Itís February of 1998. My wife and I buy some coffee in a small coffee shop in Raleigh, North Carolina. The coffee is an Ethiopian coffee called yrgacheffe. We are overwhelmed by the flavor of lemons and flowers when we brew our first pot. Neither of us have ever had coffee that tasted this delicious before. Eager to have this experience again two weeks later we go back to the same shop and buy several pounds, take it home, and excitedly brew up another batch. Ho hum. Wait! This coffee from the same batch that we had loved two weeks before, coffee which that had tasted so fabulous that we had dreamed about it, now tasted like generic canned coffee!
This was so strange. I began to do some reading about coffee. I learned that yrgacheffe was an Ethiopian coffee, that it was so-called wet process coffee, and famous for its lemon citrus and floral flavors. Now we were still faced with the fact that the original yrgacheffe that we had tasted was wonderful but that the new batch that we had bought just two weeks later tasted boring. Why might this be?
One variable that continuously came up in our reading was the idea of freshness. It seems that roasted coffee is at its peak for only 1 week after roasting. Ok, just buy coffee within that one week, we thought. Problem was, when we went back to the original shop and asked them how often they roasted their beans, they explained that they didnít roast their own coffee, that the yrgacheffe we had enjoyed was roasted by a contract roaster, and that they couldnít be sure when it was roasted. While this seemed to satisfy everyone else, Jill and I had tasted yrgacheffe at its best and it did not satisfy us when it was stale. What were we to do? The coffee that had tasted so good looked exactly like the coffee that had tasted so boring, the store couldnít tell us how old the coffee was at any given moment (and seemed amazed we wanted to know), so how could we be sure we were getting fresh coffee?
In search of the freshest cup of coffee, I stumbled across a small online store that sold green coffee and suggested roasting coffee with a common hot air popcorn popper. We had no idea that you could buy and roast green coffee but it made sense if you wanted freshness in the cup, and it surely seemed freshness was our Holy Grail. Eager to try our hands at roasting coffee Jill and I went in search of green coffee, not an easy task in rural North Carolina. We found a Chapel Hill ígourmetí store that sold quite a bit of coffee but only one kind of coffee in the green form and there we bought 1lb. of harrar. Harrar is a Ďdry processedí Ethiopian coffee, sort of the wild country-cousin of the yrgacheffe we had enjoyed. It wasnít easy to buy that first pound. The clerk didnít want to sell it to use since it wasnít roasted, then didnít know how much to charge and finally wanted to grind it for us before we left. Buying green coffee has gotten much easier!
We took it home, plugged in our West Bend Poppery II popcorn popper, and poured in some green beans. We didnít know how many, so we just poured in a handful. We stared at them while they spun about slowly changing color. We were shocked when little bits of brown tissue paper flew off in our face. After about twenty minutes the beans had become more or less the brown color of roasted coffee. The next morning we brewed a pot of our coffee and while it tasted fairly flat, we remained quite excited with the taste of our new creation. No one else shared our enthusiasm because frankly the coffee that we had roasted tasted more like biscuits than coffee but we were hooked. That was March of 1998.
Fast forward to the present. Now, like most people I purchase my green coffee on the web (in my case most of it from Tom at sweetmarias.com which just happens to be the same little online store I first found those years ago). Iíve been working on my own roaster in the meantime and have built a roaster which will roast 1lb. at a time with control over time and temperature. To roast I choose a green coffee from the number I have on hand, step outside, turn on the blower, adjust several heater switches and put in the 1lb. of green coffee. I watch my temperature and in about eleven minutes I remove the roasted coffee into the cooling hopper where cold air drops the temperature to cool to the touch in less than 30 seconds. A far cry from the confused roasting experience of just a few years ago.
The roasting and preparation of coffee is a huge feature of my everyday life. Not a day goes by that I donít roast coffee, or make espresso or brewed coffee. While Iím constantly learning, I feel fairly comfortable with these basic skills. Obviously a great deal of learning has occurred in a few years. For instance, now I know that the very long roast of twenty some minutes that I inflicted upon that first harrar baked the coffee rather than roasted it. I know that this was because the thermometer was set incorrectly in the West Bend Poppery II I was using for that first roast, and now know how to fix this. I recognize the little tissue paper bits that flew off of roasting beans as chaff or silver-skin, a normal consequence of roasting any but decaf coffee. Partly I learned from books, partly from other coffee hobbyists, and partly from trial and error. Lots of error.
When Mark asked that I write a column for coffeegeek, I knew I wanted to write a column for coffeegeeks-to-be. Iím hoping that together we can shorten the learning curve of the newest coffeegeeks and expand all of our knowledge about this little bean that gives us so much pleasure.
One issue that is very personal to me is my belief that a key ability for any serious coffee hobbyist is the ability to roast their own coffee. By doing so you ensure not only the freshest possible coffee but also you have free choice of the many Specialty coffees that are available on the internet, the best coffees from all over the world. This is important because freshness is paramount in learning about coffee, and green coffee has quite a long life span (at least months, if not years) where roasted coffeeís life is measured in days. Also different coffees taste best roasted to different degrees (lighter or darker roasts) and only by roasting your own can you have control over this important variable. Iím not saying you should never buy roasted coffee. Of course you will benefit from seeing how the pros do it. I do think if you are interested in getting the most out of coffee, you should be able to roast coffee, too.
There are a number of commercial coffee-roasters on the market today, and you can find reviews of them in the CoffeeGeek review section. And in case youíre interested, in the next few articles we will be discussing the construction details of an air roaster based on easily located parts, primarily from thrift stores, capable of roasting one half pound of green coffee at a time. I hope you will find that project interesting.
Iím looking forward to writing these columns from an amateurís perspective and meeting you as well. Please feel free to email me and I will contact you in person if I can or at least try to incorporate your question or comment in a future column. Please tell me if I may mention your name in my column when you write. One final disclaimer or two: I am not a coffee professional (Iím a clinical psychologist working in a forensic hospital, in fact) so I will not be preaching any absolute gospel, only sharing my opinions which you may employ at your own peril. Coffee is my passion, not my day job. Also I have no financial arrangement with any coffee business so I feel free to share my opinions about them, good and bad, and you should know that I never will make comments based upon receiving a direct financial benefit or special consideration.
ps: We're still looking for that perfect yrgacheffe...