It is by caffeine alone I set my mind in motion

High on a hill was a lonely goat who ate some berries and went kind of crack-headed all over Ethiopia, and people have loved coffee ever since. I love coffee. I love the steam and aroma of a cup so massive you stir it with a supermodel, and after you drink it, you can set fires with your thoughts. Plus it allows you to stay up and read. Hooray, a lot, for coffee.

I’m fond of tea, as well, but it will never equal coffee in my palpitating heart. Tea is like…Belgium. I’ve nothing against Belgium but I don’t fall out of bed every morning looking like a squinty troll, crying out in pain for some fucking Belgium.

It’s Do-It-Yourself month at tor.com and Jo Walton recently wrote about coffee. While that may seem a non sequitur to you, to me it’s an excuse to brag. Today, I’ll brag about roasting coffee.  So why roast your own coffee? I like to make things that are perfectly easy to find pre-made, and then tell everyone, “I made this!” just in case they might care. I’m like a kid who makes macaroni necklaces. There’s really no moment in life when a skilled pasta jeweler is required, but this is by no means a reason to dissuade a kid from Kraft craft. As Martha Stewart often implies, it’s good to make stuff.

Beyond bragging rights there are many reasons to roast your own coffee. First, you can buy directly from plantations or from small bean importing businesses. Supporting small businesses is good, yes? Plus, you’ll have access to estate coffees and varietals in small batches that you will never get in Skubrats, or will otherwise have to pay an arm and a leg and a kidney to get. Second, freshness is important and there is simply no way to get fresher coffee than to roast it yourself. Third, roasted beans are volatile. The oils get rancid quickly, which is why fresh coffee is best. Roasted coffee has, for anyone with a working tongue, a shelf-life of a couple weeks tops, in an air-tight container, before it starts to go wrong. Green beans last about two years. Fourth, it’s less expensive.

Here’s a quick price comparison (not inclusive of shipping costs).

One pound of Sumatra:
Starbucks (roasted with all the subtlety and character of a neutron bomb) = $10.95
Batdorf and Bronson (an excellent smaller roaster) = $12.95 (for Mandheling region)
Sweet Maria’s (green) = less than $6.00 per pound (three growing areas offered)

It should be noted that because of water weight in green beans, a pound of green is not the same as a pound of roasted, but it’s still less expensive, especially in bulk. Through an importer you can get large quantities, like 20 pounds, of very particular coffees. Not just any old Sumatra but Sumatra Lintong Dolok Sanggul, for example. You can be as big a specificity fetishist as you like.

The downside to roasting at home is it’s less convenient, it can be quite smoky and makes your house smell like a roasting plant (though I don’t think that is a negative at all). But hey, the most convenient coffee in the world is instant. If convenience means that much to you, drink tea.

There are many ways of roasting coffee. They all involve heat and agitation. Make stuff hot. Move stuff around. On one end, there are amazing home roasters for hundreds of dollars. On the other end, a cast iron pan. The method I’m going to talk about is very inexpensive, pretty quick and yields good results without too steep a learning curve.

Aside from green coffee beans, you will need:

A long stick. (I use extra long chopsticks)
An oven mit
A hot air popcorn popper.
A tin can (optional)
A bowl

There are two kinds of hot air poppers: mesh and vent. The mesh kind has a blower and a heating element at the bottom, with a screen over it. Do not use the mesh variety. Chaff, the discarded bits of bean hull, can gather in the mesh and catch fire. The vent kind, pictured, blows hot air in a circle. This is the kind you want. It’ll cost $15 or so for a new one.

             Use the same amount of green beans as you would popcorn kernels, probably 1/2 a cup, depending on the manufacturer. Don’t put the scooper/lid back on. Turn on the machine, put on the oven mitt and use the stick to rotate the beans in the direction of the airflow. The beans are too heavy to move properly on their own, at first. They need help or they will not roast evenly. For the first three minutes or so, stir them continually, or continuously, or whichever one means “without interruption” as I am too lazy to bother to check Strunk & White right now.

The beans will go from green to a tan sort of yellow and then darken. The chaff will loosen and begin to fly off a little in the beginning, but after about three to four minutes you’ll hear the “first crack” which is coffee-talk for the heat agitating the moisture inside the bean, and cracking the outer hull. It’s a loud, popcorn-like sound.

After this stage, the beans heat quickly and expand quite a bit. I add a tin can that has been snipped and a little bent at one end (to better fit in the popcorn popper) as cuff of sorts, to keep from beans spilling or flying out. After a couple minutes more comes second crack, which is a rapid crackling sound, quieter than the first crack.

How long to roast after this point depends on your tastes, and what sort of beans you’re roasting. Experimenting with longer and shorter roasts, different beans, and so forth is part of the fun.

Eventually, after the second crack, the beans will darken from medium brown to a dark, rich oily brown. Turn off the popcorn popper, carefully remove the can/chimney, and as quickly as you safely can, pour the beans into a large bowl. Using a fan, or swirling the beans around in the bowl, cool the batch down quickly. If the beans aren’t cooled right away, you risk over-roasting.

I know I said freshness is vital in coffee drinking, and it’d would be lovely if you could immediately grind it up and drink it, but you can’t. You should wait about 24 hours after roasting. There’s carbon dioxide that needs to release. If you drink it right away, it tastes acidic. So for one day, allow the beans to breathe, and then store them airtight. The first three days or so after the CO2 releases are best.

Happy brewing and bragging!


When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.

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