In Support of Home Roasting

home roasting coffee

Recently, Serious Eats published an article by Nick Cho that advocated against roasting coffee at home. I am a big fan of Serious Eats. Content from that website has encouraged me to take on all manner of ambitious food projects; pizza-making, prime-rib-roasting and layer-cake-baking have all come home to my kitchen because Serious Eats offered first-class instructions for these endeavors. I am sad to say that the same attitude was not embraced regarding coffee-roasting. It is a shame because home roasted coffee can be excellent. I have been roasting at home for five years, and it has been a richly rewarding experience, with all of the pros and cons considered. I’d like to share my perspective on this issue.

Why Not Roast?

I can think of only one major downside for roasting coffee: It requires a bit of money upfront. I use a Hottop roaster, which cost me $670 in 2009. That’s definitely a lot. But in considering that price, ask yourself, “When was the last time I went more than a day without coffee?” For a lot of you, that answer is “It was so long ago, I can’t remember.” Another popular one: “I gave up coffee for Lent earlier this year and made it about three days before I fell asleep on my keyboard at work and then I went out and got myself a triple shot-in-the-dark.”

If any of those two answers sound like you, a home roasting set-up would probably be a good purchase. I don’t want to use this space to calculate the average payoff period of a roaster because you could do that yourself. I’d rather make the argument that “payoff period” isn’t the best way to weigh that purchase. However, if the cost is a big hang-up, consider this: $100 is considered a reasonable price for a large variety of seldom-used kitchen products (say, a waffle maker, which you use twice a month. In an alternate universe where you, like, love waffles.) For a device that will yield daily enjoyment, the price of a roaster is more than reasonable.

Aside from that upfront cost, any of the downsides to home-roasting would apply equally to virtually any food or beverage project. Making your own jam. Brewing coffee by hand. Roasting a delicious prime rib. These types of projects aren’t for everyone, but it would be foolish to say that they aren’t for anyone. And the same is true of home roasting.

Why to Roast?

I can think of so many more things for this one, but I will keep it to four.

• Roasting is fun

In his article, Nick Cho acknowledged that roasting is fun to do. That is a given. But the fun really happens for me when I share my roasted coffee. It’s not the same as sharing coffee you’ve bought. And it is not the same as sharing food you’ve made. It is better than either. Your friends will LOVE the fact that they are drinking a coffee you roasted. It never quite gets old for anyone (especially you, when people make a big deal about it.)

• Roasting gives me consistently high quality coffee

This is where the opinions of Nick Cho and I depart from one another in a distinct fashion. Mr. Cho makes this statement: “If a commercial drum roaster is like a cast iron skillet, most home machines are like cooking on aluminum foil.”

I know my small machine doesn’t have the thermal mass of a 20 kilo drum roaster. But I’m not roasting 20 kilos. I’m roasting 180 grams, which is less than 1/100th the amount, so my small roaster does just fine because I’m roasting a proportionately smaller amount of coffee. To borrow the analogy: A piece of aluminum foil can’t sear a 12 ounce T-bone, but if you were trying to cook a steak that weighed one tenth of an ounce, the aluminum foil would probably work fine.

I’ve sampled the wares of many roasters and had some amazing offerings, but I still prefer my own coffees, on the whole. Many roasters are aiming wide, offering coffees that suit a variety of palettes, but I’m roasting exactly to my own preferences.

Another quality issue relates to the interaction between brewing and roasting. Brewing and roasting are two parts of the same process. It is tougher to complete the process correctly when I don’t know how it was begun and it can take a few tries to get the right parameters on a coffee I purchase roasted. But when I roast, I have a better idea of what the ideal brew should be.

• Roasting enables me to try rare coffees

As I said earlier, I won’t make the argument that a home roaster will eventually pay for itself in the reduced cost of green coffee over time. Mine certainly has, but I roast quite a lot. But cost does come in to play if you consider coffees outside the scope of your day-to-day drinking beans. Several years ago I was able to get an amazing dry-process Ethiopia lot for $45/lb green when the same lot was selling for $165/lb roasted. By roasting myself, I enjoyed three full roasted pounds for the price of what a single retail roasted pound would have cost me—and I got to try it with a number of different roast profiles to boot. If you’re the sort of person who would like to enjoy the finest coffees in the world (and why wouldn’t you be?), roasting your own coffee can make that feasible.
Moreover, there are often coffees available to roasters that are difficult to find commercially roasted. High-end natural coffees are a good example of this. For a number of reasons, these coffees are underrepresented from commercial roasters. Roasting your own is the best way to enjoy that unique coffee experience.

• It will change your life

I don’t want to be melodramatic about this, but for me there aren’t really two ways about it. Roasting coffee changed my life.
Let me explain: Roasting coffee is about adding heat to green coffee beans in just the right way. If you drop your coffee into a 350 degree roaster and end your roast 405 degrees with a total roast time of ten minutes, there are still 100 different ways that coffee can taste based on roasting technique. Coffee is a single ingredient, and when combined with heat and water it will express itself in many different ways based on subtle changes in method.

When I started roasting coffee, and learning about the versatility of a single ingredient, I asked myself, “How many other things are like this?” I thought, “What if I prepared a steak the way I’m roasting coffee—with the highest quality ingredients and careful attention to temperature? What if I made bread with that mentality?”

That line of thinking has led me to being a better cook and baker than I could have been if I hadn’t roasted coffee first. And it goes beyond food. My roasting mentality now extends to many things that I do. It is the mentality that simple, well-made versions of things are often the best. In some way or another, roasting is in the back of my mind when I’m at my computer writing code, building something in my garage or cooking in my kitchen. I think “What are the most basic elements of this project? How can I skillfully combine those things and get rid of whatever is superfluous?”

What am I trying to say? I guess I’m trying to say that if all the members of Congress were dedicated to coffee roasting we’d probably have a balanced federal budget. No politics there. Just saying that a few more home-roasters in government wouldn’t hurt.

TL/DR version:

Roasting coffee is a reasonably priced endeavor which will make you happy, smarter and popular amongst your friends. I can hardly think of a better use of your time.

About Chris Heiniger

Chris Heiniger

Chris is an avid home roaster who has roasted over 300 different coffees over the last 3 years. Before entering the energy sector, Chris was a barista at Sunergos coffee and head barista/trainer at Quills Coffee. He won Prima Coffee’s second Latte Art Competition and their first Brewing Competition (judged by Jamie Van Schyndel from Barismo). When Chris isn’t roasting at home, he enjoys time with his wife Allie and their dogs Odie and Angus.

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Comments

  1. Matt Dirkes says:

    Could we hear some recommendations for home roasting equipment? It would be nice to receive an informed opinion of the different home roasters you could purchase. We often get a lot of feedback on home brewing equipment, but hardly roasting.

  2. Brilliant writing, Chris. Well done!

  3. Great read! I much appreciate the perspective. I know you have the HotTop, but what roaster would you recommend for the coffee enthusiast with a strong interest in going into production someday? I’m not necessarily looking to use the roaster for production, but I’m looking for something that will give me the most interaction with the bean and profiling learning ability. Price is not really a factor. Cheers and Happy New Year!

  4. Amen to the fun factor. Double Amen to the pleasure of sharing with friends.

    I quibble with thee, however, on the matter of cost.

    I use a 64 oz. stainless steel dog bowl ($3.47 at Walmart), a 1500 watt heat gun ($25 at the time, on sale at Lowe’s), and a 16 inch stainless steel wire whisk (unearthed from the recesses of my kitchen cabinetry).

    After half-a dozen or so 4-ounce roasts that allowed me to get the hang of it, I now roast one-pound (452 grams) each week — what my wife and I will drink until the next roasting. By the time we’ve brewed the last of the previous roast, that roast has never diminished in its flavor.

    Nothing against those who spend the Big Bucks on roasting machinery, but it does not have to cost Big Bucks to get primo results. Go to You Tube and search on these words: heat gun coffee roasting. You’ll see a gazillion videos of men (almost no women! wonder why?) merrily roasting away on their porches and in their garages.

    Now that I think of it, this method of coffee roasting blends power tools, manual skills, smoke, sound, explosions in a bowl, pungent odors, and a fabulous result all into one experience — what’s not to like if you’re a man?

    Seriously, I can’t think how any other roasting method gives the roaster the same immediate involvement with all the minutia of the roasting process, with the ability to control the process itself by constant visual, auditory, and olfactory feedback.

  5. Great read. Thanks so much!

  6. Chris Heiniger says:

    @Matt Dirkes
    The Hottop Model B is my favorite buy. I may be biased because that is what I own. The Genecafe is good but the cooling cycle leaves something to be desired. The Quest M3 roaster is great but more expensive, and lacks a cooling tray, which made it a pain in the butt for me to use. I am not an expert in roasting equipment, but perhaps another post is in order to explore some of these options.

    @rodan
    The Quest M3 is your best option for a home machine that mimics a production roaster. However, if you learned roasting on a Hottop, you could still transfer those skills to a larger machine. No machine is a perfect primer for any other, so you’ll have to adjust anytime you switch roasters, no matter how similar.
    If money truly is no object though, don’t get a home machine at all. A Probat sample roaster would be the way to go.

    @Fr. Bill
    I have a popcorn popper that I modified with a transformer and two variable dimmer switches. It cost me about $30 (and the brain cells that I’ll never get back after I electrocuted myself building it.) It produces some great coffee, so I agree that Big Bucks aren’t the only way to roast coffee at home. There are some advantages though, to a machine. For example, sometimes I like to record the temperature changes in my roast in a logbook. If both of my hands were occupied with a whisk and a heat gun, I wouldn’t be able to do that. The Hottop allows me to keep my attention on the coffee instead of thinking how much my wrist hurts from stirring. (i am very weak.)

  7. As usual, you are the man. I didn’t need convincing, but you did it anyway.

  8. Andy Sicignano says:

    I just got a Behmor 1600 from Sweet Maria’s which cost $299 but included 8 lbs of greens. I’ve only done for roasts so far but all were better than what I was getting from my dog bowl heat gun attempts over the last couple of years.

  9. Thanks for the read! Yes we need to teach Congress how to roast their own coffee, so they can learn how to think about the most basic elements of our government. (We the People)

  10. I have a nice Hottop roaster that I will sell for $550.00 plus shipping in USA
    Since I have purchased a commercial Diedrich Roaster.

  11. I have found that a home roaster does not compare to a commercial roaster but that said, it is much better than store bought coffee that has been on the shelf for 6 months to a year. So, I recommend everyone tries home roasting and enjoys it. Spend as much money as your budget will allow on equipment.

  12. Great response!

  13. Buying consistently properly roasted coffee from a commercial roaster is a crap shoot from my experience. I screw up home roasts occasionally but it doesn’t upset me near as much as paying $20 a pound plus shipping.

  14. Jeff Fisher says:

    I’ve been home roasting for 4 months using a Behmor 1600 and still am not sure if the coffee is better than buying good roasted specialty coffee from George Howell or Counter Culture. If anyone has a Behmor perhaps they could give me advice. I use P1 profile pretty much every time. Maybe I should vary.

    • andy sicignano says:

      I’ve been roasting with my Behmor 1600 for a few months now. I’ve also been sticking with P1 for now, but vary roast times for a given bean. I think a good roaster should be able to do a lot better than me, but I love to have total control of the beans, time after roast to brew, and roast parameters. Some of my roasts have been as good as I get from a good local roaster, and some not so much. After I get a bit more experience under my belt, I’ll try varying profiles. You have to do a bunch of roasts with a single bean to understand what the effects of your changes have on the product. Be patient!

    • Chris Heiniger says:

      Jeff, where are you getting your green coffee? I recommend trying roastmasters.com because they always suggest a Behmor profile for the coffee they sell. However, I do believe that it is harder to control the roast with a Behmor than other methods, so it may be difficult to achieve ideal results.

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