Freshly roasted coffee is great. Believe me, I am extremely skeptical of any fad where something cheap is marketed as having a more “special” version that conveniently costs more of your money to experience. Since I don’t have any kind of developed palate when it comes to wine, for example, you can find me sometimes pacing up and down the wine aisle rolling my eyes and raising my eyebrows sarcastically to think that anyone would spend eleven whole dollars on something that tastes the same at $4 (or $2.50… I’ll keep working on it, wine lovers). There’s no doubt that coffee can be that same way, but I’ll tell you right now that freshly roasted, freshly ground, brewed black-as-death coffee is one of those tastes that it is worth it to acquire. I’ll save my cream and sugar rant for later, because it’s time to learn how to roast.
The method I’ll explain here is for the do-it-yourselfers among us who aren’t totally satisfied with a project unless it involves something we dragged off the side of the road or haggled down at a flea market: the air-popper method. Old popcorn poppers (or new, in a pinch) are an awesome way to roast coffee, so please read up on your options in the post on roasters to find out more. Regardless, these principles will generally hold true across the board when you’re roasting, so regardless of your method, follow along.
Make sure you’re doing this outside, because there is a lot of chaff and some smoke that result from the process. Turn on your popper to let it warm up a few minutes while you get your other things. My go-to tools for roasting are:
-large mesh colander
-a wire strainer/spider
-1/2 cup measuring cup
-spray bottle of water
-container for roasted beans
Most standard poppers can handle about 1/2 cup of beans at a time. Dump them into your running machine, and watch them for a minute to make sure they start cycling (remember, we’re using a flat-bottom popper and not a mesh-bottom one). If they don’t move at first, no worries. Coffee beans tend to expand and get lighter as they roast, so if you stir them for a few minutes they tend to take over for themselves from there. It’s important that you don’t let them stop moving for more than a few seconds though, because they will burn rather than roast and your coffee will suck.
Once they get moving, it’s a listening game. My first few times roasting I watched anxiously so I could pick the perfect moment to get my beans out, but it’s actually easier to let the beans speak for themselves. They will make a loud *crack* or *pop* around the time they’ve expanded a little and are a golden-tan color. This is called “first crack” by roasting enthusiasts, but I guess you can name it something else if you’re feeling it. After this point you’ll be in the zone for some very light roasts, but I’d recommend waiting it out.
“Second crack” is a lot quieter than the first one, but you won’t miss it. It’s more of a light crackling sound as the moisture in the beans keeps expanding and the beans get dryand roasty. After this point the beans will be milk-chocolate brown and will continue to darken fairly rapidly. You can get them out any time now, but lately I’ve liked to wait until the beans look “greasy” from the oils buildingup on their surface before I stop them. Your personal tastes and the flavor temperament of your beans will help you decide your preference here.
Regardless of when you decide to dump your beans, it is very important to get them cool as fast as possible. This may not seem like an important step, but hot beans will actually kind of cook out the roasty flavor and leave you with flat, boring coffee. This is where the colander and spritzer come in. I dump my beans into the colander and immediately spray them for a few seconds with water from the spritzer. The water immediately evaporates, which is why you can only do this right now instead of later when it would mess them up. Then take your mesh strainer and stir and toss the beans to cool them as fast as possible. You can also dump them back and forth between two colanders or bowls, or find some other method that works for you, just use some vague concept of thermodynamics to get those suckers to room temperature.
Once you’ve got them cool, there’s one more step: airing out the beans. After the roast, the beans give off carbon dioxide or something and continue to develop flavor, so it’s good to leave them in a non-airtight situation for a little while as they do this. I’ve seen complex charts about how long beans need to aerate depending on the roast and region of origin, but I usually just let them air out overnight and leave it at that. Again, this is an area where you can discern for yourself based on your situation.
After that’s done– congratulations! You roasted some coffee beans and you’re awesome! As you get more addicted to home roasting, you may want to find a local coffeeshop or reliable online store where you can get a ready supply of un-roasted beans. And believe me… you will want to do this again. Enjoy!