Oh coffee, what would we do without you?
Unless you live in the right environment, coffee is not something you can grow in your backyard. As we learn about sustainability, we are always faced with tough choices. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Barbara Kingsolver chronicled how even the most ambitious folks might have to allow themselves indulge in one non-green luxury. None of us are capable of saving the world single-handedly. So how does the ethical non-ascetic find a way forward? Theirs was for each family member to pick one (and only one!) luxury that was not locally sourced.
We aspire for the day when it is only one. For now we simply continually pair down on the distantly-sourced necessary and/or enjoyable items with that goal in mind. We have made great progress so far; today our exotic luxuries coming from far-flung places are now limited to just tea, some spices/condiments, lemon & lime juice, chocolate, and – of course – coffee. When the time (and money come) we want to build a terrarium extension onto the house where we can raise our own coffee.
If you’ve ever been around me (Lance) in the morning you know that withholding coffee is bordering on cruelty, but not technically necessary for survival. Therefore it made a perfect candidate for exploring more sustainable ways to acquire and enjoy it.
Below you will find a discussion regarding what we will call the “zeroth” step in coffee: the beans! You can’t do a “coffee thing” without coffee beans. If you can grow them yourself you’re both very luck and probably already familiar with everything else that will follow. If you can’t grow your own beans (like most everyone in North America) then we hope this helps. You can both save a lot of money, and optimize your coffee enjoyment through the art of roasting your own beans!
We pick organic, fair trade beans. When we were in Boise we could get them from a local, reputable coffee roaster. Now the closest roaster is about an hour away in a direction we almost never drive. Unfortunately that means resorting to Amazon, or giving up coffee. Since the latter basically means I would cease to function as a human being, and the homestead requires my labor, I am taking the cravenly path and giving in to my weakness; there must be coffee.
Selecting the beans of your choice is beyond the scope of this article. We love Ethiopian Yirgacheffe (of which there are more offerings than you can shake a stick at, but let’s keep it simple). There are other varietals I am much more partial to, but they are VERY hard to find. So Yirgacheffe is a great go-to for us.
Most home roasters get great results with the humble hot air popcorn popper. Does anyone actually use these things anymore? For popcorn, I mean… You might have to look a little bit to find the right one, but thrift stores are your friends. Hopefully you can pick one up for $3-$4. You’re looking for one with a flat bottom and the vents on the side of the inside cylinder. We’ll give a link to a good list in the Method section below. We wound up with the functional-but-unfortunately-named Popcorn Pumper:
If you want to optimize your coffee experience you must house your beans correctly – that means storage jars!
Every bit as exciting as it sounds! These swing-lid storage jars (with the rubber seal) are air-tight and can often be found in thrift stores or garage sales. Each of these was bought new, but if you take good care of them and they’ll last a very long time. The rubber seals may need to be replaced periodically, though (either with new rubber ones or silicone ones, which should last a lot longer).
Green and roasted beans have different levels of robustness with regards to certain environmental conditions, but it’s easy enough to create conditions good for keeping them both.
- Temperature: All beans do great at room temperature, just avoid extremes! Definitely avoid sunlight. Our jars are clear so we keep them in the pantry (or at least well away from windows). While some people keep roasted beans in the freezer, this is unnecessary and actually can be detrimental. The practice began as a way to avoid excess humidity in roasted bean storage. However, most freezers do not regulate humidity and it’s possible that a freezer can have a higher humidity than ambient conditions. Roasted beans can withstand freezer temperatures, but the cold does not help them in anyway. Freezing temperatures are not good for green beans. So just skip the freezer and deal with humidity separately.
- Humidity: green beans have an optimal range for humidity; roasted beans just need to be kept dry. We live in a moderately humid environment. To keep roasted beans dry you could try making dessicant packs from powdered non-dairy creamer1. Or just roast enough that they won’t be affected before they get used up. Since green beans need a little humidity, if you’re in a dry environment you need to make sure they don’t get too dry. We’ve had a lot of success with the flip-top jars; they keep the beans’ moisture in the jar (we only open it during roasting). Also we don’t keep too many green beans on hand. The rule of thumb is don’t keep green beans more than a month. Two pounds of green beans lasts us about a month. If needed, you could try to add humidity if really necessary – wet a small cotton cloth and wring it out completely, then add it to the jar – but you must be very careful not to add too much moisture to the environment or you’ll get bean spoilage and/or mold. But unless you live in a place like Death Valley this is likely unnecessary.
- Oxygen: as with most foodstuffs, oxygen is to be avoided to extend the life of the beans as much as possible. The air-tight containers will do most of this work for you (as well as preventing the beans from picking up any off-flavors/aromas from the environment). Green beans that are not kept longer than a month do not seem to have any issues with oxidation for us. Roasted beans are much more sensitive to oxygen, so we roast only enough beans to last us about two weeks. Additionally as soon as they are roasted they go into the swing top containers, but not sealed. The freshly roasted beans will off-gas CO2 significantly for about 12 hours. Since CO2 is more dense than N2 or O2, this process will naturally drive all O2 out of the container if the lids are left open for 12-24 hours. After that just make sure you don’t tip the container and the roasted beans should remain in a blanket of CO2 until they’re used up.
Roasting isn’t complicated, but it’s a little messy and takes some extra tools to make it easy and repeatable.
The two most important accessories are, of course, not pictured. Oops! You will never get anything approaching what you want without a timer. We just use a smart phone stopwatch lap function and base our end time off of the all-important first crack. Also if you’re starting out you must take notes! This is like any artisanal effort where many factors combine to make the final product. If you don’t keep track of what you do, you’ll never dial in what you want.
The messy part of roasting is the smoke and chaff. The Method below will deal with this in more detail but we use a large plastic colander for this. You could also run the popper into the sink or just let it run outside.
Another challenge is the beans will hold a lot of heat. If you don’t cool them quickly they will continue to roast (probably beyond what you’d like) well after they are removed from the heat source.
For many years Sweet Maria’s has been my first stop when exploring all things coffee online. Naturally that was the first place we looked for online tutorials. Oddly, the original page we found isn’t around anymore; the closest thing I can find is an older legacy page here. It used to have a more extensive popper listing (including the Popcorn Pumper) and there was a video embedded in it, among other things. At least the video can still be found here. If you can, please review those materials before reading further.
Select Your Desired Roast
Full disclosure: I hate dark roasted coffee. Perhaps that will demonstrate that I am not, in fact, a true coffee aficionado. I don’t care. Dark roast is disgusting and an abomination to all that is the bean we love. Dark roasted coffee is like a well-done steak. If a person orders one, it shows one doesn’t understand what good steak is2. Yet, this is homebrew, and if you want dark roast, go for it. As you roast you listen for the first crack (and hit the “lap” button on your timer as mentioned above to count and document your roast times). Once the first crack happens, approximate roast times are as follows:
- 1 Minute: Light
- 1 to <2 Minutes: Medium (City)
- 2 Minutes: Medium Dark (Full City)
- 3.5 Minutes: Dark Roast
Pick the roast you want to shoot for and note the target time. Based on the cup of coffee you get tomorrow, you can decide if you want to increase or decrease roasting time.
The Prep and the Warm Up
How many beans can you roast at once? A good rule of thumb is start with the same volume as the popper was meant to hold in popcorn. Too little and it will roast too fast. Too much and it will not roast evenly (we are combating this currently as later pictures will reveal). Start with the recommended amount and adjust from there. The theoretical amount for us was just under half a cup.
We like to run the popper for a little while before dumping the beans in so that it completely warms up. We roast a couple week’s worth (give or take) each time which takes five rounds of roasting. Warming the popper up lets each round take about the same amount of time and simplifies the note taking.
The popper will blow out chaff and some smoke. It won’t emit enough smoke to set off smoke detectors in most houses, but it will put off enough that your house will smell like it for a while. Some choose to roast outdoors and let the chaff blow away. It’s been cold, so we do it indoors and just open windows when roasting to help the smoke clear quickly. You can aim the popper to blow the chaff into a sink. We wet a cotton towel and place it in a colander under the popper spout. The chaff is an excellent source of nitrogen for composting. I have heard if you have enough of it, chickens like to use it for dust baths. We have never had enough to try. But if you live near a roaster they may have bags of the stuff they are looking to get rid of3.
Get your timer and note-taking device at the ready…
Dump the beans in and start the timer. They say first crack should occur at around three minutes. We find anywhere from 1:30 to 2:15 is pretty common. Sometimes the first crack is as obvious as can be, other times it’s nebulous: “Was that a crack? I think so. But it was so quiet… Wait! Was that a crack? Golly I think so but it sure was pretty quiet, too…” Just keep notes, watch the timer, make a decision, stop at your target time and record the results. You’ll figure it out. Let your experience guide you. We’ve been shooting for a roast time of around 1:20-1:40 for each round depending on the batch of green beans we are working with.
The beans in the bottom of the popper should swirl constantly, but not chaotically (too few beans). Too many beans and they’ll swirl sluggishly and scorch on the bottom. Use a bright light to try to gauge the roast as things progress. The yellow color of the hood can make this hard. Once we got a few rounds under our belt, we didn’t have to look at them that closely anymore; the cracking and the timer typically would tell us what we needed to know.
The Transfer and Cooling
At the desired time it is important to cool the beans as quickly as possible. This works well with two people, but it’s not required. Devise your own method! For us person 1 switches off the popper while person 2 lifts the top off WITH HOT PADS. Person 1 immediately dumps the beans into a heavy-bottomed pan.
Be very careful with the popper top (especially with a metal butter dish) and the beans. They are very hot and can burn you almost instantly!
As person 2 carefully sets the popper top aside person 1 swirls the beans in the pan soaking up their excess heat:
We keep two pans on hand so we can take turns swirling the beans in a cool pan. If you don’t cool them rapidly you’ll actually be able to see them turn darker as they roast themselves in the cooling pan.
Lastly we pour them into a metal colander to let them get better air cooling and drop off some more chaff before putting them in the jar. We put them in the jar while they are still warm, but not so warm that they would burn your hand if you held them (probably 100 degrees or so – I can measure if anyone really cares).
Place the delicious-smelling bean in your storage jars! Leave the lids open for at least 12 hours before sealing them tightly to allow for CO2 outgassing. Definitely seal them by the one-day mark. You can make coffee with them right away, but most people say somewhere in the first 24 hours they will achieve peak flavor.
Most also say coffee is “fresh” roasted for the first five days. We roast about two week’s worth due to various convenience factors. This has currently been taking five rounds of roasting per session.
Practice = Simplifying
As I write this section we have been roasting our own coffee for over two years (when the article was originally written). I hope my instructions above don’t sound daunting or overly-officious. But after two years of doing this I can say with practice it gets MUCH simpler. As with anything cooking you can toss the instructions once you get a feel for it.
We no longer keep any logs (just mental notes), the stopwatch is a suggestion, we don’t pay any visual attention to the beans as they roast, we just listen to them and watch the clock.
Don’t fret over first crack. Every round of roasting is different. The point is not when the very first bean cracks, but when many of them crack. Usually there will be a few vanguard beans that crack, then a large number, then most of the remainder will crack in a fury. We time from the vanguard crack but sometimes it doesn’t happen. In that case we start timing when it should have happened and know we’re right when the “large number” start cracking right on time. This method can’t be described in step-by-step. You just have to practice.
We eliminated the third step of colander cooling. We still do the first rapid cooling in a big, heavy pan. When the bottom of that pan gets too hot for me to comfortably keep my palm touching it, I transfer to the second pan. The beans get a little more shaking until they’re cool enough to not roast any more and then comes the most important step: picking out beans with defects. By the time the beans have been gone over they are plenty cool.
Sorting Out Defects
I can’t believe there’s nothing about sorting out beans with defects above. Show’s how little I knew when we started! This is one of the most important steps to moving from good or really good coffee, to really excellent coffee.
This starts with the green beans. Do yourself a favor and get SCAA Grade 2 green beans. That way most of the work is done for you. Grade 1 would be theoretically better, but I have not come across Grade 1 offerings to the small consumer and I hear they are very expensive if you can find them.
As I pour the green beans into the hopper I have a headlamp on to look for bad beans. I try to pick them out before roasting, because there’s no reason to waste roasting energy on them. However this would be a time consuming process to try to do thoroughly so I just pick out what’s easy without too much fuss. Bad beans will make it into the roast no matter what, so there’s no reason to worry too much about it.
The easiest to see and most common defects (in the Grade 2 stuff I’ve been using) are black beans, sour beans, broken beans, malformed beans (I call mutants), shells, and insect-damaged beans. Here is a detailed write up and here and here are some good pictures.
Once roasted and in the second cooling pan I use the headlamp again to pick out the defective beans. The most common one are quakers, stinkers, malformed beans (I call them mutants and mummies), broken beans, shells, and insect-damaged beans.
The quakers, shells, and broken beans will not ruin a cup of coffee. But they will degrade a cup because they displace otherwise good (superior) beans. When you’ve had a cup of mind-blowingly good coffee, someone went to the pains of sorting them out. Quakers taste like “Corn Nuts” to me. Shells and broken beans over roast and more bitter and bland. Mutants may or may not taste awful, but they’re both rare and easy to spot, so I just toss them.
Stinkers and mummies, however, can outright ruin a cup. They are repugnant things. I will try to update this article with pictures after our next roasting session. Stinkers tend to have a striated appearance with dark veins and flecks on a lighter background, where the ideal bean has a uniform texture and color. Mummies are mutants that are shriveled, mottled, and often have a pale or powdery look to them. Additionally any bean that has not shed it’s chaff, I check. I have found about 80% are rather unappealing looking once you get the chaff off, so I toss them, too. But some do look just fine, so I keep them.
You must sort to what you feel is the point of diminishing returns. A truly flawless bean with perfectly uniform color and texture is actually quite rare. So if you wanted nothing but “perfect” beans you might have to throw out 80%-90% of your batch even though they are by-and-large totally acceptable as coffee beans. However if you get a less-than-ideal batch of green beans you might find a full third (or some very significant portion) of your roasted batch does not look great; not horrible, but definitely have room for improvement. Do you throw all them out?
This is all art and no science. To guide me I took to eating beans as I pulled them out. At first I ate almost all of them. All quakers, though, pretty much taste the same. A sort-of-inverse principle is true, too: Stinkers (that all have similarly repugnant flavors) have a definite look to them once roasted. So by eating bean after bean in sorting those early batches I learned to recognize stinkers and mummies quite quickly BECAUSE I DIDN’T WANT TO EAT ANY MORE OF THEM. Over time I grew more confident in my eye.
I’d eat “borderline” beans to see if the flavor matches what my eye told me. Sometimes I thought it was bad and it was. Other times I thought it would be bad and it was perfectly fine. Sometimes I thought it would be just fine in spite of a bit of a defective appearance and I’d be right. Other times I was expecting it to be fine and it was not at all good. All this feedback constantly trains the judge’s eye. I’d also, occasionally, force myself to eat some of the ones my eye “knew” were bad just to make sure I was not presuming too much. I have a 100% success rate on those these days, so I don’t do it too much.
Nowadays in a coffee roasting session (2.5 cups of green beans) I might eat four or five beans while sorting. In the beginning it was probably 20-30. Again this can be a time consuming process so you must strike a balance between “good enough” and discarding a significant part of your roast. As long as the flagrant baddies are removed ,with good beans and a good roast, a few marginal ones are not going to ruin the pot. Not to boast but only the best baristas making the best pour over coffee can compete with what we do.
If anyone cares a typical roasting session of 2.5 cups of green beans usually results in about 1/8-1/4 cup of rejected beans. More nitrogen for the compost!
Firstly if you’re a fan of caffeine you can experiment with green coffee drinks! Don’t be afraid to. They have a marvelously delicate flavor. As you roast coffee beans the caffeine is cooked off. So lightest roast coffees have the most caffeine and dark roast coffees have the least (another reason to despise them). Give it a whirl! Green coffee concoctions often have tastes like herbal tea. But be warned, they can be potent! They can make Red Bull look like a Diet Coke. Use sparingly.
As beans roast they both expand and lose weight. The price-per-pound of green coffee is much cheaper than roasted coffee. But some of the weight you are paying for is water that will be lost in the roasting process. So we wondered how much money you actually save when buying green beans, taking all these factors into consideration.
We found that the cost savings is over 50%! Your mileage may vary depending on your local costs; but for us it came out at a 52.5% savings to go this route – less than half the cost pound-for-pound! And we’re guaranteed to always have the freshest coffee!
As time permits I hope to do a video series in the future: “Simple Gourmet Coffee on a Budget” that addresses making the tastiest coffee in the fastest, most economical way possible all while minimizing waste.
What do you think? Please send us questions and comments here!
1 – It’s also highly flammable in the right conditions, too – is there anything non-dairy creamer can’t do? Oh yes… under no circumstances should it ever be added to coffee. That’s just gross. That’s like adding A-1 to a steak. If you’re doing that you either don’t understand what you’re doing or something has gone horribly wrong with the steak.
2 – If you do order a steak well done at a reputable steakhouse, a good chef will give you a relatively poor cut of meat. Over cooking it ruins any of the desirable nuances that would be present if it had been ordered at a lower temperature. I cry like a little girl each time I see a dark roasted Sumatra Mandheling. That is one of the lowest acid coffees in the world and it’s so delicate…
Incidentally we do not eat beef anymore. But the analogy still stands 🙂
3 – Talk to your local roaster about chaff. Chances are they would be happy to give all they throw away you. Additionally, coffee grounds make excellent nitrogen sources for composting and your favorite local coffee shop is probably just throwing their grounds away, too (unless someone else has already asked for them). Make arrangements to pick these valuable resources up for yourself and cash in on that goodness. And of course follow through on your commitments!
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