5 min read

Roasting Coffee

Coffee beans side by side, comparing green to freshly roasted
First Roast!

A kilo of Brazilian Andre Lorenzon Pink Bourbon-Natural green beans showed up on my door this morning. This is my first step in overcoming a barrier to my writing that has been driving me nuts: Getting a decent cup of coffee without spending a premium.

Having a nice solid income again, combined with being stuck at home, got me into reaching beyond my normal coffee drinking boundaries. Over the years, I'd developed a solid coffee palate, built off of the coffee shops available near where I worked.

I discovered some explosively good coffee. Roasters like Luna Coffee who could punch the most astounding fruit and berry notes out of a coffee. It's the last thing you'd expect from a coffee...a big hot mouthful of strawberry jam. But once you taste it, it changes your perception of the capability of coffee forever. So the last 3 years has been me exploring many creative and skillfully roasted coffees, learning to enjoy the possibilities. Summers, I crave the fruit bombs. Fall? Floral and caramel flavours. Winter? Chocolate and nut. These have been good years.

But spending that much money of 3/4lb bags of coffee...a week's worth, usually, was not sustainable for me as a writer. With our income cut in half, I needed to cut expenses. I'm not willing to give up coffee just yet, though. For me, my best writing happens with a hot drink close to hand. It's part of the process. However, that kilo of Pink Bourbon beans, roasted? Would have cost me a minimum of $90 from a decent roaster. The green beans were only $30.

Why not just by cheaper coffee? Aside from the fact that with inflation these days, cheap coffee is not really a thing? I did. I went back to my old habits of buying supermarket coffees. Way back when I used to work through the bulk bin coffees. I learned to make it taste okay by getting super finicky about my brewing. And eventually got a grinder, and starting buying whole beans. For a while, I was even getting bags of Starbucks coffee from a friend who worked there. And some of the better brands now sold in grocery stores, even some local roasters.

My tastes have changed. When I first learned to like coffee, "good" coffee meant espresso. Dark, bitter, strong coffee. I tried to make drip that tasted like espresso. Dark roasts all the way. Once I was exposed to third wave coffee, I learned an important lesson...Espresso is garbage. It's strong so that you can taste something like coffee even after adding in all that milk, foam and sugar crap that gets piled on to it. Yes, I know there are good espresso's to be had, with proper roasts, but you know what I'm talking about here.

Regardless, I figured supermarket coffee would still be good. I'd just avoid the dark roasts and get medium roasts. Mediums are a great roast for chocolate and other flavours to soar in coffee. How bad could it be?

Pretty fucking terrible, it turns out. The joke with Starbucks coffee is that they manage to burn all their roasts, so that even light or medium roasts still taste like burned rubber. Turns out this isn't a joke and applies to most commercially available roasts. I tried a few different roasters, and it all tasted pretty over-roasted.

So Courtney suggested I just learn to roast my own beans. Green beans are cheap, and home roasting is something people have been doing forever. After some debate, I bit the bullet and ordered some beans. How bad can it be?

The fun part was reading about how to roast coffee, because it helped me to finally understand how someone can over-roast light or medium roasts. To me, they all have varying degrees of burnt-to-shit espresso, and now I was learning why.

Apparently, the speed at which a coffee is brought to its roast profile can affect a lot. If you nose the coffee into its ideal range, and carefully keep it there for just the right time, you can tease out those delightfully varied flavours. If you bull into that range, heating it too fast, parts of the bean burn before the actual roast profile is reached. So guess what's the cheapest way to make coffee in bulk?

You guess it. Hotter and faster roasting. Why spend 12-17 minute getting a batch just right, when you can get it in and out of the roaster in 7 minutes? That's a vast difference in production. And sure enough, when I looked at the medium roasts I bought? One was dark brown, almost black, and had craters blown out in the beans. A hallmark of carburization. The other was a lighter (but still dark brown) bean, but the ends of each bean had a trademark black tip of burn, and scorch marks all around the bean. At least now I know why the taste was always off to me.

So time to self roast. We've got a hot air gun, so that's the heat source. Hot air popcorn poppers are supposed to be good, too, but I'm not willing to sacrifice mine just yet. We decide that the best way to do this is to put the beans in a metal mesh colander. This will allow air-flow through and help get rid of some of the husks. This gets put in a stainless steel bowl, to reflect the heat back up into the beans to get a more even roast. And a chopstick to stir the beans.

We started with a 100g of beans and forgot to time them. Supposed to roast until the first crack, but the whole setup was too noisy to hear that. We roasted them outside in the sun, so we could track the colour changes easily. That was fun! It basically did nothing for a long time and then started to yellow and then brown fairly steadily. Once it started to brown, it started to darken pretty quickly. We let it roast a little longer and then cooled it down. You can see the results in the photo above. 100g's when down to just under 90g's at the end of the roast, which is about right.

It didn't look too great at first, and didn't really smell like coffee. I was prepared to be disappointed. But by the time we got back inside, the colour of the beans had started to normalize...instead of the variety of colours, they were all turning roughly the same shade. The next step is to let them sit and off-gas CO2 for probably a week...ha, like I have that much patience.

After an hour, I ground up about a tablespoon of them, and poured some hot water over them in a cup. A little mini french press experience. I wasn't expecting much, but after a few sips? Not bad at all. Some chocolate notes for sure, and a hint of floral and citrus starting to show through. We'll try roasting another batch a bit darker next, but I'm starting to feel pretty good about this as a future source of coffee.

It's cheaper in every way except time, but writers have time to burn. Or rather, I need some time to be doing something so that I can let my brain be free to think, so this will nicely fit some of that bill.

I'll let you know how the rest of it goes.