The best way to get good, fresh, cheap coffee the way you like it is to roast your own coffee beans.

Unroasted coffee beans are easy to buy online or from local suppliers and much much cheaper than at the grocery store. Unroasted beans stored in decent conditions will usually last a year at least. If you just want a small amount, try going to that local Coffeehouse known for roasting their own -- they'll probably sell you some.

Anything -- from a cast-iron skillet to a popcorn popper to a several-hundred dollar coffee roaster can be used to roast beans.

Roasting is messy business. Lots of smoke is produced, and when the beans crack, they produce lots of chaff. At least open up a window or something.

I recommend starting out with a cast-iron skillet. The roasted beans will be a somewhat unevenly browned -- but when you grind them, they'll average out and produce a fine brew.

  • Sort through your beans and remove any abnormal ones (optional).
  • Wash and dry the skillet thoroughly.
  • Place the skillet on your stove on a low heat, and toss the beans in. Start small.
  • Stir the beans continuously.
  • After a few minutes, the beans will start to crack. This is the first crack. You can stop the roast anytime after this. If you stop as this is happening, you'll have either a Cinnamon roast or if you wait a little, you'll have a Light roast.
  • Halfway between the first and second cracks is called a City roast.
  • Stop the roast when the beans are slightly lighter than desired. Pour them into something large and aerated if possible -- a colander works good for this.
  • If you keep roasting, four or so minutes after the first crack, you'll hear the second crack. As this is just starting, you have Full City roast. After this, the beans are either a French, Dark French, or some horridly charred thing more akin to charcoal.
  • When you're done, take the roasted beans outdoors and pour them between two large bowls in hope that the chaff will be blown away.
  • Congratulations! You have fresh coffee beans! It's best to store them in airtight glass containers and use them within about a week.

Practice and experience are very important in roasting. You'll get much better as you go. And chances are, you'll end up with a much fresher morning cup of Joe, shot of espresso, or what have you.

I started roasting for the economy of it. I mean, who can resist Cup of Excellence-level coffees at five or ten bucks a pound?

Okay, I'm also a control freak.

My coffee must be roasted my way.

Grrrrr.

Of course, the most important thing to be gained from homeroasted coffee is not economy, or even control. It's flavour. Fortunately, economy need not be dropped as a consideration: you can go for cheap on both the roaster and the beans, and still have excellent coffee: green coffee, even the stuff in the top 5% of all coffee produced — which is what most homeroasters — get is not an expensive product.

An example I like to use is kopi luwak. No, you don't want it. You really don't. Honest. Don't even click on the hardlink.

But if you did, you could procure it from a co-op for about sixty-five bucks a pound. Depending on water loss in your roast, that leaves you with around thirteen ounces of coffee, which would make (accounting for waste) about twenty doppios.

That doesn't sound cheap yet, does it?

It will when I tell you that for $3.25 for coffee and a quarter's-worth of milk, you can make a double cappuccino that beats even the nice local coffee joint, to say nothing of Charbucks. So, $3.50 for a cappa? With one of the more expensive green coffees available, no less.

Convinced, yet?

Okay, first you'll need a popcorn popper. This is your roaster. Spend a lot of money. Buy one for five bucks at a thrift store. I don't care. I've not yet heard of anyone finding a popper that couldn't be used entirely unmodified. Modifications will come later: if you want to make a Frankenpopper, just Google it. You'll find them.

The only overarching concern is that you will need a chimney of some sort so the beans don't go flying out the top as they get lighter. Some people use soup cans, some use dryer ducting, some use glass lamp chimneys.

Other than that, you really just dump some greens in a popper and stir the beans while they roast.

Second, you need green coffee. The vendor I recommend is Sweet Maria's. You'll pay less for better coffee and better service there than anyplace with slightly-lower prices and bottom-of-the-cargo-container beans. I rarely purchase coffee anywhere else, and highly recommend them. Besides, they're a great source for information on all things coffee.

Third, you need a way to cool the beans quickly. People come up with all kinds of expedients, including spraying with water, freezing, refrigerating, winnowing, ignoring, and so on — all of which techniques are to be avoided as either too slow (winnowing, ignoring) or too apt to damage the coffee with moisture (spraying, freezing, refrigerating). Your best bet is forced-air cooling.

Get a fan. Any fan you can aim upwards will do: a small air-circulator is what I use, but a box fan on a couple stacks of books is just as serviceable. On top of that fan put a screen or a colander or something. Dump the beans in and turn the fan on. Simple. Fast. Your beans will be cool to the touch in thirty seconds to a minute.

Roasting seems more complicated than it is; and indeed, you can take it to any level of complexity you want. I used to "roast by the numbers", with a high-range analog thermometer poked into the heart of the storm, a stopwatch to mark time, and a notepad to record the time-and-temperature "roast profile" of every roast I did.

Bah.

All you need to know about roasting is that coffee cracks audibly twice as it expands. First crack marks the beginning of "roasted coffee". Second crack marks the beginning of "Starbucks coffee". If you like very light roasts, take the beans off sometime during the first period of "popping sounds". Medium roasts are about halfway between first and second crack (Yes, I did just say, "Get off the bus the stop before me." You'll get to know your beans and your roaster, and it'll click.). Dark roasts are anything once second crack has started.

My Apparatus

  • A cheap popcorn popper
  • A hurricane-lamp chimney that fits the "roast chamber"
  • A long chopstick used for cooking in a wok — for stirring
  • A Vornado air-circulating fan
  • A steamer tray from an old stockpot
  • An oven mitt
  • Canning jars

My Procedure

  1. Plug in fan.
  2. Put colander on fan.
  3. Dump coffee in roaster.
  4. Plug in roaster.
  5. Stir, wearing an oven mitt, until the coffee is light enough to move by itself.
  6. Wait until the coffee is to the desired roast level.
  7. Unplug roaster.
  8. Dump coffee in colander.
  9. Turn on fan.
  10. When coffee is cool (about a minute), dump into canning jar.

It's much simpler than, say, making pancakes.

Bottom Line

So:

  • $10-$20 for the roaster, depending on what you get and where.
  • $5-6/lb for coffee, plus shipping

$25-$40 should get you started. That money, if spent on roasted coffee of the quality you'll be getting by roasting your own, would get you two to three pounds. Saving money already!

A note about roast level

Charbucks, Seattle's Best, Peet's, and other so-called "specialty" coffee vendors have sold us on "dark roast is where coffee is at its best". This is similar to a low-grade steak restaurant that dared tout "extra-well done": if a steak is burnt, who's to tell how good a steak it really was? A filet mignon wouldn't taste much different from chuck-roast with that treatment.

Officially, a City roast (halfway between first and second cracks) is the ideal brewed-coffee roast. For espresso, anything from City through Full City (the raw beginnings of second crack) or even Full City + is acceptable. Play around, though. For espresso, give the mediums to medium-darks a try. For brewed coffee, give the lights to mediums a chance. You may be surprised at the flavours lurking in truly good coffee that you'd otherwise burn off in the quest for "dark roast".

The only coffees I take more than a few seconds into second crack are Indonesians, and I rarely allow anything to get into what's termed "rolling second".

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