I spent my childhood years during the 1950s in working class neighborhoods in Glasgow, Scotland. In those days, when any money went to necessities, special items were things you saved up for. Many things that I take for granted now, were luxuries then and often out of reach. Much of it had yet to be invented. Not only was there less variety of products to buy but much of the produce, for example, was seasonal and available only for a short time each year. We waited expectantly for the fresh strawberries and the rich tarts that the baker created from them. Fresh peaches, one shilling each at the time, were only an occasional treat.
The heightened (or perhaps not yet jaded) senses of childhood made, at least in memory, for a richer experience. It was a time when many items were served from barrels or bins. Potatoes were scooped onto a heavy scale, cheese was cut from the round. A simple shopping trip would be marked by the distinct aromas of the various stores - the earthiness of the greengrocer, the sweet cloying perfume of the candy store, or the mix of sawdust (used to cover the floor) and soap that hung in the air at the Woolworth’s.
Most of our regular shopping occurred either locally or in the lower rent fringes of downtown Glasgow. But there were items such as clothing and shoes that required a trip to the city center. Here there was a hierarchy of stores ranging from the lower end general department stores (where we shopped) to the much more upscale venues. Occasionally we would wander through those more expensive stores in the way that sightseers might venture down Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, for entertainment only. My most persistent memories of those window shopping excursions were the powerful aromas that emerged from the delicatessen areas of the stores.
Here the air was filled with a heady mix of Provolone, Salami, spices and other ‘exotic’ aromas that at the time I was unable to identify. But the strongest notes in the ‘perfumed symphony’ then and in my memory were played by the freshly roasted coffee beans. In our world, coffee, when we drank it at all, came from small tins of Nescafé in the form of a powder that was mixed with hot water from the kettle. And perhaps it was then that the idea formed in my mind that there was another world that required fuller investigation. An idea born on the wings of a powerful aroma.
It was much later, in graduate school in the United States, that I saw green coffee beans for the first time. A friend and fellow student from South America was roasting coffee when I was visiting. His method was simple - the beans were spread on a baking sheet and roasted in the oven. At intervals he would check their coloration and move them around on the sheet.
For a time, the idea of roasting my own beans was put aside. As a graduate student with a wife and family there were other priorities demanding attention. But the desire to delve into the mysteries surrounding excellent coffee never entirely went away. As our fortunes improved so did the brew we drank. Ground commercial coffee gave way to beans and a small grinder. The variety and quality of coffee available in stores underwent considerable improvement and for a time I was content to use well-roasted beans available locally. Until my son decided that he wanted to roast his own coffee.
This began with what were, to me at any rate, scary modifications to a corn popper. The method worked after a fashion but produced so much smoke that it had to be done at the mouth of our garage. The biggest drawback was that it was hard to maintain close control over the process. With some trial and error decent quality coffee was produced. My interest in roasting was reawakened but I was not interested in mastering the devilish popper.
If I was going to roast coffee a more professional solution was required. And so began a rather lengthy process of research. In the end we decided to
purchase a mid-priced home roaster made by Gene Cafe, their model CBR-101. This model has been around for several years, receives positive reviews and parts are available at a reasonable cost. The ability to easily maintain the machine over time was an important part of the decision to buy. Another nice feature is the simplicity of the controls. Two knobs control time and temperature, both of which can be adjusted during the roasting process. In addition, the cost of good quality green coffee beans is approximately half or less what good roasted coffee sells for. We calculated that the machine would pay for itself in about one year based on our level of use.
We purchased the machine from Sweet Maria’s, a supplier of fresh green coffee beans and coffee roasting and brewing equipment in Oakland, California. Again, after research, we had selected them as a reliable source for fresh green coffee beans. Sweet Maria’s works with small farmers across the world to find sources for their beans. It is important to us to support local farmers and to ensure that a fair price is paid for the product. In addition, Sweet Maria’s has a wide range of coffee types (dependent on seasonal availability) and has good information resources about coffees and the roasting process.
Like many other things when you seek information about how to roast coffee it is easy to find yourself awash in a sea of very opinionated commentary. In fact the process, particularly with a machine like the Gene Cafe, is fairly
straightforward and with a little practice you can turn out consistently great coffee.
In simple terms, roasting coffee involves caramelization. During the roasting process the beans change color ranging from yellow to progressively more chocolate-colored tones. Water in the beans turns to steam and begins to escape resulting in a cracking sound. As caramelization develops the beans become progressively darker. Where you end the process depends upon your individual taste.
If the roasting process is continued a second crack may be heard. The stage after first crack is often described as City Roast ranging to Full City Roast just before the second crack. Many consider that going beyond Full City Roast begins to override the nuances and qualities that beans from different regions possess. Coffee, in a manner akin to wines, takes on individual characteristics depending on a number of factors, varying from where and how it is grown to how it is processed. Savoring these differences is a major reason why people roast their own coffee.
For more specific information on the roasting process we suggest that you look at Sweet Maria’s General Roasting Instructions and Visual Guide to the Roast Process. We also recommend that you keep notes on roasting parameters for your various roasting sessions. As noted above, different coffees have their own unique characteristics and this will be reflected in roasting times and development of coloration. Some coffees will ‘coast’ after starting the cooling process, meaning that they will continue to develop color for a time. Factors such as ambient temperature in the location where you roast can cause roasting times to vary. Keeping good notes will provide information about how to approach each new roast.
Why roast your own coffee? Well, you don’t necessarily have to. Good quality roasted coffees are fairly widely available these days. However, roasting your own coffee provides an opportunity to fine-tune coffee varieties to your particular taste. It gives access to a wide range of types of coffee, many
produced only in small batches, that you might never otherwise discover. It allows you to experiment with making your own custom blends. You will rarely taste a coffee as fresh as the one you roast yourself. And finally, we derive a great amount of satisfaction with drinking coffee we roasted ourselves and with sharing it with friends and family.
I am sure many of us have experienced the power of an aroma to reawaken old memories. Freshly roasted coffee does that for me. Each time I roast a batch I like to think of that beckoning and beguiling scent that opened a window to a larger world for a small boy a very long time ago.