My credential as a coffee fanatic came unglued last September. It was all Sally Schneider’s fault. Yes, herself, the creator of this charming blog. I had been complaining about the skyrocketing price of coffee, and whining about the difficulty of finding a decent bean, much less a decent cup, even in New York City.
“What about roasting your own?” she wrote, sending a link to a BoingBoing piece called “How-To: Roast Coffee with a Popcorn Popper.” Within 20 minutes of reading I had won an auction on eBay for a secondhand West Bend Poppery Two. Price: $20.
While I waited for it to arrive, I had to find some green coffee beans. Unroasted, in other words. Google led me to Sweet Maria’s. This website offers green coffee beans for sale over the internet. And it was my first encounter with upper echelon coffee fanatics.
The first thing that caught me was the price. A pound of high quality green coffee averages around $6.50. Even mediocre roasted beans now cost around $18 a pound. I ordered a sampler of green beans and then began to savor the fanaticism.
I might have once driven four hours into the interior of Brazil to buy a bag of beans. But Tom Owen, owner (and husband) of Sweet Maria, spends a typical day trekking into the Salvadoran hinterland to meet a farmer who has planted 15 acres of his tiny holding with coffee bushes. If you want to get the full scale of this, see The New Yorker’s great piece on coffee in its November 21 issue, where they travel with Tom and set the bar for all fanatics.
So the beans arrived; the popper came. I roasted, carefully following Sweet Maria’s how-to video. Results: mediocre. After four or five such batches, I decided the popper cooked the hard beans too fast, leaving the outside over-roasted and the inside undeveloped.
I needed to trade up. I needed a roaster that would cook more slowly. Real coffee knowledge began to form: I realized that while green coffee beans are quite stable, like pinto beans, once roasted they become extremely volatile. They oxidize, they ooze oil, they throw off little skins called “chaff.” They are tricky. They need to be babied along.
I learned a lot on those first days on the road to true roasting fanaticism: about the colors the “cherry” (i.e. the beans) make as they roast (from green to yellow to tan to light brown to brown to dark brown to oily dark brown to black to — your kitchen’s on fire!!) to the “cracks” they make once they’ve hit certain critical points. Oh, my God, don’t get me started!
Anyway, I bought a Nesco “Professional” Coffee Bean Roaster for about $149. Got it from another fanatic website, Burman Coffee. They also sell top quality green coffee at good prices. The cost-benefit ratio is so good that the expensive roaster pays for itself in a month or two, depending on how much you drink.
Sweet Maria, Burman, Coffeegeek, et al.: the level of passion is truly impressive. Most people who contribute to the forums on these coffee sites disdain even the “pro” roasters, like my beloved Nesco. They are true improvisers: they’ve all built their own.
To make a LONG story short — I now roast my own exquisite coffee, every day, at a cost less than half of retail. And that includes the price of shipping. It is easy, doesn’t take long (my ideal roast is 24 minutes, I like it dark), and it makes wonderful presents when put into Mason jars and tied with ribbon.
The only downside is that you will never be able to drink Starbuck’s again.
Be sure to read David Saltman’s The Coffee Improvisations (pt.1) for Oscarina’s Old Brazil brewing method)
—David Saltman, Wild-Eyed Coffee Fanatic
Related posts: the coffee improvisations (pt 1) + oscarina’s old brazil brewing method
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kramer’s coffee table book (imaginary d-i-y)
how-to: verbena tea for whatever life brings
stout + ice cream floats (for grownups)