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 continue to pair down on the technically unnecessary, but enjoyable items day by day with that goal in mind. If you’ve ever been around me 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 acquired from a local, reputable coffee roaster. For more reasons than can be recounted here, we selected Dawson Taylor as our local source. 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.
Why pick a local roaster when you can order the exact green beans you desire online? If you buying online, when shipping costs are included, it’s unlikely you’ll save much money. Additionally you’ll require shipping and packaging that otherwise wouldn’t be necessary. Your local roaster is already sourcing, purchasing and shipping green beans to your area, why not take advantage of that? If you can walk or ride a bike to pick them up, perfect! If that’s not feasible you can at least combine a driving trip to the roaster with other errands to minimize impact.
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 seals may need to be replaced periodically, though.
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 desert, so keeping things dry is very easy. If you are in a humid environment, for your roasted beans you can try making dessicant packs from powdered non-dairy creamer1. 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 a week. 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 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 that’s certainly possible. 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.
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 about two minutes before getting started so that it completely warms up. We roast a week’s worth each time which takes four 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, 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 good for composting or, if you have enough of it, chickens like to use it for dust baths. I have high hopes it will work well in composting toilets, too3.
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 for each round.
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 one week’s worth due to various convenience factors. This has currently been taking four rounds of roasting per session.
We were getting pretty good results, but the new green beans we got are different: they’re smaller and much more difficult to roast consistently:
We are going to have to try adjusting our roasting method during the next session(s) to see if we can solve this. We weren’t getting perfectly consistent roasts across the beans, but the new beans exhibit this discrepancy much more highly. We will update this page with anything we learn.
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!
Beyond updates regarding dialing in our roasting technique to get our roast more consistent, 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 steakhouse, a good chef will give you a (relatively) shitty cut of meat because over cooking it ruins any of the desirable nuances that would be present if it had been ordered at a reasonable 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… to dark roast that is like using a Cajun blackened style to cook your child’s goldfish for dinner.
P.S. We do not eat beef anymore. But the analogies still stand.
3 – Talk to your local roaster about chaff. Chances are they would be happy to give all the throw away you. This is how I hope to get enough chaff for composting toilets. Many folks use sawdust in toilets (free from sawmills), but I’m mistrustful that such sawdust isn’t from chemically-treated sources. Additionally, coffee grounds make excellent carbon 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 of course follow through on your commitments)! Coffee is acidic, so keep pH in mind in your composting process if you rely heavily on coffee leftovers.