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A Novice Coffee Roaster’s Adventure, Part One

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I’m a little late to the coffee roasting party, but I have arrived.

After reading about home roasting on message boards, my curiosity was piqued. This would be right up my alley, since coffee has always been my favorite pairing with a smoke. Easily distracted as I am, however, the notion slipped my mind as fast as it arrived.

Then two weeks ago, my girlfriend is flipping through one of her countless fair-trading, tree-hugging catalogs and says, “Why don’t we buy coffee raw from this cooperative and try roasting it ourselves?”

The price was certainly right. Even after shipping costs, I’d save more than $2.00 per pound, or a couple hundred bucks per year at my current rate of consumption.

The selection of “raw” beans is virtually limitless. We settled on Peruvian Norte, Tanzanian Peaberry, Ethiopian Yrgacheffe, Brazilian Poco Fundo, and my longtime favorite, Papua New Guinea. The only apparent drawback would be the cost of an electric roaster, which starts at $89. Reading on, we discovered that some found the Whirly Pop stovetop popcorn maker to be up to the task at a low, low price of $27. Electric, schmetric. Put me down for one Whirly Pop!

And so went mistake number one. The Whirly Pop is an abortion of a gizmo. How something with so few moving parts can fail so dismally is beyond me. On a test-drive, it jammed instantly. We put it back in the box for return and moved on to Lo-Tech Plan B — iron skillet and square-edged wooden spoon. Provided that we keep the beans moving, our internet roasting tutor tells us, we should achieve an even roast.

So we preheat the skillet over medium gas heat, skim the instructions a final time, and pour in eight ounces of Peruvian Norte. I have manned the spoon. Deborah keeps an eye on the chronograph to ensure that the beans progress at the proper pace. We hadn’t checked the surface temp (500 F is recommended), and if the beans are changing color too soon we’re hoping to make the save by adjusting the heat.

Slowly but constantly, I keep the beans moving, trying not to fling them all over my kitchen. Technically, they can sit unstirred for up to 30 seconds at a time, but I play it safe and keep stirring. Right on schedule, the beans go from pale green to a peanut color at 90 seconds or so, and to a light caramel tone at the three minute mark. It’ll be a few minutes more before the mildly grassy smell fades and they start smelling like coffee.

(Part Two features intense heat, chaff, smoke and other lessons learned the hard way.)

51 comments

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