my over-light roasts aren’t, after all

It turns out than when, numerous times over the life of this blog, I have modestly claimed that my cast-iron-in-the-oven green coffee bean roasting technique was inadequate for evenly roasting light roasts, I was wrong.

The characteristics that I used to judge a roast as under-roasted—difficulty in grinding (I use a hand-grinder), over-light body, and a peculiar and (to my stomach) somewhat unpleasant acidity—these characteristics are all alive and well in the coffees (nearly all of the coffees) roasted by a number of über-fashionable San Francisco roasters.

I just don’t like it.


latest great leap forward in home oven coffee roasting technology

Yes, we at foutu roast our own coffee, in an oven probably crappier than yours. It’s less trouble than making popcorn. You never run out of coffee, your beans are always fresh, you save a lot of money and people are sometimes impressed and sometimes make up weird stories about you.

Anyway, as the internet’s foremost advocate of home-roasting as an act of parsimony, I feel it is my obligation to keep my readership apprised of the latest breakthroughs in the state of the art; that is; the roasting in preheated cast iron pans.

The Achilles heel of oven roasting—the one thing I’d let coffee snots hold over me and my clever technique—was the difficulty of nailing a light roast. A relatively uneven roast isn’t really a problem with a medium or dark roast—the argument could be made that having a few darker and lighter beans in a medium roast actually improves, deepens the flavor—but when some beans are undercooked, uncooked—well, the result can be distinctly less pleasurable.

Well, all that is overwith, or at least significantly mitigated, by the advent of the use of the preheated cast-iron pan. There is now very precious little excuse, in my opinion, for blowing $200 on a countertop appliance, or even buying your weekly pound, unless you have locally a very good roastery indeed.

I’ve written so many nearly identical blog posts by now, they’re starting to take on a common form, or template. They end with a recapping, an encapsulation, written in a style somewhat suggestive of Stanley Lombardo’s Tao Te Ching (Hackett, 1993):

Heat oven, heavy pan to 500′.
Line the pan with beans one-deep.
When you hear crackling, give a shake.
When they look done, put them in a bowl.
And blow off the chaff.

Takes about fifteen minutes. An eight inch pan roasts about a pint of beans. Haven’t experimented with crowding the pan yet.


appalachian wood-fired coffee-roasting accounts

From The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984):

“I’ve parched a many a pound of green coffee. That used to be my job when I was eight or ten years old. Mama would fly into that kitchen at about four o’clock and call me out to parch the coffee. I didn’t have a stove to parch it on, either; I did it on the fireplace. I put my coffee beans in a pan and got me some coals out and put them on the hearth. I’d take a spoon and stir that coffee around and around until it turned brown. It’s pretty easy done, but if you burned your coffee or scorched it a little it wasn’t no good. Then I’d cool it down, put it in that old coffee grinder and grind her up. Put it in the pot, and you’ve got some of the strongest coffee. If I had it today I’d like it better, but I wouldn’t like that extra work.”

and

“My mother had a large pan that covered the bottom of the wood stove. It fit down in there. She’d put her coffee beans on that pan and put it in the oven. You couldn’t have your stove too hot. You wanted to parch the coffee slow. She’d open the stove and take the pan out and stir the coffee around. Then she’d put it back in. When the beans got brown like you’ve seen the coffee beans you buy in the store, they were ready to take out and grind. She had a grinder on the kitchen wall.”

These the accounts of Gladys Nichols and Blanche Harkins, respectively.

If an eight or ten year old can do it on a fireplace, why aren’t you roasting your own beans? I’m not sure exactly why I’m so evangelical about this. It’s a little strange. I believe I have made so far three or four converts. Good for them! Meanwhile I’ve also made a minute revision to my minute home oven coffee roasting method, given in full below:

Throw a handful of beans in the oven at 500′,
give them a shake when they start to pop,
take them out when they look done,
cover, let cool, and blow off the chaff (outside).

Takes about fifteen minutes, smoke’s not too bad for small batches.


you really should roast your own coffee

It’s not hard. And you get used to the flavor of fresh coffee. Green beans are half the price of roasted beans, even when you buy them one pound at a time. I don’t do that, though. Why, when green coffee doesn’t go bad? It will last on the shelf for years, though it will lose some zing. Buying once a year, when the harvest comes in, suits me. I roast once or twice a week, because after a week, even whole roasted beans, stored well, no longer really seem worth drinking. The only downside, as I see it, is that if you prefer a darker roast, it can smoke up your kitchen a little. But probably, roasting your own, you will lose interest in a dark roast. It cooks the nuances out of beans, makes them all taste the same. I still roast dark time to time but only in fair weather.

How do I do it? I’ve tried a number of techniques, and found that the best one (shy of investing in appliances) is also the easiest: 

Bring oven to ~500 degrees.
Spread green coffee-beans one deep on something like a cookie sheet. (I generally use a bread pan.)
Bake for 10-15 minutes, until it is about the color you want.
Cover, let cool, blow off the chaff.

This method yields beans good enough that I am never excited to find myself in a city with a famous roaster, though I love a good coffee. I rarely travel without some green beans now. It is bad to be stuck without fresh beans.

Some roasters will sell you green beans, also some homebrew supply shops and fancy groceries. I mail-order mine from sweetmarias.com, also a good source for more information.

Here is Facts for Farmers (1863) on roasting coffee:

“It should be roasted very evenly, of a light brown color, and used very soon afterward, as it loses value every day after it is roasted, and after it is ground it will become almost worthless by a few days’ exposure to the air. . . . Roasting coffee in a room will always disinfect it of bad effluvia*. . . . In roasting coffee, first dry it gently in an open pan until it changes color, and then cover the pan and scorch it rapidly without charring a grain.”

*This is true. My house is constructed such as that skunks like to live under it, and inevitably several times a year there will be a spray that will render it unlivable for days. At such times, I always roast a big batch of coffee, and it always helps.

And Pellegrino Artusi (1891):

“It’s best to increase the heat gradually and therefore use wood rather than coal as a heat source, since it’s easier to regulate. When the beans begin to sizzle and smoke, shake the toaster continuously. Remove it from the heat when the beans have turned chestnut brown, and before they emit their oil. . . . Toast the beans a little at a time, and keep them in a tightly closed metal container, grinding them as necessary, because they lose their aroma easily.”

And The Original Picayune Creole Cook Book (Ninth edition, reprinted from the fifth edition of 1928):

“One of the first essentials is to ‘Parch the Coffee Grains Just Before Making the Coffee,’ because coffee that has been long parched and left standing loses its flavor and strength. The coffee grains should ‘Be Roasted to a Rich Brown,’ and never allowed to scorch or burn, otherwise the flavor of the coffee is at once affected or destroyed. . . . after the coffee has been roasted and allowed to cool in a covered dish, so that none of the flavor will escape, the coffee is ground[.]”