Home Coffee Roasting is excerpted from Kenneth Davids' book titled Home Coffee Roasting: Romance and Revival, published by St. Martin's Press, New York. Ken's book is both a complete, authoritative guide to home roasting as well as a lively introduction to coffee roasting in general. This material is a small sampling of the book.
Why Home Roasting
A few minutes ago I roasted several days' supply of coffee in a stove-top popcorn popper. The whole process took about ten minutes. The popper can be purchased for about twenty to twenty-five dollars. The retail price of the coffee I roasted (a fancy Sumatra) might cost anywhere from five to six dollars a pound green. The same coffee purchased roasted at the corner coffee store would cost eight to ten dollars a pound. The coffee I produced was fresher than almost any I could have bought, and its freshness by far compensated for any small failings in roasting procedure. Green coffee beans keep well without special handling, so the modest effort required to acquire them doesn't need to be undertaken often.
Nor was the stove-top popper my only option. I could have chosen to roast the coffee in a gas oven, for example, or in one of a certain design of hot-air corn popper, or in a device specially designed for home roasting.
Given its simplicity once you know what you're doing basic home coffee roasting ranks in difficulty somewhere between boiling an egg and making a good white sauce why don't more people do it? Why isn't home coffee roasting already as popular as home baking, for example, or home pasta-making, or for that matter home corn popping?
First, because most people simply don't know how vibrant truly fresh coffee tastes when compared to the partly-staled version we usually drink. Almost everyone knows how exquisite fresh bread is, or how much better home-popped popcorn is than the chewy, rubbery stuff that comes in bags. But the fragrance of coffee a day out of the roaster is a virtually forgotten pleasure.
Second, people don't know that roasting coffee at home is easy, fun, and something that everyone did before the victory of advertising and convenience foods.
The Return to More Authentic Foods
By mid-20th-century Americans had begun to think of "coffee" as granulated brown stuff that comes from a can rather than the dried seeds of a tree requiring only a few relatively simple procedures to transform it into a beverage.
In the world of coffee the return to more authentic foods took the form of the specialty coffee movement, which sells freshly roasted coffee beans in bulk and encouraged coffee lovers to take their beans home and grind them themselves.
There is no doubt that whole bean coffees handled well are a tremendous advance in flavor and variety over supermarket packaged blends, and certainly anyone not yet introduced to the adventure of fine coffee should start by simply buying whole bean coffee at the local coffee specialty store, learning to grind and brew it properly, and experiencing some of the variety and pleasures it affords.
However, for the committed coffee aficionado I suggest that home coffee roasting is a logical next step toward closer intimacy with the bean and a mastery of one's own pleasure.
Nostalgia, Balconies and Roasting Smoke
Throughout most of coffee history people roasted their own beans. Even in the United States, the cradle of convenience, pre-roasted coffee did not catch on until the latter years of the 19th century. Home-roasting persisted in Mediterranean countries like Italy until well after World War II. Many coffee drinkers in the Middle East and the horn of Africa still roast their own coffee as part of a leisurely ritual combining roasting, brewing, and drinking in one long sitting.
For people in countries where home roasting was the norm through the first half of the 20th century the practice is rich with nostalgia. Listen to Eduardo De Filippo, for example, a well-known Italian writer and performer, recollecting coffee roasting in his childhood Naples in Mariarosa Schiaffino's book Le Ore del Caffe [AAAe]:
In 1908 ... in the streets and alleys of Naples, in the first hours of the morning, a very special ritual was celebrated, a ritual indispensable to less wealthy families as well as to better-off aficionados: the ceremony of coffee roasting. It saved money to buy raw coffee beans and then roast then at home, the only cost being personal skillfulness and patience. Every week (or every couple of weeks) a quantity of coffee was roasted, depending on the needs, finances, and appetites of each family.
And since these rituals were not simultaneous, every day somewhere in the neighborhood a woman or grandpa could be found sitting on the family balcony, turning the crank of the abbrustulaturo, or coffee roaster.
By the way: Why did I mention balconies? Because in the process of such roasting the coffee beans, which are quite oily, release an intense smoke that could be quite unbearable in a closed space, yet no nuisance at all out-of-doors. Instead, dispersed in the air and transported by the wind, it was a source of great happiness for the entire neighborhood.
As for me lingering about in bed during those early hours, trying to delay the moment when I would have to get up and go to school as soon as this seductive smell reached my nose (it even penetrated the closed windows!) I would jump out of bed full of energy, happy to begin the day. And so it was that, even before I was allowed to drink it, coffee became my wake-up call and symbol for the new day ...
Also, quite often, just before being swallowed up by the school gate, my ear would intercept an "Ahhhh...!" from a shoemaker nearby. Sipping his cup of coffee before starting work, his "Ahhhh...!" was so expressive you could feel pleasure, satisfaction, happiness, appetite, even surprise and wonder. Later, as an adult, I would discover all of those things in coffee myself ...
Some Reasons to Roast
For those of us who weren't raised with the scent of roasting coffee filling the narrow streets and picturesque balconies of memory, and whose childhood recollections instead involve tract homes, Pepsi-Cola and Maxwell House, what are the advantages of home roasting? It may be a simple but forgotten art, yet why bother at all?
Here are a few reasons: Freshness and flavor. Unlike stale bread, which rapidly becomes dramatically inedible, stale coffee can still be drunk and enjoyed. But what a difference a few days make! An absolutely fresh coffee, a day or two out of the roaster, explodes with perfume, an evanescent aroma that seems to resonate in the nervous system and vibrate around the head like a sort of coffee aura. The aftertaste of a truly fresh coffee can ring on the palate for an entire morning; the taste of a week-old coffee will vanish in a few minutes.
Reasonably fresh coffee can be gotten at specialty stores if the roasting is done on the premises or close by, but with the growth of mammoth regional and national specialty coffee chains beans may be roasted hundreds or even thousands of miles from the store where you finally buy them. Coffee from these specialty chains will be infinitely better and fresher than the pre-ground stuff that comes in cans and bricks, but it won't can't be as fresh as the coffee you roast in your own kitchen.
Personal satisfaction. Roasting coffee at home provides the gratification many of us derive from outflanking consumerism by gaining control of a heretofore mysterious process that was once imposed on us by others. Home roasting is also an art. A minor one perhaps, but an art nonetheless, and one that can provide considerable gratification.
Money. Obviously this issue is more important to some of us than to others. Depending on how and where you buy your green coffee, you can save anywhere from 25% to 50% of the cost per pound by roasting at home.
Connoisseurship. The way to truly understand a coffee is to roast it. Furthermore, home roasting makes it possible to develop what amounts to a cellar of green coffees. Unroasted coffee doesn't quite last indefinitely, but for a year or two it registers only subtle changes in flavor, and remains interesting and drinkable for some time after that. Thus you can keep modest supplies of your favorite coffees around and select them for roasting according to your mood and your guests' inclinations.
Bragging rights. So there you are, roasting a blend of Guatemalan Huehuetenango and Sumatran Lintong, your kitchen pungent with smelly yet glamorous smoke, when your friends arrive for dinner carrying that pathetic bag of week-old house blend from down the street...
Romance. Finally, roasting your own coffee carries you deeper into the drama and romance of coffee. That romance is nowhere as vividly encapsulated as in that moment when a pile of hard, almost odorless grey-green seeds is suddenly and magically transformed into the fragrant vehicle of our dreams, reveries, and conversation.
If You Can Read You Can Roast
And above all: you can do it. You couldn't get a job as a professional coffee roaster because professional roasters need to achieve precision and consistency as well as quality.
But anyone who can read this book can produce a decent to stunningly superb roast at home. Jabez Burns, probably the single greatest roasting innovator in American history, once said that some of the best coffee he had ever tasted was done in a home corn popper.