Beans Come Home to Roast

In search of fresh, gourmet brews, coffee connoisseurs do it themselves

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If you think we're living in the golden age of gourmet coffee, think again. Sure, we've progressed beyond the Dark Ages of 'decaf or reg'lur.' But in spite of the proliferation of coffeehouses and microroasters, true connoisseurs are turning up their noses at the stale dross that passes for fine coffee. Instead, they're drinking the freshest, tastiest brews by roasting their beans at home.

Green coffee beans stay fresh for a year or two, notes BackHome (May/June 2007), while roasted coffee begins to lose its flavor in a matter of weeks. Flavor is influenced by the region and even the microclimate of the farm where the coffee originates, as well as a dozen variations in the roasting process. That is why, for home roasters, 'each batch made, every cup drunk, is tailored to their palates and preferences.' It's also cheaper. Green beans can be mail-ordered for as little as three to five dollars a pound--and it's easier to find fairly traded and sustainably grown beans if you're willing to roast them yourself.

How do you get started? You could fork over up to $650 for a tabletop home roaster. Or you could spend two bucks at a garage sale for an air popcorn popper--one that blows hot air into the popping chamber through side vents. ReadyMade (April/May 2007) describes the process: Drop half a cup or so of green beans into the popper and hit the on switch. Then listen for the 'first crack,' which signals the beans have heated up, and shut down the machine immediately after you hear the 'second crack.' That's it. Optimally, let a few days elapse for the flavor to mature.

The popcorn popper method is great for beginners, says T.J. Semanchin, a former roaster at Peace Coffee who is now co-owner of Kickapoo Coffee. But, he warns, 'You'll get whatever you get. You'll have some bad roasts and some good roasts. There's no craft to that.'

To play around with coffee flavors, you need to control the heat. To develop the natural flavors of the bean, Semanchin explains, start with low heat and slowly increase it until the first crack, then slowly back it down. Higher-end roasters allow users to control these settings (find reviews of equipment at Sweet Maria's, www.sweetmarias.com, an indispensable resource for the home roaster). One of Semanchin's customers came up with a cheaper route: He plugs his popcorn popper into a voltage regulator, which allows him to control heat like a pro.

Once you catch the home-roasting bug, there's virtually no limit to the subtle variations in flavor. You can blend roasts and bean varieties and tinker with roasting times and temperatures. And if ever you get frustrated by the enterprise, you can wander down to the town tap and drink a cuppa swill to remember why you started roasting at home in the first place.