Song #18 // Sylvan Esso, “Coffee” [Sylvan Esso]

sylvan-essoIn honor of this song’s entry, I’ll share what I believe to be the cheapest, quickest way to roast quality coffee at home. Ever since I started roasting my own several years ago, I haven’t bought any beans from stores or other roasters. You won’t either once you perfect your own personal roasts and blends.

What you’ll need:

  • Green coffee
  • Hot air popcorn popper
  • Strainers and/or a vegetable steamer
  • Wooden spoon

Where to get the stuff:

There are many places to buy green coffee online. It’s a bit more difficult, however, to find places that are high in quality, consistent, and low in prices. My favorite is Sweet Maria’s, a really reputable importer out of Oakland, CA. Their website has beautiful descriptions and flavor profiles, and their selection is typically can’t-go-wrong quality.

Beans, like anything, are cheaper when you buy them in bulk. However, I typically buy between 2-5lbs when I’m trying a new bean; you don’t want to get stuck with a bean you don’t care for. I love fruity, rich beans from Ethiopia (and sometimes amp up the berry profile by getting dry-process beans; though that’s a bit controversial in some parts.) However, I also love dark, caramelly beans that coat your mouth with a rich cup. So I also buy beans from Java and Sumatra. To make a really balanced blend, I combine them both, typically at a 2:1 ratio of Java:Ethiopia. But you can play around.

I bought my hot air popper off of Craigslist years ago for $10, but you can find good ones new online for $25 or under. The best ones have air vents on the side of the chamber, and not the bottom (I’ll explain why later.) They also have an on/off switch. Mine doesn’t, which means I have to unplug the machine every time I want to stir. The plastic upper part doesn’t matter; you’ll remove that and throw it out anyway.

The basic process:

1. Pour your beans into the popper
The less beans you roast per roast the easier it is to control, but obviously the longer it takes to accrue any significant amount. As a result, I typically roast about a cup per roast.

2. Set up bowl under popper to catch chaff
Beans have several layers of skin that they shed during a roast. The popper will blow them out into a waiting bowl that you can dispose of later.

3. Cover the top of the popper
Like popcorn, the beans will fly around when you turn the popper on. I cover the top of mine with a vegetable steamer. Just make sure whatever you use has vents to let the hot air escape.

4. Turn it on
The beauty of this method is that it’s a one-step process. Incredibly easy. The nuance (and dare I say, skill) comes in how long you leave the beans roasting.

5. After a few minutes, turn off popper and stir beans
This is where side vents have an advantage over a bottom vent. Side vents will blow the beans around in a circle, typically resulting in a more even roast and less required stirring. However, in a bottom vent popper (like mine) you need to stop and stir so that some beans don’t get stuck at the bottom and burn while others pop free and stay green. You’ll need to gauge for yourself (and your popper) how many times to repeat this step, but I typically only do it once per batch.

6. Listen for the cracks
This process largely involves judging beans’ roast level by the sounds they emit. There are three basic stages of cracks that correspond to beans’ doneness:

  • First crack (sound like popcorn, intermittent and loud): Light roast, City/City+
  • Second crack (much quieter, may sound more spaced out): Medium-Dark roast, Full City/Full City+
  • Third cracks (like machine-gun fire, typically followed by billowing smoke): Dark roast and/or fire, Vienna/French

7. Turn off popper and pour beans into strainer
After the first crack your beans are ready to take off. However, depending on the flavor profile even these “done” beans may not taste like much. Getting closer to the second crack gets closer to a medium roast, or what most people are used to. Again, though, it depends on your beans. Some beans take really well to a dark roast, but be ready if you push it that far, the beans will continue to roast for a while after you dump them, and you may get a strainer full of burnt, undrinkable beans. It obviously depends, but I typically go to the second crack (which, admittedly, I often can only barely hear) before taking off most beans.

8. Pass beans between strainers, preferably outside
Again, beans will continue to roast even once removed from the popper. By passing them from strainer to strainer you’re helping them to cool down quicker. By doing it outside (or, in my case, out a 2nd floor window) you’re not only cooling them down, but helping to remove extra chaff. After a few minutes they’ll be good to go.

9. Store in an air-tight container for at least a day
A lot of coffee roasting guides will say you can drink coffee at this stage, but I generally don’t agree. Put them in an air-tight container like a jar (if you put them in a plastic container they’ll be fine, but the emitting gas will probably blow the cover) for at least 24hrs. When you next open the jar up you’ll not only be ready to drink your first home-roasted coffee, you’ll also be treated to a nose-full of the freshest coffee you’ve ever enjoyed.

That’s it. Cheap: about $6/lb. Quick: about 4-8min. Simple: just the steps above. Experiment. Don’t be afraid: it’s just coffee.