I love coffee. I love everything about it: the aroma, the flavor, and the beneficial boost in energy. I am fortunate enough, even in north Mississippi, to have a local roaster. Strangebrew in Starkville always has an excellent variety of beans and blends to choose from. However, even with a local roaster, I have managed to take coffee drinking too seriously by home roasting my own coffee beans. I don’t know many people who home roast, but I have found home roasting to be a really great hobby that doesn’t take up a lot of time and is relatively inexpensive to start. I figured it was time to give quick crash course on home roasting your own coffee. I still consider myself to be a noob when it comes to roasting, but I think I got enough of a handle on it to point newbies in the right direction.
So why home roast coffee? Well, the coffee you buy at your local coffee shop or grocery store has probably been sitting on the shelf for a while. Most american roasters don’t purge their packaging with nitrogen, so their beans will have optimum flavor for 10-14 days. The flavors of coffee you buy off the shelf probably aren’t at their peak anymore. Home roasting gives you the freshest coffee beans you can get. Green coffee beans also last a very long time if left unroasted and kept in proper storage conditions. If you buy your green beans in bulk, you will always have a supply of fresh coffee on hand in case of a zombie apocalypse. Green coffee beans are also very cheap compared to already roasted coffee. The primary reason to roast your own coffee is because it can taste better than anything you can buy at the store. Home roasting my coffee has opened a pandoras box of flavors and experiences with coffee.
Buying Green Coffee Beans
You will need to source some green coffee beans. This is relatively easy. There are several online retailers who will be glad to ship you beans. My preferred vendor is Sweet Maria’s. I buy beans from Maria’s because they give detailed information about where the beans come from and a handy chart that gives you information about aroma, consistency, and flavor of the beans. The chart provides some useful information about the beans and will give you rough idea of what to expect form the bean. Sweet Maria’s also provides a flavor profile with each bean. When using the chart, I personally like to purchase beans that have a score of 88 or above and the shape of the blue curve is roughly round in shape, but that’s my personal taste in coffees. The one component of the chart you’ll want to pay close attention to is uniformity. This is the difference in size from bean to bean. You want a source that’s consistent in size and shape. If you have a mix of small and large beans, you’ll have problems with beans being under roasted or over roasted, neither of which taste particularly delicious.
Until you have a few roasts under your belt, I also recommend sticking to beans in the $5-$6 per pound range until you build up a little bit of experience. I still don’t have the courage to buy green coffee beans out of Hawaii because of their cost. I also recommend buying five pounds of a single type of bean. Every bean is different and each type of bean roasts differently, so getting some experience roasting a single type of bean will give you the best opportunity of nailing down your procedures and methods for roasting.
Finding a Place to Roast
You would think the smell of roasting coffee would be great, but it’s not. Coffee beans don’t smell like you think they do until a few hours or days after roasting . The smoke and smell of roasting coffee smells like ass and is an aroma I do not like in my house. Some people love it. I don’t. The smell of roasted coffee is pungent, penetrating, and downright offensive. And it seems to linger forever. I do not recommend roasting inside unless you have a place in your home with excellent ventilation. When I mean excellent, I mean like commercial vent hood excellent. I recommend roasting in your garage or on on a porch. I’m lucky enough to have a spot in my house with a very large window fan that blows out (I use to use this room as a cigar lounge) and I place my roaster right in front of the fan so almost all of the smell is vented directly outside. If I’m not careful, I still have some lingering aroma that gets into the house. Luckily my wife has a poor sense of smell.
Just like with any other hobby, this rabbit hole runs deep. Very, very, deep. The equipment you choose to buy can depend a lot on how much you want to spend, what size batches you’d like to roast, and how much control do you want. Introductory setups can start around $25 and crazy home roaster setups can run into the thousands. For folks who are just getting started into home roasting, I recommend getting a hot air popper for your first roaster. This will run you about $25-$30 and will get you to a decent cup of coffee. It’s completely hands on, so you’ll also get a chance to gain experience about what first crack, second crack, and burned coffee is like. Using a air popper will also give you a chance to see if you even like the process of roasting your own coffee. It’s better to spend $25 and find out that you don’t like roasting coffee than spending $500 and coming to the same conclusion.
If you don’t feel like spending $25 on an air popper, you can also roast in a cast iron skillet. Preheat your skillet over medium-high heat for 4-5 minutes. Add your beans and stir continuously. Again, do this in an area with good ventilation. Your beans will roast in the skillet, but don’t expect them to be perfect. Because of the nature of using a cast iron skillet your beans might have a slightly uneven appearance, but that’s ok. Roast your beans just past first crack like you would in any other method and go from there. I have even seen some home roasters use a heat gun and a metal bowl to roast their coffee.
There is a pretty wide level of roasts when it comes to coffee. A lighter roast usually features brighter fruity and acid notes and will show off the origin of the coffee. On the other hand, darker roasts usually have a more chocolate and roasted grain-like character. A darker roast is also typically removes character from the bean. This is one reason places like Starbucks is usually a little heavier handed with their roast, by heavy handed I mean they roast their coffee until it tastes like singed death. It’s easier to roast the hell out of a bean and be consistent between batch than it is to go with a lighter roast. I really enjoy a lighter roast while my wife really enjoys the darker. You’ll eventually learn where you like the level of roast you like in your coffee.
There are two general good indicators of where your roast level is and that’s by listening to your coffee when you’re roasting. These indicators are called the first and second crack. The first crack sounds a little bit like popcorn popping. When you reach the end of the first crack, when the popping stops, you are near a lighter roasted coffee. When you reach the second crack, which sounds like rice krispies in cereal popping, you are approaching a very dark roast. If you go through the second roast you are approaching a Vienna/espresso roast and near burned coffee. The goal is to aim for a stopping point between first and second crack. Sweet Maria’s has a great write up on roast levels and using the first and second crack. Like I said early, I prefer a roast just a tad past first crack. My wife on the other hand likes a roast that’s just barely entering second crack. A photograph of our preferred level of roast is below. To be honest, the beans on the left are pretty much a french roast and one way to tell is by the amount of oil on the exterior of the bean.
It’s important to stop the roasting process once your beans get to your desired roast. The best way to accomplish this is to pour the beans into a colander and then place it in front of a fan and shake the beans. There will be a lot of chaf, the paper skin of the bean, that will get blown out of the colander, but that’s a good thing. Don’t have a colander or a fan? Just place the roasted beans on a sheet pan and let them sit out on the counter to cool.
Storage and Resting
After you roast your coffee you should always try and let your coffee rest for one to three days before you grind it and brew it. Right after roasting the beans will begin to off-gas CO2 which can impact the flavor. The peak flavor for your beans is right at that one to several days after roasting. Each bean off-gasses differently, so you’ll have to experiment to find out which works best for your beans. I’ve had some beans taste great after 12-24 hours and I’ve had some peak four days later. It really depends on the bean. However, you’ll want to keep your beans in a somewhat air tight container. Mason jars work great. You just need to keep them in a dark place. If you order from an online vendor, there is a good chance they’ll have the bags with the one way valve. I currently use these bags. I reuse them for the next batch of coffee. Your coffee beans should remain a their peak for at least week but can last as long as two. Each bean is different and this is one reason I recommend starting with buying 5 lbs of coffee to start.
Grinding and Brewing
This is a HUGE can of worms. Everyone has their preferred method of brewing their coffee. I do recommend you grind your coffee with a burr grinder. The cheap grinders with the spinning blade just don’t do a good job of creating uniform grounds. However you choose to brew your coffee, you’ll want to brew with your freshly ground beans within 15 minutes of grinding. After 15 minutes, the quality will go down south pretty quick.
When it comes to brewing coffee, I do prefer a french pressed coffee or drip coffee out of my Bonavita machine. A french press is an exceptional piece of equipment to make probably the perfect cup of coffee inexpensively. The only additional piece of equipment you’ll need is a pot or kettle to boil water in. The only downside to french press is the volume of coffee.
I’m also super lazy when it comes to making a pot of coffee, so I have to confess my bias to prefer coffee out of my Bonavita. I think the Bonavita brews some of the best coffee I have ever had and it’s very consistent. I also really love the insulated carafe. I actually prefer coffee out of my Bonavita than my french press.
Like all hobbies, home roasting can be as laid back or as intense as you want it. You can get your feet wet pretty cheaply and green coffee beans are cheap too. This is a pretty easy and fruitful hobby to jump into. I hope this post has been somewhat helpful in your home roasting journey.