Kitchen Bucket List: Roast Your Own Coffee Beans

The benefits: save money, control the flavor and freshness — and have fun!

I am a tinkerer. I've taken apart, installed, fixed or ruined nearly every type of appliance and system in a modern house, and I am equally captivated by food. I don’t have a particularly sensitive palate, but I love to try my hand at recreating favorite things I’ve enjoyed elsewhere.
At some point in my teenage years, I wondered: Could I make a Dorito? Could I replicate Heinz ketchup? The answer: No. And no. While it’s not that hard to make a seasoned tortilla chip, it’s well nigh impossible for the casual home cook to recreate a Dorito, let alone that iconic tomato condiment.
I’ve given up trying to reverse-engineer empty calories, but every so often I do fall hard for a new item like kimchi, cucumber pickles, beer, cider, unfermented cheese, yogurt, dried fruits and vegetables, tofu — even seitan.

And I can’t think of any homemade foodstuff as easy for the beginner to succeed at yet deep enough to sustain a lifelong passion than coffee roasting.
Bonus: It’s positively dripping with hipster cred. Drop a phrase like “single-origin Tanzanian peaberry” on a Brooklyn street corner and watch the ears prick up on the bearded gents in flannels and skinny jeans.

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The Grounds for Roasting Your Own

Intergenerational mockery aside, here are four reasons to do it.

  1. Taste: Even a slightly uneven batch of amateur-roasted coffee can provide leagues more flavor-depth than (relatively) stale mass-market offerings.
  2. Price: Unroasted coffee is about two-thirds the price of roasted product from Peet’s, Starbucks and the like. Depending on the type of roasting equipment you choose, you can break even in as few as half a dozen sessions.
  3. Shelf life: While roasted coffee beans start to become bitter and rancid-tasting in three or four days, green beans (the raw material) can be stored in a cool, dry place for between six months and a year before the flavor starts to diminish or become “hard.”
  4. It’s fun! Watching a bunch of misshapen green lumps transform into sweet, fragrant, light pods of aromatic goodness is just plain cool in an “I am the great and powerful Oz” kind of way. And whether you’re more attracted to the organic or the sleekly technological, there’s a style of roasting for you. You can drop a grand and change on a programmable Hottop drum roaster, or you can set your inner mad scientist free with heat guns and voltage regulators. 

The Raw Materials
The coffee "beans" that we roast, grind and ultimately drink aren't actually beans but seeds (always two per fruit) found within the coffee “cherry,” a bright-red berry that grows in clusters on the large, flowering bushes of the tropical genus Coffea.
A good vendor should know where his beans are from and how they were grown, picked and processed to remove the fruity pulp of the coffee cherry. Even if you could care less, knowing that your source is tracking these details is a point in his or her favor.
I get most of my beans from Sweet Maria’s, arguably the best-known Internet green-coffee retailer. There are other sources on the Web, but I find SM's site so charming, enthusiastic and personal that I’ve never felt the need to look elsewhere. And its educational mission can’t be overlooked—they really want you to not just buy or roast, but to understand.

But finding a local roaster who can hook you up with a pound here and there is never a bad thing. I live in North Central West Virginia, so my “local” (1½ hours away) source is Prestogeorge, a roaster/retail vendor of teas and coffees in Pittsburgh’s culinary playground, the Strip District. Although John Prestogeorge’s company does a thriving Internet business, selling more than 200 varieties of beans — whole or ground to almost fineness you desire — I couldn’t find any green coffee for sale on its website. You have to walk in and ask.
Tip: If you do plan to buy your raw beans from a local shop, try setting up an informal “cupping” (i.e., taste-testing several small samples) to determine which of their styles of roasting you like best. The professional’s roasting results will give you a standard to aim for.

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What Your Roasting Mission Involves

As a roaster, your task is to discern, by observation and experimentation, the right "roasting profile" — the progression of temperature over time — to bring out the 800-plus flavor and olfactory components that make for a perfect cup of coffee.
By keeping the internal temperature of the seed between 425º and 450º for about 10 minutes, we instigate the chemical reactions that cause bitter and acidic compounds to be evaporated, complemented or neutralized, and sugars to be caramelized, in an appealing balance. It's hard to monitor temperature when pan roasting because your hands are full (see below), but if the beans are getting brown and you hear crackling, you're doing the right thing. If using a popcorn popper (below), you put a meat-style thermometer in the butter dish hole at the top.
It helps to know what you’re looking for along the way. Wikipedia offers an all-important “degree of roast” pictorial to clarify terms that are commonly bandied about: French, Italian, City, Full City and so on. This underscores the need to find an already-roasted bean that tastes good to you, then referring to this so that you can put a name to the type of flavor profile you’re going for. Sweet Maria's Detailed Visual Guide to the Roasting Process is a useful resource as well, as is their mind-bogglingly concise yet detailed primer on using all your senses to test and log your roasts as they progress.

OK, we know where it comes from, we know what it is, we know what we want it to become. Now how the heck do we do it? And what tools do we need in our quest?
Not a tinkerer? The Behmor 1600 roaster has legions of devotees and, at $299, it’s still priced within the realm of being an actual money-saving investment. Follow the instructions, cool the roasted beans quickly, let them breathe for about a day, then store in a sealed glass jar, at room temperature, for up to seven days. Nirvana.
If, on the other hand, you’re the type who knows how many amps your home electric service can deliver, you might enjoy developing your own roasting device. Take a look at Homeroaster, a site offering scanty information but a ton of inspiration for a certain special type of person (me) who just can’t resist the charm of a page titled “Mike McGinness has done remarkable things with his Rosto.”
If you fall somewhere between these extremes, you might start simply by pan-roasting (which is really toasting) on an outdoor burner because — did I forget to mention this? — there will be smoke, and your family and pets will hate you if you start indoors without warning.

Just stir or toss the beans in a pan using a sauté chef’s wrist-flip technique. As the temperature climbs, you’ll start to hear a cracking sound — that’s the exterior of the bean popping as it expands and lets moisture escape. There are actually two “cracks,” and they pretty much begin and end the range of roasts. A light roast is ready right around first crack. A French or Italian roast is ready around the second crack. If the color looks right, the smoke doesn’t smell like carbon, and (for dark roasts) the cracking has slowed down, you’re done. Almost anticlimactic, huh?

(MORE: Keep Your Smell and Taste Senses Sharp)

From pan roasting, the next natural step up in quality and consistency is the hot-air popcorn popper method, which is a bit more techy but closer to real commercial roasting. Note: When purchased for coffee-roasting, the device becomes dedicated to that mission — that is, if you try to pop corn after roasting coffee, the popcorn will taste like your morning brew.
Essentially, you acquire a West Bend Poppery II, Wearever Popcorn Pumper or other coffee-community-approved hot air popcorn popper (they average about $25 on eBay), pour the beans in and fire it up. You want to let the popper bring that temperature up to about 450º and keep it there for about 10 minutes, listening to the crack, smelling the smoke (it should always smell a little oily and fragrant — not charred, which would indicate a very dark roast), and watching the color.

Note: There are several types of hot-air popcorn poppers, but not all of them can cope with the chaff that flies off of coffee beans as it’s heated up. In a popcorn popper of the right design, the chaff flies out of the popper hood. In the wrong kind, it collects in the bottom of the heating chamber and can start a fire. They’re easily identified, and if you are going to go this route, educate yourself ahead of time.
There are some cheap and easy customizations that can make a big difference in keeping air-popping fun and useful. Will O'Brien's well-documented article at Engadget.com shows how to take the hot-air system to the next level of customization.

The Set-Up

Ready to get started? The above photo is my humble operation. Feel free to improvise your own — or steal my look. 

  1. Popcorn popper: Note the meat thermometer at the top. This makes temperature evaluation easy.
  2. Voltage controller to turn down the heat if the temperature is climbing too quickly toward 450º (the upper limit of useful temperatures).
  3. Photo timer to keep track of roasting times for reproducibility of favorite roasts.
  4. Chaff collector: You can use any old pan.
  5. Cooling pan aka repurposed perforated cookie sheet. As with omelets, a quick cool-down is important.
  6. "Product"! 

Than Saffel lives in Morgantown, W.Va., where he designs and manages the production of publications for West Virginia University Press.

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