There seem to be two distinct faces to the coffee hobby. In one case you have the person who goes to a coffeehouse and orders the coffee-based drink of their choice and spends the next few minutes or hours reading or talking to others. The coffee is a backdrop for other more important activities.
The other face of coffee is quite a bit more driven, dirty and obsessive. That is the face I am wearing today. I am hunting. My prey is elusive, hidden in dark nooks and crannies; it is never the same place twice. Sometimes the hunt is for fun, sometimes it is in earnest. Today if I do not succeed my hobby will go hungry. I am keyed up, every sense on high alert. Today it matters.
Even from the outside you can tell this is not a place to be wandered into lightly. I stop at the entrance and let my eyes grow accustomed to the gloom. There is a faint, not unpleasant, musty smell. I scan the room rapidly, probing for tale-tale spoor. There! A flash of reflected light, a faint whiff of ozone. My prey, if it is to be found at all, is there.
Some hunters creep up on their quarry; keeping it in the side of their vision they wander about as though engrossed in other things and then pounce when close. I am much more direct. I move quickly and purposefully past other dawdling hunters. I feel lucky.
The objects of my searches can be elusive, and frankly I don’t even know what some of them look like. Sometimes I’ve only seen pictures or heard stories. Today, though, I’m hunting for a well known critter. I’ve caught and prepared more than my share of these and their carcasses adorn the walls of my hut. White and black, they are about the size of a muskrat. Prepared properly they make good drinking. Every now and then if you’re lucky you can catch them sunning themselves in the open and the hunt is over before it begins. Other times they hide in the shadows. Then, unless you are thorough and your eyes are keen, you will go home empty handed.
Today I fail to see clearly. Fortunately my wife and hunting partner is more successful. I have already moved past where my prey is hiding when I hear her cry of triumph and turn to see to see her pulling it up by its tail and holding it high. “Honey, is this what you’re hunting for?”, she asks. Yes! I leap and snatch it from her hands, turning it over and over looking for any flaws or injuries that would make it useless to us. There are none. It is sound. It has been a good day to hunt. We will drink well tonight.
Okay, why the hunting metaphor? I’ll tell you. If you have a taste for venison or fresh caught brook-trout or newly picked morel mushrooms, unless you live in a really large and sophisticated urban area, you’re probably going to have to shoot, catch or pick them yourself. My current project is to build a coffee roaster and the basic ingredient of this coffee roaster is a very specific kind of hot air popcorn popper. They are available from only three sources, so far as I know: at auction on eBay, from a few retailers who still have old units in stock, and used from thrift stores. I would propose to you that part of the coffee hobby that is particularly satisfying is designing and building workable equipment from inexpensive, scrounged parts. Thrift stores, flea markets and yard sales are the sources for these jewels in the rough, but to find what you want takes some hunting.
If you’re one of those folks who’ve never darkened the door of a thrift store before, let me tell you some useful facts. First of all thrift stores vary quite a bit from time to time and from store to store in what they carry and it’s condition.
Several weeks before I started writing this story I went searching for one of these hot air popcorn poppers and found not a one. On the day of the story, I ‘bagged my limit’ (see picture) from the same stores. In other words, don’t wait until the last minute to go shopping at thrift stores. You may be disappointed. Also, you can’t be sure that what you find will actually work when you plug it in. To avoid disappointment you might want to try it before you buy it. Most thrift stores have a ‘no return’ policy. If you’re going to search for coffee paraphernalia such as old espresso machines and percolators you might even want to carry a canteen of water with you to use when testing the machine, since turning on a heating element when there’s no water present can burn out the heating element. Just let the thrift store staff know what you doing. Most of them are very patient.
Also thrift stores are generally pretty dirty. Some of the most well known thrift store ‘chain’s such as Salvation Army and Goodwill stores may be located in strip centers close to suburban areas and feature items which have been dusted on shelves which are clean. But frankly many thrift stores are located in more low rent districts and you will benefit from casual clothing. The bottom line: thrift stores are an invaluable and enjoyable source for locating discontinued items. But don’t forget that sometimes you can find extremely valuable items for very low prices. I once purchased a Rossi commercial espresso grinder for $34.00 in a thrift store and later bought a Grindmaster coffee grinder such as you might see in a supermarket for $26.00 also in a thrift store. Believe me, these great finds are few and far between, but it doesn’t take many to keep you on the prowl!
Enough about thrift stores. Let’s start to talk coffee roasting. What follows is just a brief overview of hobby coffee roasting. The first thing to remember is that until a bit before the middle of last century, it wasn’t unusual for people to roast their own coffee at home. The methods they used were pretty simple and usually boiled down to some sort of hot pan or drum in which the beans were heated while being stirred or agitated in some way. Somewhere around the nineteen-seventies home coffee roasters started using various devices that roasted coffee beans in a stream of hot air. If you want to learn more about home coffee roasting I strongly recommend finding a book by Mr. Kenneth Davids entitled, “Home Coffee Roasting, Romance and Revival”. My copy is copyright 1996 and published by the Martin’s Griffin of New York.
In my next article I’ll provide a brief ‘bestiary’ of roasters and poppers that may be of interest to you as a hobby coffee roaster, But you can also check the review section of this website looking for Hearthware products, and roasters by Freshroast, Melitta and Imex amongst others. Roasting coffee beans in a stream of hot air offers many benefits to the hobbyist. Generally these devices produce even roasts and the commercially made versions feature built in cooling cycles. Before these commercial roasters were available folks used commonly available hot air popcorn poppers. These offered the benefits of low price and ready availability but tended to be somewhat variable in their roasting ability. They also offered no chaff collection or cooling cycle. “Chaff” is the thin, paper-like material that flies in small pieces off of the roasting beans. If not caught in some sort of filter these bits, which are very light weight, tend to fly everywhere and can make a mess. A chaff collector can be a convenience.
In the next few articles I’ll go into some detail about what features I think the ideal hobby roaster should include. Suffice it to say that right now none of the currently available commercial devices meet my personal criteria (that doesn’t mean that you can’t roast great coffee with one! I’m just kind of persnickety… If you got a coffee roaster for the holidays, count yourself as fortunate and prepare to enjoy some wonderfully fresh coffee.). The roaster I will be discussing with you is capable of roasting 1/2lb. of coffee at a time, but more importantly it gives the hobby-roaster some control over the air flow and temperature. Both of these allow the roaster to control how quickly the beans roast and to what degree. My primary purpose in describing the construction of this do-it-yourself hobby coffee roaster is not to convince you to build such a device but rather to use the planning and construction of the roaster as a context in which to discuss general issues pertaining to coffee roasting. I think we’ll have fun.
And on a different note altogether allow me to wish you a joyous holiday season and a safe, prosperous and coffee-filled New Year!