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.
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.