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A half-ass primer to coffee roasting at home

Thursday, March 6th 2014

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This morning I made my squirrel-food quality breakfast of mostly nuts, berries and oatmeal with a dash of cinnamon ((Which nuts and berries you ask? The answer: whichever I have lying around, which generally tend to be the ones that were on sale. This satisfies the foraging aspect of any squirrely  meal.)). I love my squirrel breakfast. The only thing I love arguably more or as much is the coffee that goes with and compliments it so dearly.

My love for hearty, slightly-sweet oatmeal  and strong, dark, bitter coffee is something evidently found the farther north you go in Europe. While traveling through Uruguay I met two girls from Norway ((The time we spent together in a small house with a wonderful Uruguayan woman and her 4-year-old son is something I should probably figure out how to write about.)). I remember a fun evening of using Google Images to fill-in the gaps in our vocabularies as we attempted to describe some of our favorite foods. Oatmeal ((Havregrøt in Norwegian and avena in Spanish. The girls made fun of my accent in Norwegian. "He sounds like someone from the capital!")) was high on the non-native-Spanish-speaking contingent's list — my host politely informed me she thought it was "weird" and "something only old people ate" — and we both bemoaned the ver surprising dearth of good, strong coffee in South America ((Despite being a part of the world where much of the world's coffee comes from, drinking coffee is not particularly engrained in the culture. In Uruguay, Argentina and the southern parts of Brazil they're much more into their mate.)).

The only thing better than oatmeal and coffee in the morning though was freshly roasting yourself the day or evening before. Most things are better when they are freshly made and coffee roasting is no exception. It turns out roasting coffee at home is simple, easy, and oddly as or more affordable than buying it at the store — depending on what you're used to and how much of a coffee snob you are. Plus it's great for gifts and makes your kitchen ((Or tiny studio apartment, as was my case during my roasting heyday.))  smell like coffee on a semi-permanent basis.

Here is the super-minimal roasting setup I've used to great effect:

  • Some kind of roaster ((No. Shit.)). I have an old, battle-tested version of the Fresh Roast Automatic Coffee Roaster. There is a slightly more expensive variety that lets you adjust the heat while the beans get tossed around in the roaster, which if nothing else might've helped me avoid burning a few batches here and there. But really, this thing is kind of a glorified popcorn popper. In fact, if you have one lying around, it turns out you could probably use that.
  • Beans. You'll need green coffee beans to transform into beautiful brown ones! If you simply search online for "green coffee beans" you'll find these are not so difficult to find. You'll even find them everywhere on Amazon. My recommendation though? I like the 8lb sampler pack you can get from Sweet Maria. With shipping you end up paying about $6-7 per pound of coffee, which is less than I'd generally pay if I went out and bought pre-roasted coffee from the endless string of roasters we have here in Portland.
  • Hopefully a vent in your kitchen. Or at least a window you can crack open. The smell is wonderful, but the smoke it puts out is real and will probably set off your smoke alarm if you don't have proper ventilation.
  • A fancy, hand-cranked burr grinder. Like this one. I mean, you're already "hand-roasting" the coffee — let's not stop our small-batch, artisanal practices here by tossing our precious beans in some soulless, spinning, bladed death-machine to meet their caffeinated maker. You. Monster ((But if you do, use a burr grinder! It grinds the beans more evenly they say. You. Monster)).
  • A French press. Caveat: I have not tried the Aeropress, which a number of coffee-loving nerds in my industry  ((I broadly consider "computers" to be my industry.)) seem to adore. I will be curmudgeonly and skeptical, if only because the reviews I tend to read generally describe the coffee it makes as "clean" which is too akin in my mind to someone who doesn't like pulp in their orange juice. You are denying the thing's very nature. So use a French press.

That's essentially it. The ins-and-outs of roasting and brewing a perfect batch could be written about forever, but the experimentation is part of the fun. Oh, and if you live in Portland, Oregon I highly recommend walking into Mr. Green Beans up on Mississippi Ave. They have all of this stuff and can talk you through it better than I can.