A Home Roasting Progression
It all started innocently enough. I saw folks talking about homeroasting in alt.coffee, a Usenet newsgroug. The year was 1998. I thought, what a bunch of freaks - homeroasting coffee! Whooda thought!
But then the very cheap bastard that lives deep inside of me spoke up. With bean prices roughly 1/3 to 1/2 what I was paying for roasted stuff locally, I started to get interested. I had experience with home brewing, and I figured if I could do that, I could homeroast. I hedged, and I hedged, until Mrs. Claus, my favourite babe, solved my dilemma and presented me with a few pounds of green coffee from Sweet Marias, and a Proctor Silex Popcorn Pumper for Christmas 1998.
Before I get into my first roasting experience, let me set one thing straight - I thought that homeroasting would be like homebrewing when it came to the final results - ie, not as good as the in store product, but fun to do and cheap, and it could become an interesting hobby. I didn't expect my home roasted coffee to taste better than the premium stuff I was occasionally buying from Yoka's Coffee, a Vancouver based instore roastery (try Kenya AA for $24CDN per pound!). If it was nearly as good, I'd be a happy camper. I was in for a surprise.
My first time.
My first home roasting experience was a dismal failure. The deal was, I'd read so much about all the smoke this process created, it had me worried and I figured it would be best to do it on the back porch. Remember, this was the day after Christmas, and even though Vancouver rarely gets snow, it does get cold.
Of course, the poor Popcorn Pumper simply couldn't get up to a good enough temperature, what with the surrounding temps hovering around freezing. I couldn't hear the "cracks" everyone was talking about, mainly because they never even got to first crack. I let the popper go for a full 15 minutes, finally ended it, and saw baked coffee in the popper. It smelled horrible. I tried brewing a cup, and it tasted worse. I decided to try again, but this time in the house, under the stove vent.
My second batch was much better. I could hear the first crack, stopped it at the second crack, quickly dumped the fresh roast into a metal colander, and ran outside to quench the beans, dumping them back and forth between two colanders. Once they cooled down, the smell was heavenly, and I let them rest six hours before I brewed my first coffee from them. The results? Spectacular taste. Amazing, even in my Krups Pro Aroma coffee maker.
Then the real surprise - I ground up some for espresso in my Krups Novo Compact (my espresso machine of the time), and couldn't believe the resultant shot - first, the crema - it flowed golden brown almost continuously. Up until that point, crema was an iffy situation for me.
And the taste? The taste was phenomenal.
Up to this point in my coffee life, I was probably like a lot of you. I thought all this talk about "ultra fresh" coffee was a bunch of hooey. What's the big deal if coffee is a few weeks old, I thought. Who cares? It's coffee today, and it will be coffee in two weeks, was the main theory I had regarding freshness.
These first acts of home roasting were my wakeup call.
And just to prove the point to myself that all the "experts" were as right as rain, I ground up some 3 week old Kenya AA from Yokas Roastery in Vancouver (I had 3 week old stuff because I was hoarding it), and pulled another shot - almost no crema, and kinda bleh in the cup, especially after the fresh roast. I was sold.
My first year as a home roaster
Throughout 1999, I continued roasting with my Popcorn Pumper (I bought a second unit so I could do two at the same time), and I started doing the cooldown cycle the beans needed with the help of a modified WB Poppery (circa 1980) that Richard Heggs, a home roaster from the Okanagan valley gave me. Because this was a very hands on thing, I got into the habit of commandeering the kitchen for an hour or two every 7-10 days, and roasting up a pound and a half, enough to fill both my the hopper of a Rancilio Rocky grinder and a Starbucks Barista grinder. I had two grinders by this point - one for espresso and one for non-espresso. I started getting the 'geek thing bad by this time.
I also have to admit that by around the fall and early winter of 1999, I was starting to get a bit, I dunno, tired of the ritual - it wasn't much fun anymore... it was a chore. Having to do 5, 6, 7 batches in a row in the poppers was proving a bit too much.
Around this time, West Bend finally started selling their new wb Roaster (which has since been pulled off the market :-( ), and the Hearthware Precision was on the market as well. I eyed both roasters but decided to wait if a third unit, the Alpenrost from Swissmar, would finally make it to the retail scene. The Alp was long promised to the marketplace, but was a famous case of product vaporware (it finally appeared in 2000 in quantity). By late December 1999, I could wait no more, but Jeanette, my s/o (and sometimes Mrs. Claus), hinted that I should wait until past Christmas... besides, if I bought everything I wanted, she'd have no gifts to buy for me!
So I put the Hearthware on my 1999 Christmas list and I waited. And waited. Finally, December 25 came, and Mrs. Claus didn't disappoint - a Hearthware Precision was under the tree!
My first few days with the Precision were a bit of an epiphany - as much as the original popcorn popper experiences were. The HWP changed my roasting lifestyle - no longer did I have to "commandeer" the kitchen and roast huge batches. The Hearthware was nearly "set and forget", thanks to the built in roasting profile (it starts roasting slowly, then speeds up the heat by the middle of the cycle, followed by a rapid cooldown. The SCAA recommends this as the best "profile" for roasting), and the computer brains inside that control the variable temperatures and volume of air channeled through the roasting chamber. After a bit of experimentation, I find that a setting of 5.5 on the NOT mechanical dial (it's not a timer - but instead an input to the computer chip inside) gives me my favourite type of roast - Full City + - with most bean types
The HWP was great, but the units were sometimes plagued with mechanical problems - my own HWP was sent back to the manufacturer for a warranty replacement because of a failing fan inside. But everyone needs to keep in mind that these are still early days in the purpose-built homeroasting marketplace, and not a lot of money can be spent by small companies like Hearthware on delivering bulletproof technology at a price most people can afford. My guess is a good Precision has about a 200-300 lb lifespan, which should make it good for about 2 or 3 years' use. Fair price to pay.
Into 2000 with the HWP
In 2000, I was very happy with the HWP (excepting the above problem, but the warranty services from Macaw Coffee, the Canadian importer of Hearthware products, was great) but I wished for more roasting capacity. I was now roasting for three grinders - my Rocky, the Starbucks Barista grinder (for non-espresso coffee), and the office Solis Master Digital 5000 which was the super automatic (with a built in grinder) that I bought for my office.
The solution came in the form of a piece of equipment that was vaporware for more than two years - the Alpenrost Rotary Drum roaster, from Swissmar. This device was long promised but always delayed, but by the fall of 2000, it was available from several places online. My problem was the price. Being the cheap bastard that I am, I couldn't think of spending about $570 Cdn on the unit which was the price I would have to pay if I ordered it from a US source.
This changed around Christmas, 2000, when Villa.ca (now defunct) had the Alp on sale for $300 Cdn! And on top of that, I used a $25 off coupon that Villa had out. My total cost, with shipping and the evil, smelly, skanky and fattening (for the government)) taxes totaled up to about $335, a price I could live with. I placed the order, and in the second week of December, the Alp arrived.
The Alp works pretty well, other than an anemic cooldown cycle - you will need to air cool the beans in a colander or on a cookie sheet for optimum results, or quickly run it through a second cool cycle on the Alp (pour the beans back in the drum). I really like the 8oz+ capacity, more than double that of the Hearthware. The machine is also much quieter than the Hearthware Precision, or a popcorn popper for that matter, and it makes a different type of roast from air roasted - a bit more thorough, a bit more complex. The Alp is a good machine, but it really does need the cooldown cycle altered - I'm not sure how, other than prolonging it, or adding some sort of cooling feature, that may really drive up the price. Still, don't take this as a negative. If you do not want to stand over a 3oz roaster for several batches, this machine is definitely worth the price. I'm just waiting for Alpenröst V.2.
Today and beyond
Today I still use the Alpenrost for about 90% of all the roasting I do. It's holding up well, but I do give it a vigorous cleaning after each roasting session of 2 or 3 batches. I roast once per week, which is fine for me, and within my tolerance level for what is "fresh".
I've also learned a lot about home roasting since I started back in 1999. Of course the Internet is a valuable source of information if you want to learn about the process, and you probably wouldn't be reading this page if you didn't care to learn about the act of home roasting. But an equally valuable resource for me was Ken Davids' "Home Coffee Roasting" book, which really does cover the subject in depth, giving a history and primer on roasting, and suggested techniques for achieving the best home roasts with the minimum of effort in the home.