Becoming a responsible coffee roaster

January 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

In business school in 1998, I did a project on the ethics of coffee production and shed light on some of the sustainable practices that were being adopted.  I got a “C” for being naive about scale.  I may still deserve that judgement, but it’s been nice to see that sustainable practice has put a dent in socially & environmentally harmful coffee.

When looking for beans to roast, quality is the most important factor but there are others that can make you feel better about what you’re drinking.

Nowadays, it’s fairly easy to buy quality organic, shade-grown, fair trade coffee.  I’ve been looking around at what is available in Boulder and came across Conscious Coffees.  As their name implies, they care.  They are one of 23 members of cooperative coffees an organization that partners with local farming communities where the coffee is grown.  Aside from being good people, they apparently know what they’re doing in the roasting world, as they won Roaster of the Year this year from Roast magazine. They don’t do direct retail, but I have tried them at The Cup on Pearl St and they live up to their reputation.

In terms of home roasting, I’ve been looking to see where you can order responsible green coffee beans and came across a few places.  One that seems reasonable is the seven bridges cooperative site.  I will also ask around as I visit some of the local roasters.

If anyone knows of any good resources, please pass them along!

Snap, crackle, smoke

January 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Coffee roasting like many things comes down to a mixture of art & science.  There’s not really a perfect formula because it all depends on personal taste.  I have been playing around with both the art and science of it, and for me, I think I’m leaning more towards the art.  If I were to buy a more expensive roaster, that might change, but when you’re dealing with a stovetop popcorn popper, there are a lot of variables you just don’t have a ton of control over to make it too scientific.

In terms of the science, I use the thermometer to tell me when the popper is ready to start the roast at 400 degrees on medium gas heat.  I also use it to monitor the beans to make sure it stays at a roasting temperature vs falling too low and baking the beans which sucks out the moisture & oils (i’ve been keeping it around 350-375 degrees).  That’s about it on the science side for me.

Most of the instructions I’ve read tell you to try to start judging based on your senses.  From a smell perspective, you can tell when the beans start to roast because they smell grassy.  Then they start to smell like coffee and finally you can smell the roasted smell (not a burnt smell).  You start to notice steam turning into a lighter smoke and if you’re roasting darker a lighter charcoal colored smoke.  You can also just flip open the lid now and then to see what color the beans are (you want to remove them when they’re slightly lighter than you want as they’ll keep roasting after you remove them – a mistake i’ve made a few times now)

My favorite thing about roasting coffee is the sound of it – the snap and the crackle.  It’s that happy sound like popping popcorn or rice krispies in a bowl of milk.  I was a little too nervous to rely upon this the first time but today it was the way to go.  In roasting you have what are called the “first crack” and the “second crack” which when you become familiar with them, make it as easy to roast coffee as it is to pop popcorn.  You’ll know more or less when it’s ready.  The first crack sounds more like a pop and it will build momentum much like popcorn does and then die off.  For light roasts, you can stop roasting after the crack begins and go to a more medium roast as the crack reaches its end.  As you get into the second crack this is where the dark roasts begin. You can go from a dark viennese at the beginning of the second crack to a darker french roast as it reaches its crescendo. Most do not recommend going darker as it will just be burned.

Today I roasted El Salvadorian Finca La Florida and roasted it a couple of ways.  First I did a darker roast where I let it go a little bit after the second crack.  It goes from sounding like snapping during the first crack to crinkling of paper.  For the second roast I stopped before it was at the end of the first crack for more of a breakfast roast.  I do think I like the lighter to medium roast since you can take more of the differences in the coffee.  I think El Salvadorian coffee is much more similar to what I’m accustomed to drinking.

what kind of coffee are you?

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Most people would probably answer this question in any number of ways that generally relate to everything but the coffee itself.  Whether you like a light or dark roast, take your coffee black or with cream and sugar or whether you’ve gotten your personalized Starbucks drink down to a science, all of those are valid personal tastes that have to do with your enjoyment of coffee.  If we were to strip all of the accoutrements away though and just ask what kind of coffee we enjoy (i.e. where it’s from), I’m not sure I have the answer and I supposedly really love coffee.

If I liken it to wine, it’s like saying I prefer red over white and could really care less where it comes from, as long as it’s red and served in the right glass at the right temperature.  I’m much pickier about my wine than that and this week I vow to be the same with my coffee.

It takes a lot  to enjoy the nuances of the bean itself since there are a lot of factors that can get in the way.  If the coffee has been roasted too dark, you’re pretty much just tasting the roast.  If it’s older coffee it’ll have lost most of its flavor and aroma and if it hasn’t just been ground before brewing it will also seem more generic.

Home Coffee Roasting by Kenneth Davids is a good guide to learning more about the nuances of coffee.  It comes with the home roasting kit from Sweet Maria’s. It’s a quick and easy read to get up and running without feeling like you need a degree in roasting.

I will be roasting and brewing a different single origin variety each day and taking notes on some of the differences.  I’ll be roasting them on the lighter to medium-dark range, following the notes that are provided so the natural flavors can come out.

Today I roasted Ethiopian Organic Shakiso Wet Process beans.  Again, this only took 10 minutes which you can do once a week and have coffee for the week! It is so easy and even with an uneven roast it’s so much better than the store bought (stale) stuff.  This had a kind of lemon verbena quality to it compared with the fruity, floral India Sanskirit from yesterday.  I think I may have roasted it a little light since it says it should have a caramel sweetness to it.

So far neither of these are my coffee yet but it’s fun to be able to see the distinction.

i’ll never buy roasted coffee again

January 17, 2011 § 9 Comments

All I can say is “wow”! First of all I can’t believe how easy it was to roast the beans with simple instructions from Sweet Maria’s site.  It took about 10 minutes all in – stirring, watching temperatures and lifting the lid to see how the beans were doing. Then they just had to cool.

This is going to sound a tad dramatic, but I don’t think I’ve ever really had coffee til now.  The aroma not only roasting the beans but after grinding them is incredible.  The house smells amazing. The taste has so much more depth and nuance to it than I’ve had in a cup before. There is a nice fruitiness to it that I’ve never tasted before, almost as delicate as tea.  Maybe I’m just blinded by home roasting pride, but I think the first endeavor was pretty damn awesome.

Overall my roast was on the lighter side, which seems to allow the flavor of the bean to come to the forefront. For this first roast I used India Sanskriti Arabica beans from sweetmarias.com (you get beans as part of the starter kit). Needless to say the uniformity of the roast was a little all over the map (the Agtron coffee classification system) but regardless it still beats what you can buy in the supermarket hands-down. I just plucked the burnt ones out before I ground them.  No harm, no foul. Next time I will put the roaster on a cast iron pan to diffuse the heat a bit more which may help.

The John Wayne mug for my first home roasted brew ever is for my Mom. 🙂

Furthering my coffee addiction: home coffee roasting

January 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’ve always been a bit of a coffee nut from the time I was a little kid when I’d beg my grandmother to pour some of her coffee in my milk after dinner.  After college, I worked as a barista instead of taking a job I wasn’t sure I’d like to save money to backpack around Europe. In business school I tried to talk a Costa Rican coffee producer into taking me on for an internship which unfortunately didn’t pan out.

From that point on I’ve just been a consumer of coffee, some really amazing and some really awful.  I’ve never tried Blue Bottle coffee, but I am a big fan of Intelligentsia and Stumptown. I’ve always been good about buying fresh beans and grinding them before I brew them at home, but I’ve never ventured into the world of home roasting.

Having no idea really where to start I did a Google search and found a really informative company called Sweet Maria’s which has basically everything you need to get started.  I also found out how relatively easy it is to do; it’s pretty much as simple as popping popcorn.

I went ahead and ordered their starter kit and was also amazed how inexpensive it is to give it a try.  Buying green coffee beans and roasting is actually about half the cost of buying beans in the grocery store and significantly less than in specialty stores.

Other than roasting, I’m also going to be exploring local roasters so I can stop having to bring coffee back in my suitcase.  Some of them even host weekly educational events, so I’ll be checking those out as well.

I’m looking forward to giving home roasting a whirl and if anyone is interested in trying some of what I roast, leave me a comment. I’ll ship some to you later in the week!

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