Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Home Roast Coffee

Back in 1979 Tallahassee's first specialty coffee store opened. I dropped by one afternoon and asked for a recommendation.

"Well, we just got in some Jamaican Blue Mountain," the proprietor replied. "Some say it's the best there is. Plus, we just roasted it this morning."

It was more expensive than their other offerings, but I decided to give it a try. They ground up a pound for me (I didn't have a grinder of my own) and I took it home. Out of curiosity I decided to brew some right away.

It was...ethereal. I'd never had coffee that good.

The next morning I brewed some more. It wasn't as good. The following week (I'm pretty sure it was a Friday) I asked about this at the coffee store. The proprietor told me that coffee loses a lot of its freshness after grinding, and suggested I buy a grinder and wait until just before brewing to grind the beans. I bought one of his grinders and some "Java Mountain Supreme" beans (they were already out of the Blue Mountain). I ground and brewed some the next morning. It was very good, but still not the equal of the Blue Mountain.

I got in the habit of stopping in there at noon on Fridays to buy a half pound of some good beans, treating myself to fresh-ground coffee on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

The store occasionally got more of the Blue Mountain, but it never seemed quite as good as my first purchase. I finally decided it was a case of "first timer epiphany", that sense of revelation when you try something that's an order of magnitude better than anything else you'd had before (I'd experienced something similar with wine that same year when I sampled a good Bordeaux).

Anyway, a few years ago I was recounting this to my friend Betty, who had owned and operated a coffee store in Tallahassee for a number of years. "I suspect the fact that the beans had just been roasted had a lot to do with it," she informed me. "Beans are always at their peak between 12 and 24 hours after roasting, and lose most of their quality within 72 hours no matter how well they're packed."

This sounded like useful information, and I mentally filed it away for future reference.

After Kathy and I arrived in Corvallis, it didn't take us long to find Oregon Coffee and Tea, at the corner of 2nd and Monroe. We'd buy our "weekend" beans there, with our weekday coffee being the $4.59/pound Columbian beans from Costco (by this time I was grinding all our coffee just prior to brewing). I noticed that they had a good assortment of green beans. They also had home roasters, cylindrical devices which cost over $400.

Last fall, when Kathy sent me her Christmas list and requested that I send her mine, I started investigating whether there were less expensive roasters available. I soon discovered the Sweet Maria's web site. This site is a great resource for anyone with a serious interest in coffee. Not only do they have a range of roasters, but also grinders, coffee makers, a wide varitey of green coffee beans, and a whole lot of miscellaneous coffee paraphernaila. It also looked like a real "stand up" outfit, because they'd dropped certain products after receiving customer feedback about the lack of support buyers had gotten from manufacturers when trying to resolve problems. The site also has lots of information on coffee roasting and preparation, including their own "tip sheets" to supplement the manufacturer's instructions. They even have an online forum where participants can share their experiences.

After spending some time reviewing the information about roasters, I decided to go with one from Fresh Roast. Their basic model, the +8, cost about $100. People liked it for its ease of operation, consistent roasts and quietness. It's flaws were that it had a very limited capacity and the glass roasting chamber did not actually attach to the base, nor did the chaff collector attach to the roasting chamber. Instead, these pieces simply perch atop each other, meaning if you bump the thing hard enough, it will come apart. If the roasting chamber lands too hard, it will, of course, break.

The description page for this unit featured an announcement that it would soon be replaced by a new version, the Fresh Roast SR-300. This would have a larger capacity roasting chamber (though sticking with the "just don't bump it" School of Design). Additionally there was to be a second model, the SR-500, which features an adjustable fan and three heat settings (the +8 and SR-300 having only a timer to control roasting). The new models were to be available in early December, so I suggested to Kathy that we wait until then to order one.

December rolled around and there was another announcement: the new models were delayed and wouldn't be available until sometime in January. So what I found under the tree was an artfully designed "IOU One Coffee Roaster", along with a copy of Kenneth David's Home Coffee Roasting. This is a great book, a definite "must read" not just for those planning to do their own roasting but for anyone with a passion for coffee.

In mid January the new Fresh Roast models arrived at Sweet Maria's. They'd already tested them and had some recommendations on their operation. We looked these over and decided to go with the SR-500 ($159) rather than the SR-300 ($109). Kathy placed the order and three days later (Friday, January 22) it arrived.

On Saturday I headed over to Oregon Legacy Coffee and bought a pound each of green "Monsooned Malabar" and Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. These are varieties that we've been buying already roasted. The Ethiopian beans are aromatic and flavorful and the Malabar is very smooth (plus it's just fun to say; Monsooned Malabar. Go ahead, try it: Monsooned Malabar. See what I mean?)(by the way, if you want to know what "monsooned" means, read David's book).

Both David's book and the Sweet Maria's site advise you to expect your roasting efforts to be a trial and error process. Variations in roasters, beans and even line voltage all mean that it usually takes several tries to arrive at the right "formula" (fan speed, temperature, duration) for a specific variety of bean. Over the course of the week I would roast beans every other day or so, and by Friday evening I'd reached the point where I could get exactly the results I wanted with both types of bean. After letting them cool, I put them in a jar with a loose top (they will "outgas" for 12 hours or so after roasting). Saturday morning I ground and brewed a blend of the two varieties. The coffee was wonderfully aromatic and beautifully smooth.

As I sat sipping and enjoying it I realized - this was the best cup of coffee I'd had since 1979.

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