could roast, grind, brew and taste.

Cho, who says he is working out a payment plan to settle the tax debt and legal troubles that sank Murky, is starting up the Wrecking Ball coffee company with girlfriend Trish Rothgeb, so roasting is on his mind more than ever. He is quick to say that he is the brewing expert on the team, while Rothgeb is the roaster. But he also admitted that he spent a period obsessing about home roasting ("when I got the machine, I did a little dance," he said) before letting it lag because of his ability to taste fresh-roasted coffee at work. Nonetheless, he shortcut my home-roasting learning curve a little further, helping me listen for the pops that signify "first crack" (the point at which the coffee really begins to transform), watch the color and, perhaps most important, quickly cool the beans after roasting.

In addition to the EverGreen beans, we tried two of the four varieties that Cho had brought from his friend Chad Sheridan, who sells green beans through No Quarter Coffee: Sumatra Mandheling TP Select and Colombia Organic Don Telmo Reserva Bourbon. We roasted a quarter-pound of each at the Nesco's default medium-light roast setting of 15 minutes plus a five-minute cooling cycle. Then we tried an experiment in dark roasting: We took the Colombian beans and put less than the standard quarter-pound in the roaster; with a convection system like this one, the same amount of time results in a darker bean.

How did they taste? With Cho adjusting my brewing technique (and without resting the beans), the EverGreen coffee made for a fine cup: smooth, but without a lot of complexity. The Sumatra was earthier, with soft acidity and a deep hint of sweetness, while the Colombian was my favorite, with citrusy flavors, a little sweetness and a long finish. (Sounds like wine, doesn't it?) When we roasted the Colombian to a darker color, the coffee's acidity faded in favor of a little chocolaty bitterness, which we liked better with a splash of heavy cream.

The point is, the coffees were all very different, and they'd probably become more so as the days would progress, not to mention the next time I roast. And that, in addition to the freshness, might be the most appealing thing about roasting your own coffee. Who knows? Come spring, when I can open a window or two, I might even try doing it in my wok.

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