Through the centuries, people have been obsessed with one drink: coffee. But what coffee means can vary from person, whether it’s the sugary flavored latte expertly poured by your local barista or a cup of instant brew hastily mixed before leaving your hotel room for the airport. It’s the drink we sip with friends, while getting to know someone, or to wake ourselves up and feel ready for the day. A cup of coffee means different things to different people, but the one thing we have in common is that we want our coffee just how we like it.
The good thing about that is that coffee is everywhere. You can grab a coffee on the go, pick up a pound of a hazelnut flavored blend at the grocery store, or buy your beans roasted fresh from the artisanal cafe on your block. The more we love coffee, the more options we want, and the selection is truly astounding. Cafes serve up light, medium and dark roasts, espresso, and other variations of our favorite drink. And the options for home brewing have grown exponentially. We can now enjoy our favorite coffee at home using a traditional electric brewer, a stove top percolator or even buy manufactured and sealed k-cups for producing instant lattes and cappuccinos with their specialized machines at the push of a button.
But what makes a cup of coffee truly enjoyable isn’t just limited to the taste. As the global demand for coffee has risen, the effects on coffee farmers around the world has not always been positive. Following coffee shortages in the 1980s and 1990s, the financial impact on an unregulated market meant that living standards for coffee farmers have fluctuated. This sometimes meant that farmers were unable to turn a profit producing the coffee beans. Following this situation, many humanitarian-minded organizations tried to find a way to ensure a reasonable quality of living for coffee farmers, and the fair trade coffee movement was born. Fair trade coffee certification was introduced in 1988 and involved labelling coffee products produced on farms that paid their workers sustainable wages.
While fair trade coffee has been a step in the right direction, there are even better ways to protect the standard of living for overseas farmers while enjoying the highest premium of delicious coffee. For those that are unsatisfied by the thought of buying bagged beans from the grocery store, consumers now have the option to buy from the farmer and cut out the middleman of coffee roasting and flavoring that large companies represent. Today, there are companies that will coordinate the purchase of unroasted, ‘green’ coffee beans so that the average consumer has the opportunity to buy their beans directly from the source, the coffee bean farmer.
Of course, buying your own beans means then that you are faced with the problem of roasting them to your tastes, a task that sounds to be intimidating to the most dedicated foodie, and downright off-putting to anyone who doesn’t know their way around a kitchen. But in truth, roasting your own coffee beans is not only achievable with a little practice and research; it’s also an incredibly rewarding skill that will allow you to control the finest details of your coffee experience.
What you’ll need to get started is green, unroasted coffee beans. Then you’ll need to choose your equipment. As complicated as roasting coffee sounds, you can actually make do with appliances already found in your kitchen, like your toaster oven, stovetop or even an electric popcorn maker! The tool you choose will affect how you roast the beans, and the more evenly you apply the heat, the better your roast will be.
Next, you’ll need to do a little research to find out what type of beans, and what roast, you’re going to attempt. That will tell you where in the stages of roasting you want to take your beans out.
As you roast the green beans, first they will start to turn light yellow and smell of grass as they release moisture and emit steam. As time passes, the smell of the coffee bean steam will become stronger and the beans will start to pop and crack. This means that the roasting has truly begun and the beans are changing chemically as oils and deeper moisture leave and the sugars begin to caramelize, and the flavors we know and love start to take shape.
Once this ‘first crack’ has occurred, or just before, the beans are now at the point of a light roast. A light roast will leave beans with higher acidity and natural coffee bean flavor than darker roasts, and higher caffeine content, but your tastes will determine how much longer you let them heat. This type of lighter roast can be referred to as a ‘cinnamon roast’, ‘city roast’, or a ‘New England roast’ depending on just where you stop it.
As the beans continue to roast, caramelization will continue and more oil and moisture will leave the beans. As beans near the second audible ‘crack’ they are nearing the medium roast stage. The louder second crack means your beans are medium, sometimes called a ‘Vienna roast’. Now they will resemble roasts you may have tried like a ‘breakfast blend’ or ‘regular roast’.
The next stages should be reserved for when your confidence has grown. The beans continue to become very dark, and you risk losing the caramelized sugars completely and being left with burnt beans. But for those that are sure of their timing abilities, dark roast beans can be had by allowing the beans to roast beyond the second crack to obtain a dark ‘French roast’.
Once your beans are at the desired level of roast, it is time to let them cool and rest. This can be done in a loosely sealed container to allow them to breathe and let off CO2, for about 4-8 hours. Following this, the beans can be sealed tightly for about a week before their characteristics start to suffer. The more you practice this skill, the finer tuned your technique will be, and the more rewarding roasting your own green coffee bean will become.