Home Coffee Roasting, Revised, Updated Edition: Romance and Revival

Home Coffee Roasting, Revised, Updated Edition: Romance and Revival

by Kenneth Davids


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312312190
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/20/2003
Edition description: Revised
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 534,755
Product dimensions: 7.48(w) x 9.09(h) x 0.79(d)

About the Author

Kenneth Davids is the author of three books on coffee, one of the main figures in the home coffee-roasting revival, and writes for a number of coffee-industry publications and web-sites. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Authenticity, Economy, Alchemy

When I produced the first edition of this book in 1996, roasting coffee at home was an obscure activity practiced by amiably caffeinated hobbyists who often lavished tremendous homespun ingenuity in figuring out how to get their beans properly brown.

Today, home — or, as some would have it, alternative — roasting is still obscure, but obscure on a much more substantial scale. No longer do home roasters need to assemble their own roasting apparatus or push beans around in an iron skillet. A dozen or more sleek new home-roasting devices have either nudged their way onto the market or are on the verge of nudging. Nor do alternative roasters need to satisfy themselves with lonely conversations with roasting beans, although some of us, doubtless, will want to continue that practice for therapeutic reasons. We now have the company of scores of Web sites and chat rooms devoted exclusively to our passion.

Nevertheless, home coffee roasting remains an oddball passion of the few, a practice that invariably provokes curiosity and long explanations.

Given its simplicity — once you know what you're doing, basic home coffee roasting ranks in difficulty somewhere between boiling an egg and making a good white sauce — why don't more people do it? Why isn't home coffee roasting already as popular as home baking, for example, or home pasta making or, for that matter, home corn popping?

First, most people simply don't know how vibrant truly fresh coffee tastes when compared to the partly stale version we usually drink. Almost everyone knows how exquisite fresh bread is or how much better home-popped popcorn is than the chewy, rubbery stuff that comes in bags. But the fragrance of coffee one day out of the roaster is a virtually forgotten pleasure.

Second, people don't know that roasting coffee at home is easy and fun, and something that everyone did before the victory of advertising and convenience foods.

Lettuce Comes from the Store

I once worked as a counselor in a day camp. One day while on a nature hike I invited the children to take bites of an edible weed Californians call miner's lettuce. Several refused, on the basis that the leaves came out of the dirt and bugs had crawled on them. When I pointed out that they all ate lettuce, and that lettuce also came out of the dirt and risked having bugs crawl on it, one child objected. "Lettuce doesn't come from the dirt," she declared. "Lettuce comes from the store!"

By the mid-twentieth century, Americans thought of "coffee" as granulated brown stuff that came from a can rather than the dried seeds of a tree requiring only a few relatively simple procedures to transform it into a beverage. As happened in the twentieth century with so many other foods and manufacturers, the actual facts about coffee's origin (it consists of vegetable matter that has been dried, roasted, and ground by human beings) were replaced by market-driven substitute facts (coffee is brown granules produced by the complex machinery of an all-knowing corporation).

Of course, at the very moment of victory for brand-name convenience foods (say about 1960), some of the individuals who had recently come to be called consumers began turning themselves back into cooks or wine makers or brewers or bakers, setting off a countermovement. In the world of coffee the return to more authentic foods took the form of the specialty-coffee movement, which advocated a revival of the nineteenth-century practice of selling freshly roasted coffee beans in bulk and encouraged coffee lovers to take their beans home and grind them themselves. It is unusual in America today to find anyone interested in eating and drinking well who doesn't buy coffee in bulk as whole beans and grind the beans themselves before brewing.

There is no doubt that whole-bean coffees handled well are a tremendous advance in flavor and variety over supermarket packaged blends, and certainly anyone not yet introduced to the adventure of fine coffee should start by simply buying whole-bean coffee at the local specialty-coffee store, learning to grind and brew it properly, and experiencing some of the variety and pleasures it affords.

However, for the committed coffee aficionado, home coffee roasting is a logical next step toward closer intimacy with the bean and a mastery of one's own pleasure.

An elaborate Italian home roaster from the seventeenth century. It probably doubled as a heat stove. A charcoal fire burned inside the double doors at the bottom of the device. When someone — doubtless a servant — wanted to roast coffee, the top lid with its elaborate tulip sculpture would be removed and replaced by the round roasting chamber with a crank pictured on the floor in front.

Nostalgia, Balconies, and Roasting Smoke

Throughout most of coffee history people toasted their own beans. Even in the United States, the cradle of convenience, preroasted coffee did not catch on until the latter years of the nineteenth century. Home roasting persisted in Mediterranean countries like Italy until well after World War II, and many coffee drinkers in the Middle East and the horn of Africa still roast their own coffee as part of a leisurely ritual combining roasting, brewing, and drinking in one long sitting.

Museum collections are full of wonderful old home coffee-roasting devices. One of the options you could buy with your fashionable new wood stove in nineteenth-century America was a home coffee roaster, usually in the form of a hollow cast-iron globe that fit inside one of the burner openings.

For people in countries where home roasting was the norm through the first half of the twentieth century, the practice is rich with nostalgia. Listen to Eduardo De Filippo, for example, a well-known Italian writer and performer, recollecting coffee roasting in his childhood Naples in Mariarosa Schiaffino's Le Ore del Caffe:

In 1908 ... in the streets and alleys of Naples, in the first hours of the morning, a very special ritual was celebrated, a ritual indispensable to less wealthy families as well as to better-off aficionados: the ceremony of coffee roasting. It saved money to buy raw coffee beans and then roast them at home, the only cost being personal skillfulness and patience. Every week (or every couple of weeks) a quantity of coffee was roasted, depending on the needs, finances, and appetites of each family.

And since these rituals were not simultaneous, every day somewhere in the neighborhood a woman or grandpa could be found sitting on the family balcony, turning the crank of the abbrustulaturo, or coffee roaster.

We now need to describe this object, today only a memory for most Neapolitans. It was a metal cylinder of thirty to sixty centimeters in length, with a diameter of about fifteen (twelve to twenty-four inches by six inches). Protruding from one end of the cylinder was a long pin; from the other a crank. Raw coffee beans were placed inside the cylinder through a small door in its side, which was firmly held closed by a little hook. The lower part of the device consisted of a rectangular steel box; inside the box a small charcoal fire was lit. At the top of either end of the box were grooves into which the pin and the crank fit, supporting the cylinder between them over the fire. Once the cylinder was placed atop the box the roasting could begin.

By the way: Why did I mention balconies? Because in the process of such roasting, the coffee beans, which are quite oily, release an intense smoke that could be quite unbearable in a closed space, yet no nuisance at all out-of-doors. Instead, dispersed in the air and transported by the wind, it was a source of great happiness for the entire neighborhood.

As the crank was turned the beans tossed up and down against the hot cylinder wall until they were roasted just right. Occasionally the cylinder had to be taken off the base and shaken a few times to check the sound the beans made, so as to judge their weight, since they became lighter as they roasted. But that was not enough ... the color of the beans had to be checked through the small door in the side of the cylinder, and when they were the "color of a monk's tunic," as we said, the cylinder was quickly removed from the fire and the roasted beans poured onto a large tray or terracotta plate. There they were carefully stirred with a wooden ladle until they cooled. With every stroke the roasting smoke would permeate the air with a delicious, intense, irresistible aroma.

As for me — lingering about in bed during those early hours, trying to delay the moment when I would have to get up and go to school — as soon as this seductive smell reached my nose (it even penetrated the closed windows!) I would jump out of bed full of energy, happy to begin the day. And so it was that, even before I was allowed to drink it, coffee became my wake-up call and symbol for the new day. ...

This freshly roasted coffee fragrance, one of the finest of aromas, would follow me as I washed myself, as I dressed, as I devoured my "'a zupp' e latte" or milk soup, and as I descended the stairs. ... Down in the street the smell wouldn't be as strong ... but I still would be made aware of it by the voices I heard. The comments crackled from window to window along my way from home to school. "Ah, what fragrance, what pleasure!" street vendors might shout.

One skinny old woman might ask another with a bun of black hair: "Have you roasted your coffee yet?" And the other would reply: "Of course! We roast it twice a week. Grandpa is so picky he has to do it himself." On the balcony of an elegant apartment a servant, who looked like a wasp with his black-yellow striped jacket and black greased whiskers, to an exquisite maid in the apartment next door: "I'll have to leave you shortly: the coffee must be removed." And she would reply: "Yes, of course ... I roast it every Saturday; it is always a great responsibility, Ciro my dear. ..."

Also, quite often, just before being swallowed up by the school gate, my ear would intercept an "Ahhhh ...!" from a shoemaker nearby. Sipping his cup of coffee before starting work, his "Ahhhh ...!" was so expressive — you could feel pleasure, satisfaction, happiness, appetite, even surprise and wonder. Later, as an adult, I would discover all of those things in coffee myself.

Some Reasons to Roast

For those of us who weren't raised with the scent of roasting coffee filling the narrow streets and picturesque balconies of memory, and whose childhood recollections instead involve tract homes, Pepsi, and Maxwell House, what are the advantages of home roasting? It may be a simple but forgotten art, yet why bother at all? Here are a few reasons.

Eduardo De Filippo's drawing of the Neapolitan abbrustulaturo, or home coffee roaster, he describes here.

Freshness and Flavor. Unlike stale bread, which rapidly becomes dramatically inedible, stale coffee still can be drunk and enjoyed. But what a difference a few days make! An absolutely fresh coffee, a day or two out of the roaster, explodes with perfume, an evanescent aroma that seems to resonate in the nervous system and vibrate around the head like a sort of coffee aura. The aftertaste of a truly fresh coffee can ring on the palate for an entire morning; the taste of a week-old coffee will vanish in a few minutes. Perhaps the persistent surprise and delight of De Filippo's shoemaker at the revelation of his morning coffee was partly owing to the fact that he had a grandpa who roasted it every week on the family balcony rather than buying it half stale at a supermarket.

Coffee is best about a day after it has been roasted. Once past that moment a rapid and relentless deterioration in flavor sets in as the protective envelope of carbon dioxide gas dissipates, allowing oxygen to penetrate the beans and stale the delicate flavor oils. For someone who genuinely loves coffee, the bouquet of optimally fresh beans is without doubt the most tangible of the many reasons to roast coffee at home.

Reasonably fresh coffee can be gotten at specialty stores if the roasting is done on the premises or close by, but with the growth of mammoth regional and national specialty-coffee chains, beans may be roasted hundreds or even thousands of miles from the store where you finally buy them. Coffee from these specialty chains will be infinitely better and fresher than the preground stuff that comes in cans and bricks, but it won't — can't — be as fresh as the coffee you roast in your own kitchen.

Personal Satisfaction. Roasting coffee at home provides the gratification many of us derive from outflanking consumerism by gaining control of a heretofore mysterious process that was once imposed on us by others. Home roasting is also an art — a minor one perhaps, but an art nonetheless, and one that can provide considerable gratification.

Money. Obviously this issue is more important to some than to others. Depending on how and where you buy your green coffee, you can save anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of the cost per pound by roasting at home. See "Resources" for strategies on finding sources for green coffee.

Connoisseurship. The way to truly understand a coffee is to roast it. Furthermore, home roasting makes it possible to develop what amounts to a cellar of green coffees. Unroasted coffee doesn't quite last indefinitely, but for a year or two it registers only subtle changes in flavor and remains interesting and drinkable for years after that. Handled properly, some coffees even improve with age. Thus you can keep modest supplies of your favorite coffees around and select them for roasting according to your mood and your guests' inclinations. The coffee-cellar idea is discussed in more detail here.

Bragging Rights. So there you are, roasting a blend of Guatemalan Huehuetenango and Sumatran Lintong, your kitchen pungent with smelly yet glamorous smoke, when your friends arrive for dinner carrying that pathetic bag of week-old house blend from down the street....

I won't add more because I don't want to encourage snobbery or one-upmanship, but you get the picture.

Romance. Finally, roasting your own coffee carries you deeper into the drama and romance of coffee, which I remain a sucker for despite twenty years of professional and semiprofessional involvement with the stuff. That romance is nowhere as vividly encapsulated as in that moment when a pile of hard, almost odorless gray-green seeds is suddenly and magically transformed into the fragrant vehicle of our dreams, reveries, and conversation. To be the magicians waving the wand of transformation makes that metamorphosis all the more stirring and resonant.

If You Can Read You Can Roast

And above all: You can do it. You couldn't get a job as a professional coffee roaster because professional roasters need to achieve precision and consistency as well as quality.

But anyone who can read this book can produce a decent to stunningly superb roast at home. Jabez Burns, probably the single greatest roasting innovator in American history, once said that some of the best coffee he had ever tasted was done in a home corn popper.

Liberating the Taste Genie

Chemistry and Drama of the Roast

What Happens to Coffee When It's Roasted?

In fact, no one knows — exactly. One of the many intriguing characteristics of coffee is the complexity of its aromatic agents: At this writing, 700 to 850 substances have been identified as possible contributors to the flavor of roasted coffee. The exact number of contributing substances varies from study to study and sample to sample, perhaps influenced by the geographical origin of the beans and how they are dried and prepared for market.

These figures do not include all of coffee's many additional non-flavor-influencing components. Over 2,000 substances have been identified in green arabica coffee beans.

These formidable numbers make coffee one of the most complex of commonly consumed foods and beverages. Wine, for example, has considerably fewer flavor-influencing constituents than coffee. Only about 150 components contribute to the taste of vanilla, considered by food chemists to be one of the more complicated of natural flavorings. To this day, the actual coffee part of "coffee-flavored" candies and other foods is derived from roasted coffee itself and not whipped up in a laboratory, a tribute to coffee's defiant complexity.

One thing is certain: The 700 to 850 flavor constituents of arabica coffee and their heady fragrance would not be available to us without roasting. Roasting is the act that liberates the taste genie of green coffee.

Very broadly, roasting: (1) forces water out of the bean; (2) dries out and expands its woody parts, making them more porous and reducing the total weight of the bean by 14 to 20 percent; (3) sets off a continuous transformation of some sugars into CO gas, a process that continues after the coffee is roasted and only concludes when the coffee is definitely stale; (4) drives off some volatile substances, including a small part of the caffeine; and finally and most importantly, (5) caramelizes a portion of the bean's sugars and transforms some into what are popularly called the coffee's flavor oils: the tiny, fragile, yet potent mix of appetizing substances with unappetizing names like aldehydes, ketones, esters, and acetic, butyric, and valeric acids. It is the caramelized sugars, the flavor oils, and traces of other substances, like bitter trigonelline and quinic and nicotinic acids, that (along with the approximately 1 percent caffeine) give coffee drinkers the experience they pick up the cup for.


Excerpted from "Home Coffee Roasting: Romance & Revival"
by .
Copyright © 2003 Kenneth Davids.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Also by Kenneth Davids,
About the Author,

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Home Coffee Roasting, Revised, Updated Edition: Romance and Revival 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a good solid starter manual for the home roaster. It gives a good history, nice internet links and explains all the basics one should know when they are roasting their own coffee.