Have you started roasting your own coffee yet?

A few years ago I stopped in at a colleague’s office after visiting another friend across the hall. It was still morning, so I accepted the offer of a cup of coffee. Oleg made it with some ceremony in a nice espresso maker, so I expected a flavorful cup, but was stunned with exactly how good it was.

It turns out he roasts his own beans in a reconstituted popcorn popper, or at least that was what he did at the time. I kept that in mind as I drank two or three good but not great cups of coffee each morning. I get good coffee, but did not roast it myself. I got one of those frothers so I could have a nice head of milk on a rich cup. But still it nagged me that the Trader Joe varieties were not the best.

I care about the coffee in other ways too. I want it to be shade grown and fair trade. I don’t want to support monoculture acres of sun coffee that replace the sugar cane across so much of Brazil.

There are some excellent local roasters here in St. Louis, but I’m not much up for special trips to stores, let alone as often as fresh coffee would entail. So I finally sprang for a popcorn popper and a sampler of green coffee from Sweet Marias. I’m a convert!

I roast the coffee with the windows open, the stove vent on, and the attic fan sucking air out of the house. I’m guessing those roasting fumes aren’t much better for me than a wood burning stove without a chimney would be, though there are less of them. The popcorn popper takes a half cup of beans and fifteen minutes or under, according to the website. Then it should cool a couple hours before attempting another batch.

The popper is noisy, so it isn’t easy to watch the beans, but I do look at them as they darken. They throw off their papery skins early on, unless they are water process decaf when those skins seem either not present, or stuck on tight. In five or so minutes they reach a stage called first crack, when they make a sound like popcorn popping. I don’t know how much I got to second crack. I think I’d have to put way fewer beans in for a dark roast.

I store my roasted beans in half cup canning jars, with lids labeled as to kind. I then brew a perfect cup, running the beans through the burr grinder, then setting the cup on my scales. I wet the paper filter and add 22 grams of ground coffee. Then I wet that with 40 grams of nearly but not quite boiling water. When that has dripped through, I add about 280 more grams of water to fill the cup. I like to do two cups at a time, so I can have a taste test.

This morning I had a Guatemalan coffee and a Sumatran. I drank it black, though that does not really capture the richness of these flavors. First mouth is the dark coffee taste we all know. Just about any cup gives you that, though bad ones will have off tastes of sour, bitter, or burnt. It is the second taste that means so much. It comes after the first, at the back of the mouth or tongue, or the nose, I suppose. It is rich, can be caramelized, or almost sweet. It might be floral, or nutty. This is the taste that varies.

Do I no longer froth in half and half? Well, not at first. But there is still a place for that kind of coffee in my life. But it is noon now, and I’ve switched to tea. I’m discovering the magic of Darjeeling. I guess I’ve reached the phase of my life where I can pay attention to the taste of my stimulants.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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