Sunday, May 4, 2008

Roasting Coffee at Home - A Gustatory Triumph!

First off, an explanation from the Tipsy Historian; though there has been a spate of posts over the past week, close observation will show that there was an abrupt cessation of writing here in late January. Though life has undergone a dramatic change with some wild ups and downs, my wife and teammate Jess and I have continued to build our repertoire of hobbies, experiences, and activities. Many, if not all, fit within the purview of this blog, so with a three month gap in writing, you, dear reader, may rightfully assume that there is something of a backlog of things to write about.
This assumption would be correct, so I will immediately commence bringing you into the Tipsy Historian's world, for as my blog subtitle shows, much has gone on in the world of beverages, sports, and the always engaging and edifying study of the Civil War.
We begin, my friends, with a taste experience that has changed the way I experience and enjoy my only daily vice, coffee drinking. I do not have a coffee shop or special brew to refer you to, no, no. I want to take you back to what I now regard as the first principle of coffee.

Thou shalt roast thine own beans in the sanctity of thine own abode, and thou shalt eschew beans roasted in any other venue, save for the abode of thy friends and kinspeople.

Why should it be so? Because home coffee roasting brings a level of freshness, complexity, and sheer joy that cannot be captured in any other way of getting coffee. Coffee is at its peak 24-48 hours after it's roasted, and within a week of roasting, it has already undergone a marked decline. Beyond 10-14 days, you're wasting your money.
It all starts in Oakland, which is (I was surprised to learn) the biggest coffee importation point in the United States. Just near the port itself is a warehouse with a robust company called Sweet Maria's. From this company and its website springs all you need to know about this wonderful hobby. Before I provide the link, be warned it is very dense and not so easy to navigate, but your persistence will be amply rewarded. That said, here it is.
Now, how does this process work? Well the green beans come from Sweet Maria's and are stable in a ziplock bag for up to a year. They're also much cheaper than roasted coffee, coming in at about $4 per pound.
Not only that, but they have names like Brazilian Coromandel Fazenda Sao Joao, Peru FTO Cuzco Ccochapampa, and Ethiopia Dry-Process Golocha. Best yet, when you buy them, you can select organic and Free-Trade Certified beans.
Now, there is a tremendous amount of science behind this, which the website covers in tremendous detail. Though I have learned quite a bit about it...
...there is always more to be gleaned. Suffice it to say, "first crack" and second crack" are becoming a powerful part of my coffee lexicon.
The machine is the next part. Any hot air blowing device will work, and there is a huge market for old school popcorn poppers. I opted for a more professional choice, which was a great investment; the iRoast 2. This has made the process so quick and easy; from selecting my beans to everything cleaned up and put away is about 30 minutes. Can't beat it I tell you.
The roasting process itself is a total treat, with smells evolving rapidly, colors changing before your eyes, and sounds emanating from the beans as the heat and the sugars interact. Without stealing too much fun from those of you who are convinced you must go down this road, here is a picture of beans approaching 1st crack.
The best part of this machine is the ease of cleanup, as I mentioned, no more than a few minutes. Why? Well, all the stuff that flies off the beans as they roast, called the chaff, gets collected in an easy to clean receptacle at the top of the roaster. It's also pretty cool to look at...
Anyway, as the roast goes on, I usually water the plants, chat with Jess, or stand on the porch and watch birds. Most importantly, after 1st crack, my eyes turn to the roasting chamber, because there is a wide range of "doneness" in the roast once 1st crack is completed. Initially I liked it a bit darker, but find the lighter finishing points more interesting currently.

There is a final phase of the roasting process that we must discuss before we get into what this stuff actually tastes like, and that is the roasting uniform. Any good activity has the appropriate apparel (check out my tennis gear in posts to come) and coffee roasting is no different. To that end, I give you The Espresso Monkey!
Now for the reason you've all kept reading this far; the taste. The best way to describe it is to think about profound tasting experiences you've had with wine, and how the sophisticated, complex bottle gives much to think about, as well as enjoy. A bottle of 2-buck Chuck will get the job done in a pinch, but there is another level to be achieved as well.
This process of roasting at home is that other level. These coffees are unbelievably interesting and absolutely delicious, with spices, chocolates, toffees, and fruits all there for the savoring. I invite you to look at the tasting notes at Sweet Maria's for the batch I've just finished drinking, and, even for a beginner, these flavor patterns just leap out at your taste buds.
This is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable hobbies out there, each day starts with not only a nice caffeine lift, but an intellectual stimulation that gets both the brain and palate ready to enjoy another day.

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