'Transformational!' — Yes, roasting your own coffee has that kind of effect

Mmm, coffee. If you asked me, I'd say this particular brew has great character, with notes of pie crust, apple, lemongrass, creamy nut tones, ripe orange, marzipan and bittersweet chocolate.

Corey LaFlamme

Mark LaFlamme  checks the candy thermometer he uses to measure the heat inside his Whirley-Pop-Popcorn-Popper turned-coffee-roaster. Temperature control is important to achieving optimum roasting results, but so is watching and listening.  when you roast your own coffee beans. 

Above: A fresh cuppa joe... from home-roasted and ground beans. LaFlamme swears it

You know. Off the top of my head.

Forgive me. I roasted my own beans and I'm feeling epicurean. This is coffee from scratch. The beans were pale green and lifeless when I got them, but a nice, even brown when they came out of my popper. The result is unmistakable – this is the kind of stuff people will walk 10 blocks and stand in line for. It's coffee you'll serve if you happen to be hosting a dinner party for an ambassador and his family. This isn't a quick cup of joe to gulp on the drive to the office, it's coffee you'll want to savor. To sip lovingly and with transcendent sounds of intense satisfaction.

It is, frankly, the kind of thing a guy could get hooked on.

You can't say I wasn't warned.

"Forget the whole Starbucks vs. Dunkin'," says Roger Buzby, an experienced roaster of beans. "Once you've tasted fresh-roasted coffee you'll never go back. It will be transformational, I promise you."

Buzby, who offers roasting tutorials on Facebook, guided me through the entire process. He is, to put it '80s style, Mr. Miyagi to my Daniel-San. And the very first step was convincing me to take on all the toil that roasting involves. I've always been a Dunkin' guy, you know. My tastes were simple.

"Comparing fresh-roasted coffee to the coffee brewed with store-bought grounds – or bought from your favorite coffee shop – is like comparing bread fresh from the oven and a month-old loaf," Buzby, of Millinocket, said in that sanguine way he has about him. "They just aren't in the same league. The flavors are richer and more intense, and there are subtle overtones and undertones that are missing in coffee that has been roasted more than a week before brewing."

It meant going out and finding raw coffee beans, which isn't as easy as it sounds. You want to go local but you'll have no luck. Natural food stores? Nope. High-end coffee houses? Nada. Don't even think about looking for raw beans at your local supermarket.

For this, Buzby directed me to sweetmarias.com, an online outfit that bills itself as "your information source and green coffee supplier for your home coffee roasting adventures." It was from Sweet Maria's that I ordered three pounds of El Salvador Finca Siberia Bourbon and from whose bags I swiped the description for the first line of this article. They also offer pages and pages of roasting tutorials, which I didn't need very much because I had Mr. Miyagi.

Mr. Miyagi and I decided I should undertake my first roast with a popcorn popper. And not just any popper, a Whirley Pop. This is a simple metal kettle with a lid and a crank with which to stir the contents. I've popped thousands of rounds of popcorn with my Whirley Pop, but coffee is not popcorn. The beans are far more fickle. A few degrees too hot or too cool can throw the whole process out of whack. Roast a few seconds too long and you might get a darker bean than you were looking for. Fail to roast long enough, and you might end up with anemic beans not good enough to feed to goats.

You get my meaning. Although to be honest, I was more worried about burning my house down than the hue of my beans. Buzby and all the online literature had cautioned me to make sure my overhead oven fan was working properly. Open some windows, they said. There will be smoke. Lots of smoke. They stopped short of advising me to keep the fire department on speed dial but I did that anyway.

And so it was roasting time. The first thing I needed was a thermometer to tell me the temperature inside my pot. But not just any thermometer – I found that out the hard way. A standard meat thermometer only measures up to 220 degrees. Who knew? A candy thermometer goes all the way up past 400, which is the temperature I was seeking.

I borrowed the candy thermometer from a neighbor. If you need one, too, I could give you her address.

So the temperature inside the kettle reaches 400 degrees and I pour in 12 ounces of my precious beans and start to crank. For several minutes, absolutely nothing happens and I began the process of doubting my work. Did I introduce the beans too soon? Am I cranking too fast? Are these coffee beans at all?

Five minutes in, things start to happen. There's smoke, although not the thick, doomsday cloud I had anticipated. There's also some noise from inside the kettle and this is important stuff. Roasting beans, I've been told, is all about the crack.

The first crack should occur around six minutes into the roast. It happens when the moisture inside the bean heats up enough to become steam and causes the shell of the bean to snap. The second crack, several minutes later, is vital. It happens when the beans actually start to cook. It is upon second crack that oils are released from inside the bean, creating the flavor we seek.

First crack is a sexy moment. For me, it happened two seconds after my timer, set for six minutes, began to buzz. Six minutes almost down to the second. The sound is sharp and loud. You won't mistake if for something else. The beautiful report is an indication that things are going the way they're supposed to.

The second crack is softer but no less sexy. For me, it was also time to panic.

The directions state that the beans will come out shortly after second crack, but you also want to base your timing on the color of your beans. Take them out when they are a tad lighter than the color you desire, according to Sweet Maria's.

Say what?

In haste, I dumped most of my beans into a colander, simultaneously stirring them with a metal spoon and trying to assess the color. Some were appropriately dark, some were light. Were the dark ones too dark? The light ones too light? Suddenly I'm Goldilocks in a smoke-filled kitchen.

Fortunately, there is chaff to distract me out of my worry. Chaff is fun stuff. It's the thin, dry hulls that peel off the beans during the roasting process. When you stir your roasted beans, you'll see chaff. Plenty of chaff. Thankfully, someone had advised me on dealing with chaff.

"Go outside with your beans," they said. "And blow."

I did this. Suddenly, it was a blizzard of chaff, dry coffee skins blowing around my head like a swarm of caffeinated insects. In its way, it was beautiful.

But I digress. Roughly 10 minutes after I poured my beans into the kettle, I was finished. My main batch never quite reached the darker hue I associate with beans ready to be ground and served. The handful I left in the kettle for an extra four minutes, however, were gorgeous – perfect beans.

"Warm, fresh roasted beans are wonderful," say the people of Sweet Maria's, "but the coffee attains its peak 4 to 24 hours after roasting."

I had to wait until morning to grind my beans. And when I did, I ground them too fine, which Buzby says will allow the flavor to escape within 35 seconds. In my assessment, not much of that flavor made it over the wall – what I ended up with was the finest coffee I've ever tasted and it isn't even close. Bold yet not offensively so. A playful little brew with nutty overtones and just a hint of . . .

But forget all that. I'm no food critic. All I know is that it was a wonderful cup of coffee and it was worth the many steps it took to get there. They say a person will eventually learn to roast his beans by smell and sound alone. Am I there yet? Ha! No, I still keep the fire extinguisher close at hand and the cracking of the beans still makes me jump like a combat soldier under fire.

For me, the chase is on. While I enjoyed this batch of coffee immensely, I know I can do better. A few minutes more roasting time. Maybe keeping the heat up a few degrees higher. It's a quest for a bigger chunk of ambrosia and it's part of the thrill.

"Home roasting also allows you to pursue the perfect cup," says Buzby/Miyagi. "You can experiment with roast levels and beans grown in different parts of the world in addition to playing with brewing methods and blends."

A tip to the coffee enthusiast: fresh roast coffee seems significantly stronger, caffeine-wise, than your ordinary cup of mud. Two cups and I was dancing on the ceiling.

Which really comes in handy, what with that fence to paint, that deck to sand and those cars to shine.

Wax on, my friend, and wax off.

'Too impatient for my caffeine fix'

My experiments with coffee bean roasting began months ago when I wrote a story about coffee preferences. The great Starbucks vs. Dunkin' Donuts debate was raging and everybody had an opinion. That's when Roger Buzby weighed in and dared me to trying roasting my own. I did so and thus I have earned the right to go all snobby in matters of coffee. I might even start drinking the stuff with my pinkie in the air.

You peons wouldn't understand.

People love their coffee, there's no question about it. But do they love it enough to take on the work of roasting and grinding their own? Most of them do not. When they want coffee, they want it immediately. Roasting takes time and planning. Mostly time.

"I'm too impatient," says Kim Craig of Lewiston, "for my caffeine fix."

In response to a query, some said they were curious about roasting, but not enough to give it a go. Still others feel that starting from scratch means buying roasted beans from a store and grinding them at home.


Paul Ouellette used to go this route and nobody enjoys coffee as much as Paul Ouellette. The Lewiston Fire Department's super sleuth, he has to be ready to go at a moment's notice. If he's called out of bed in 3 in the morning, Ouellette wants his coffee steaming in the cup, not hiding inside a bag of beans.

"I used to grind my own coffee beans," he says, "but now I am just pure lazy. I love Columbia blend, hazelnut from D&D or Tim Hortons."

My quest for bean buddies locally went nowhere, although I'm sure there are a few of you out there somewhere. In the meantime, I take comfort in Buzby's Facebook page and in Sweet Maria's website. The links are listed below.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go have a cup of El Salvador Finca Siberia Bourbon and read . . . oh, I don't know, "War and Peace" or something.

You wouldn't understand.



Stove top popper method

Turn on your stove top exhaust fan, or open a kitchen window. Have all your supplies within reach.

Measure out about 8 to 9 ounces of coffee beans by weight, or about 12 ounces by volume.

Use a low flame or medium electric burner setting. NEVER use highest heat settings: You'll scorch the coffee! See the tip below about using a heat-diffusing cast iron pan if necessary. Heat until candy thermometer suspended in the popper reads about 400 degrees. NOTE: A thermometer is going to give an inaccurate reading when the inside of the popper is shiny and reflective, so use a lower heat until the popper is broken in and seasoned.

Put your beans in the popper and start a medium paced, steady cranking. Temperature will drop to around 350. Don't let it drop much below 300, or get much above 400 except at the end. These temps are starting points; you will ultimately personalize the process once you have done it a few times. And remember, you are measuring the air temperature in the popper; the actual temperature on the bottom will be higher. DO NOT ROAST BY TEMPERATURE ALONE. Watch the beans and popper to be sure the roast is moving neither too fast, nor too slow.

After about 6 minutes you should hear the "first crack" and see roast smoke. Wait 1 minute and slightly reduce the heat (or lift the popper off the heat), not so much that the roast stalls, but enough so that the roast does not progress too quickly. Start checking the roast by flipping back the lid at about 30-second intervals or less. Second crack ought to occur anywhere from say 9 minutes to 12 minutes, depending on how you like to time the roast. TIP: If you can learn to roast by smell and sound only (and avoid opening the lid), you can reduce escaping roast smoke and any reduction in temperature.

You want to pour the beans out of the popper into a colander when they are a tad lighter than the color you desire, since roasting continues internally a little into the cool-down process.

Agitate beans in metal colander or metal bowl with a big spoon until they are warm to your touch. You may need oven mitts for this. You may want to shuffle the beans between two pans or colanders.

You may want to go outside to aid cooling.

If beans have light-colored chaff still attached to them, simply agitating them in the colander should remove it. If you blow lightly on the beans the chaff will fly off, but do this outside to avoid having to sweep the floor. Chaff has no flavor, so if a bit of the chaff remains with the roasted coffee, it is of no real consequence.

In general, coffee should be stored out of direct light (and not in a fridge or freezer) in an airtight glass jar, but with a fresh roast, wait 12 hours to seal the jar tightly; it needs to vent off carbon dioxide.

Warm, fresh roasted beans are wonderful, but the coffee attains its peak 4 to 24 hours after roasting. If you store it as recommended, we'll call it fresh for 6 days. When you open that jar in the morning, you will know what fresh coffee truly is.

Source: SweetMarias.com. More at sweetmarias.com/stovepopmethod.php

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