Ready, Steady…Roast

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18th of September 2017.

A friend recently revealed to me the secret of his success as a writer. Taking control, accepting responsibility and continually learning. He starts the day by doing one press up – yes, one – on the floor, then leaps up and makes his bed. That way, he says, he’s achieved two goals before he’s even left the bedroom. He firmly believes that if you don’t have one spare minute for those two small tasks, you don’t have a life. It’s all about pausing; connecting for a moment with your body and the world.

The third goal requires more time and more thought, but for him it’s an essential part of the morning ritual. He not only pulls his own espresso and grinds his own coffee beans – he roasts them too.

That way, he says, he takes full control – and full responsibility – for his morning coffee. On a good day, he’s rewarded with the fantastic aromas and flavours of coffee roasted just the way he likes it. And on a bad day? There are a lot of bad days, he confesses, but he embraces each and every burned or tasteless coffee as an opportunity to learn.

With three achievements under his belt before 7am, he welcomes the day with a positive attitude.

Nice philosophy, right?

Think it would work for you?

The first two, I can manage. But somehow coffee roasting seems like something beyond my reach and my capabilities; something Other People would do better than I ever could. To be honest, I’ve never even considered it. But maybe that’s the point. It’s a challenge and a chance to learn, right? Right.

Captura de pantalla 2017-09-18 a las 15.26.12But where to start?

As ever, in the beginning.

First of all, let’s make one thing very clear. Home roasting coffee beans is nothing new. Step back 600 years and you’ll find the Ottomans roasting beans in long-handled circular pans held over hot coals. Around 200 years later the first cylinder roaster appeared, in Cairo, and from there the design spread to Europe and across the Atlantic to the American colonies. It took another 200 years for any significant development in the coffee roasting process, but when it came, it revolutionised the process. Commercial roasters, invented in the 1860s and 1870s, signalled the beginning of the end for home-roasting. The invention of instant coffee granules in the 1950s almost obliterated the tradition entirely.

Then the Third Wave arrived (for a full explanation, see previous article, Say Hello, Wave Goodbye) and today’s coffee drinkers realised they’d been underestimating the potential of the humble bean.

This new-found appreciation for quality has led to all kinds of developments such as the birth of the speciality coffee shop and brew bar, a desire for quality beans produced in a fair, sustainable way and the realisation that coffee can be roasted in a multitude of different ways, each one of which will produce significantly different aromas and flavours. The result: a return to micro-roasting.

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Small roasteries are appearing in towns and cities and remote rural regions across the planet. Many use green coffee beans sourced from small producers and create a roast that’s likely to be totally unique. Buy them freshly-roasted, grind them at home and your coffee experience will be transformed. For many people surfing the Third Wave – me included – that’s always been enough.

It’s miles away from instant coffee granules and it’s a few giant steps away from buying commercially-roasted beans. But for some, it’s still too close. Home roasting is the only answer.

Curious? Me too.

Let’s get the easy part out of the way to start. Where do you buy unroasted, green beans? Either head down to your usual coffee supplier and see what they have on offer or take a look at a speciality shop online and find out if they deliver to your area. You’ll immediately discover one of the benefits of home-roasting: the cost. Green beans are much cheaper than roasted beans – in some cases, half the price. The second advantage of buying green beans is that you can feasibly buy in bulk and store them at home – they can be kept for around a year so long as you keep them in the right conditions. Do the same with roasted beans and they’ll significantly deteriorate and lose their best flavours.

So, you’ve got the beans and you know how to store them. What next? Get ready to roast.

Roasting can be cheap and simple and involve a lot of guesswork, or it can be expensive and precise and involve a lot of technology. Your choice of method will probably be dictated by your needs and your knowledge and the state of your bank account. Oh, and not forgetting your sense of adventure.

But whatever method you choose, there are four key points to remember:

  • HEAT: Beans like it hot – with internal temperatures of around 180°C-240°C (356F – 464F) depending if it’s a light or dark roast…and depending what advice you follow.
  • MOVEMENT: the beans must be kept moving throughout the process. If not, they’ll burn.
  • SMOKE: Ain’t no roasting without smoke, so be prepared. Beans also exfoliate during the process, so you’ll need to deal with the dried, flaking skin of the coffee bean, known as chaff.
  • COOLING: The beans must be cooled quickly once you reach the desired roast. A simple method is tipping them into a metal colander and shaking until they’re totally chilled out.

Simple right?

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Now let’s look at roasting methods, starting with those that don’t require any specialist equipment.

  • PAN: Roast the beans in a metal pan, over a stove or a grill or an open flame. Don’t forget to keep them moving, moving, moving or all you’ll smell is burning, burning, burning
  • OVEN: Roast the beans on a metal tray in the oven. Movement is a real issue with this method, and beans can burn easily as they directly touch the hot surface. Keep a close eye.

The next best option requires equipment – but it’s a case of recycling the old rather than investing in new gear. You know that little machine you use to make popcorn? It might just do the job. Before you give it a go, search online for advice on the hows and whys – but many home-roasters swear by it.

If you’d rather invest in specialist coffee roasting gear, do your homework first. All the machines have the same basic function – heating and moving and cooling the beans, but while some offer the roaster control over different parts of the process, others will be much more limited. So watch out.

There are two main types of home roasting machines: drum roasters and fluid-bed roasters.

  • DRUM ROASTERS: These look like mini versions of the commercial equipment at your local roaster. Picture the shining metal interior of your tumble dryer at home – drum roasters look a little like that, except it’s tossing green beans instead of loose socks. The beans are roasted by an electrical or gas heat source positioned underneath the drum or in a tube through the middle. This is probably the most popular method available but critics say the beans can be scorched if they touch the hot sides of the drum.
  • FLUID-BED ROASTERS: These machines, developed in the 1970s, use a totally different system. It’s basically a tall cylinder with hot air running through it. Your green coffee will dance and jiggle in the tube as it roasts, moved by the hot air. It’s faster and less messy than drum roasters and fans of this method say the flavour is cleaner and intensely aromatic.

Prices for both machines vary dramatically depending on size and brand, but expect to pay at least $50 for a very basic, very small model, and up to $800 for high-end models. And don’t forget expensive machinery is no guarantee you’ll make great coffee. Regardless of how much money you spend, you’ll also need to invest time and energy if you want to create your perfect roast.

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You’ve got your method, you’ve got your machine. Now look online and you’ll find a huge supply of blogs, videos, and apps detailing the different roasting techniques – or sign up for a hands-on course with a local roaster. Nobody said that roasting would be easy, but I think you’re fit for the challenge.

So bring on the green beans.

Then it’s ready, steady…roast.


Pics by Gerónimo López, Maria Fernanda, Homegrounds and Annie Spratt.