I am an enthusiastic drinker of coffee, and might as well admit right here that I have a wee bit of a dependency issue. As in, if I don’t get a cup (or four) o’ the hard stuff by 10 a.m., it’s migraine time. Despite drinking vast amounts of coffee, I never required much from it in the way of quality. I mean, I preferred good coffee, but so long as a brew contained adequate caffeine and didn’t taste too much like dishwater, I’d drink it. And then I met Adam Bachman, who made me a cup of coffee so incredibly good that it rocked my world and basically ruined my ability to drink convenience-store coffee ever again. (Thanks, Adam.) Bachman has been home-roasting his own coffee for about four years, in part because DIY coffee roasting is a money-saver, but mainly because it is the one true path to an unbelievably good cup of coffee.
Coffee’s flavor comes from the more than 800 volatile compounds resident in a roasted bean, mainly in the form of aromatic oils. These oils peak four to 24 hours after roasting and begin to fade with exposure to oxygen. For the first 24 hours of their roasted life, the beans emit enough carbon dioxide to bar any contact with flavor-degrading oxygen, so this is the optimal time to grind and brew. Grinding vastly increases the coffee’s surface area and thus increases its oxygen exposure, accelerating the depletion of the aromatic volatile compounds. (Heat also depletes these precious flavor oils, which is why roasted coffee is best ground using a burr-style grinder that does not heat the beans the way the more common – and cheaper – blade-style grinders tend to.) However, whole beans can be stored in an airtight container and kept in a cool, dark place – not the fridge or freezer – for up to five days and still be considered “fresh.”
The rule of thumb for optimum java, according to many home-roasted-coffee enthusiasts, is “five and five”: Coffee should be used within five days of roasting, and within five minutes of grinding. Since it’s difficult for most people to acquire coffee this fresh, even from high-quality, small-batch specialty roasters, true die-hard fresh java freaks roast their own. Turns out this is actually not so difficult, once you’ve found yourself a hot-air popcorn popper (easily sourced at Goodwill).
The West Bend Poppery II is the DIY coffee roaster’s weapon of choice. Sure, you can drop $100-plus on a dedicated machine, but cheap, widely available hot air popcorn poppers do the same thing: You dump in the same volume of green coffee beans as you would popcorn, usually around two-thirds of a cup, and plug ’er in. The beans roast on a bed of hot air – how long depends on how dark you want your beans, anywhere from a light “cinnamon” roast all the way to near-black espresso roast. The trick is to both look – i.e., watch the progressive browning of the beans – and listen. As coffee beans roast, they begin to warm and expand; the moisture within them begins to steam and causes the oils to move outward, resulting in a distinct popping sound known as “first crack.” This is rapidly followed by “second crack” (which sounds more like a sizzle to me), when the beans actively begin to brown. It’s a quick progression – a mere 30 seconds can separate dark roast from flat-out burnt. Typically the whole process takes about five to eight minutes. You want to pull the beans just before they hit the desired level of roast, since they’ll continue to roast a bit from their own residual heat as they exit the popper; the idea is to then cool them as quickly as possible by immediately spreading the beans out on a cookie sheet or tossing them back and forth between two metal bowls.
You will, of course, need to read about this process in more detail before simply throwing some green beans into your thrift-store popper. The interwebs are rife with DIY roasting info; the online mecca for enthusiasts is sweetmarias.com.
A cup of coffee brewed from freshly roasted beans is unlike any other kind of coffee, no matter how expensive or expertly produced. There’s just so much more going on, aside from coffee’s sacred caffeination duties. Truly fresh coffee brews up into an incredibly smooth, creamy beverage, with balanced acidity and rich mouth feel. It’s as if all 800 of those aromatic flavors are parading around your palate, leading drinkers to make rash comments about tasting a hint of tobacco in the nose and a rustic maple finish. Yes, the experience is very much like drinking a glass of good wine – only, try making a fine Bordeaux at home, in five minutes, with only a $2 thrift-store score.