DIY: Home Roasting

After being a barista for a few years, I started to becoming restless on the bar. I needed something more. downloadI wanted to learn a new skill and become more intimate with my work. Long story short, besides making a coffee lab in my home, I wanted to learn about beans since I had already learned plenty about machines, brewing techniques, and espresso. Why did we carry particular farm’s beans? What made “pulp natural” taste different, or forms of processing for that matter? I liked the “Ong’s blend” I designed for my jam, what else could I come up with? How would certain coffees taste if we changed the roast level?

Needless to say, roasting was not my department, literally. Though I was adamant about learning as much as I could about every bean we carried (in terms of origin, sourcing, roast characteristics, taste, and how to effectively convey simple cupping notes), I no connection with the roasting process save bagging. But I wanted to be; there is only so much I could learn on the bar and I was hungry for more. The world of roasting was my exciting new frontier. Was my boss gonna let me use the Diedrich? No. But the more and more I learned about different varietals, farms, methods of describing flavor profiles, and roasting equipment , the hungrier I got. Roasting was going to be my new hobby.

DSC02612A good friend of mine,who is consistently featured on this site, gave me my first real  lesson in home roasting…after our disastrous attempt at blowtorch roasting. We spent a Sunday morning learning how to roast with a popcorn popper. Sounds a little clumsy and low tech, but I was amazed at the quality he was getting off such a simple technique. He became my encyclopedia, my go-to for information, and a reliable supporter of my new venture. Every few days or so, he would bring in some of his roasted coffee for the staff and preferred customers to try. A few times, they couldn’t win out over artisan roaster’s beans. But for the most part, the level of consistency and the freshness of his beans won us over. What I admired most was his passion. Not only was he very skilled at roasting, he was clearly committed to comprehensively understanding everything about the trade, from the minute details of farms to how well a FC+would work on basically any of his beans. It left me awe struck. I was sold.

The next week, I took the trip up to Sweet Maria’s and got set up with my own popper and 4 lbs of green coffee. If you haven’t checked out their website or my review of SM, I highly recommend you do so before reading the rest of this article. After hours of practice, trial and error, and bumbling experimentation, I found myself completely obsessed with creating straight coffee.

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It became part of my daily routine. I would roast a few batches at night, meditate on my day while carefully watching my beans, reflect on the shop while cooling each batch, jar em, then go to bed. First thing in the morning, I would go downstairs, open the jars, and smell the intoxicating aromas of a good night’s “rest.” Fresh coffee is literally one of the most amazing smells, I think I will have make air fresheners (trade marked). I wholeheartedly believe that what I roast at home is very close to high quality roasters. What’s more I am roasting and sourcing for my personal tastes. And freshness is arguably the most deciding factor to a good cup of coffee.

Sometimes in the afternoon, I would have my buddies over to try out my recent batches. We would try each bean on different brewing apparatuses, discuss whether certain beans did better in the Aeropress or as drip, bounce ideas back and forth, and compare roasting/cupping notes. Afterwards, we would crack open some beers, trade green beans, sit around my kitchen and roast until late in the evening. On occasion, I would organize a little shindig and home cupping session  featuring our various beans. Home roasting had changed from a hobby into a lifestyle.

Though I am “out” of the business (temporarily), roasting is still part of my daily ritual. “Good” coffee is not as easy to come by in my area and since I am preoccupied with academic matters, home roasting makes practical sense. It is also a nice way for me to connect with friends and introduce them to the “world of coffee.” Whether I am giving a crash-course, brewing a pot for tired roommates, or DSC02610sampling beans with my family, home roasting has become an important personal avenue of communication.

Rather than ramble on any longer about why I love roasting, I will do a sort of Q and A on various questions one might have about getting started. Please feel free to field any additional inquiries and I will do my best to answer. I encourage those of you who are interested to contact a sourcer like Sweet Maria’s, your local artisan roaster, or maybe even try apprenticing at your local shop. Use this article as a means of inspiration rather than anything definitive. Whether you are thinking about home roasting as a past time or serious hobby, I encourage everyone to learn as much as they can before getting started and remember, don’t get discouraged… hobbies are fun! It’s coffee for Christ’s sake…

Uh…why?:

So many reasons I cannot even begin to answer this comprehensively. Freshness is of course  a key reason. Following a good 24 hrs of rest, most coffee is at it’s “peak” for about 4 days or so; distinctive flavors have materialized and characteristics are their most distinct. After that, flavors slowly diminish, oils begin to oxidize, and the overall quality of your coffee will degrade. After about 2 weeks (which is sadly what you might get bad stores), forget about it. Quality control is another huge issue. As I am roasting, I can spot beans that have not been properly roasted or are damaged and toss them. I am able to control the level of my roast and how much I want to make. Sometimes I make larger batches in anticipation of guests or smaller ones if I am going on a trip. Sky is the limit for quality (well, actually, keep reading). Of course, choice is a pivotal factor. Not only are you able to choose the roast level, you choose the exact beans you want! Find a good purveyor, get to know their inventory, and you have it made. I am personally a huge fan of Rwandan and Guatemalan coffees. Usually, I have several coffees from these regions to chose from when I order. Maybe you want fair trade, shade grown, or a pulp natural processed bean. Rather than being restricted to what store’s stock, you can find what you need.

Probably the most important point I’d like to drive home is that home roasting promotes growth as a barista/coffee enthusiast through the pursuit of knowledge. I am an academic at heart, not a coffee guy. Pedagogically, I firmly believe that a curious mind and a learning attitude is the best way to become good at anything, be it a learned or embodied skill, for personal or professional use. The more you learn, the more you know, the bigger the world becomes, and the more skilled you can become by pretty obvious means. Plus, I deeply appreciate baristas who know about the beans and can tell me why they are good. Even knowing a little something is so much better than someone who says, “Oh, it’s from Kenya… I guess it’s a medium… I don’t know much about it.”

Plus, it is fun.

It sounds like a lot of work…:

In the grand scheme of things, it isn’t. While it seems like a hassle in the beginning, proper time investment yields amazing results. You don’t need a Probat to make good coffee, and you don’t need to spend a lot of money on a class (unless commercial roasting is your game). A recommended, inexpensive, air popcorn popper can produce a really great roast. Consumer home roasting equipment is also a great, albeit more expensive, option. Really depends on how serious you wanna get. I have definitely seen businesses use top of the line roasters horribly, and vica versa. Furthermore, once you get the routine and all the steps down, you can get a batch done in as little as 10 minutes from start to finish. At first, I was quite slow and careful, but you get the hang of it eventually. Learning how to properly roast does take considerable effort and is not always easy at the beginning. Though a steep hill, it is a short one. I put together my little dedicated “roasting facility” with all my tools and notes in a realtively small space in my kitchen, it’s not too dirty and easy to take down.

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Does it really save money?:

To an incredible degree. There are some green coffees that are literally 1/4 the price of what I would have pay to get the same coffee from a commercial roaster. Last month, I bought my buddy and I some Gesha varietal from Guatemala for $20 a pound green. Seeing as most green coffee I buy is about $6 a pound, this sounds like a lot. But keep in mind, some Gesha’s (such as the Hacienda Esmeralda) sell roasted for an average of $10 an oz or $120 a bag… no kidding. Last year, A shop in downtown LA was selling a 12oz siphoned Gesha for $16 a cup. The lowest I have seen a good Gesha sell for roasted was $65 for a 12 oz bag.

DSC03321So yes, it can save a lot. On average, I can get a highly recommended, quality green bean for roughly $6 a pound. Consider this versus the general $15-20 sticker price for 12oz bags from artisan roasters or even $10 a lb for grocery store quality. The cost is in the labor. If you think about it, even if you invest in the most basic popcorn roaster and a few pounds of green beans, were talking about probably $40 at the most. How many latte’s is that for even just one afternoon of fun? If you decide roasting isn’t for you, it is not a big loss. Learn the skill and you and your wallet will be on cloud 9.

Half the price, half the flavor?:

Not necessarily. Let me do a reality check; you won’t attain the exact same quality from a popcorn popper compared to coffee from somewhere like Handsome. There are a number of reasons for this. For one, their equipment is time-tested and top of the line. These guys do it for a living, hours a day, as professionals. They have years of experience (generally) and industry/shop secrets. So, no, you’re home roasted coffee will not be exactly the same. But were talking about inches, not miles of difference. You can easily get 85% the quality of a good roaster if you invest the proper time in learning and acquire good beans. And, your home roasted bean will probably be better than anything the big chains can put out (for a number of reasons as I have stated above, other than their impeccable ability to overroast just about everything). My friends and I have definitely been hit or miss, whether that is the fault of the roaster or the bean is not always clear. At the same time, we have been complimented by customers and complete strangers. Some have even dared to tell us our beans were better than…

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I wanna learn espresso and the bar instead:

That is tricky. Just a word of caution: I and my bosses have had many conversations with customers inquiring about this, and it is much much easier to get into home roasting than it is to start an espresso bar at home.  Unlike a bottom of the line popcorn poppers that operate with relatively the same principles as commercial roasters, bottom of the line espresso machines are an entirely different beast. For one thing, just think about how much more complicated and precise an espresso machine is compared to hot air. You will not get near the same level of consistency, precision, or quality as a commercial espresso machine, period. To even get close requires extensive practice and the “right” kind of know-how. Even if you spend high hundreds on a home machine, it just won’t cut it. I would say that entry level “high quality” machines start in the low $1000s. With a home roaster, all you need is your roaster, beans, a sink or some receptacle, and small tools you probably already have such as a measuring cup and a strainer. Espresso bars require a number of supplemental materials. A full bar needs milk pitchers, tampers, knock boxes, a high quality grinder, etc. My personal bar set up was about $120 with everything, and only after a week of solid practice did I get anything remotely “decent.” That was impart due to my shop knowledge. I can imagine starting from scratch is much harder. Also consider space, a water source, and the high energy cost of espresso machines. I won’t even get into maintenance. I do not want to discourage anyone from trying this if that is your goal, but this is my humble advice. I still go out to get my caps.

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But what if I already buy from a reliable roaster?:

That’s awesome! Me too! Finding a dependable source of roasted coffee is everyone’s mission, right? That doesn’t mean you can’t try it on your own. Maybe you will be dissatisfied with your roasts aren’t as good and continue buying beans. Or maybe you will find beans that your roaster doesn’t supply and love them. If you have a good relationship with your local shop, ask them about apprenticing or if there is a way to learn roasting tips. What do you have to lose?

Good luck!

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