I’ve always been a drinker of pretty scungy coffee. As a young man newly in the workforce, I first became accustomed to drinking powdery institution coffee that we jokingly called ‘the sweepings off the floor’. It was warm and it was wet and it was free, and I didn’t know much better at the time. To this day in my working life I will carry a polystyrene cup filled with ‘sweepings’ around with me without complaint.
My taste in coffee for consumption at home has always been marginally more sophisticated than that of the work situation. In the confines of my personal coffee palace, I graduated up the café chain to drinking a solution of granules, preferably of a dark colour. Classy, that!
And when out and about, café latte at the conclusion of lunch, perhaps a cappuccino or a flat white … de rigueur on all outings of a social nature.
But then, a bit over a decade so ago, things began to change. My new girlfriend at the time (now my wife, Leanne) had a touch of the fanatic about her pursuit of the finer things in life, and introduced me to the pleasures of the stove-top brew early in our relationship, and coffee began to assume a weighty depth that involved the senses – taste and aroma – to be sure, but overridingly took on the qualities of a deep ritual that held a spiritual undertone.
Beans by the kilo bag. Dark roasted for espresso. Eight teaspoons of beans into the grinder we rescued from my grandmother’s house after she died. The heaven-scented powder that resulted spooned into a stove-top coffee maker for steam to be forced through the powdered beans then reconstituted by a mesmeric bubbling hissing boiling process into the rich brown liquid that filled our kitchen with that unmistakable aroma.
Topped with boiled full-cream milk. Ah, joy!
This journey involved harnessing the mundane in support of the miraculous. Where, for example, could I find a replacement rubber seal for the hardened and now mangy one we’d had since time began, or a new sieve basket for a stove-top coffee machine? We replaced two machines before we found our answer on the internet.
For a fellow who started out happy to make do with powdered dregs, the journey towards coffee-snobbishness was a rapid one. In no time at all, supermarket-bought roast beans had attracted a dubious suspicion. How good were they? How long since they were roasted? Where did they come from? Were they really Arabica, or was the label fudging the truth? And, were they ethical?
Again, the internet acted as a great enabler. For a modest bid price, freshly roasted beans, from the chosen country of origin could be delivered to our door, with a modest ethical contribution added to each purchase price. Ahh, just taste the difference! How good were we?!
And how satisfying this ritual had become.
But, still, there was further to travel on this journey. We were interested in trying to become independent of processed food and excessive packaging as much as possible. We enjoy resurrecting and preserving old traditions and incorporating them into our daily lives, and there was another step back into the past involving coffee making that teased us both, on the periphery of being do-able … and that was the creation of coffee from a handful of green beans by roasting them ourselves, complete with a roasting diary and of course, the requisite blog and photos. Seriously tempting … but how?
My research turned up a marvellous little beginners guide to the world of coffee and home roasting titled Home Coffee Roasting – Romance and Revival by Kenneth Davids (St Martins Griffin, New York, 1996). It’s a wonderful introduction to the rich history and development of the coffee trade, regions, types and styles, and specifically instructs on the requirements and processes involved in roasting coffee at home.
Only halfway through the book and I was eagerly saddling up for this new journey. I wanted the romance that he described, where the old men and women in Italian villages sat out on their balconies twice a week to roast a couple of days worth of coffee at a time. I wanted the civility of the coffee ceremony where respect was shown by the trouble taken to prepare the coffee with the guest in attendance, as witness. I wanted to become the master of a simple art that no-one in my circle of acquaintance had imagined, let alone performed.
Some of the equipment seemed a little preposterous. Whereas the pictures in the book were of various stove top and barrel style coffee bean roasters, what Davids recommended was a pop-corn maker with a crank handle. Something that I’d never encountered in Australia, let alone in common use. Nonetheless, a ‘Whirley’ stove-top pop-corn maker was soon ordered, all the way from America. (My whims know no geographic boundaries). Also, a candy thermometer, and a two kilogram starter batch of green beans from four distinct coffee regions of the world.
Total cost of this initial equipment (including the book that served as my bible) came to $A98.14. A bargain at the price, in my opinion.
Then, the first morning all the equipment was gathered in one place, the final stages of the adventure took place. As soon as the thermometer arrived, we drilled a hole in the top of the Whirley-gig for it to sit in and began the process. The basic steps we followed are as follows- the beans we used were 100gm of Ethiopian Gambella Sundried beans for the first batch:
- Stir (or more correctly, twirl) the beans steadily throughout (doesn’t have to be non-stop, but has to be constant to get an even roast).
- Watch for smoke to rise, listen for the beans to ‘crack’. This step took no more than two minutes to be reached.
- Start taking peeks at the beans every thirty seconds to a minute to check their colour. What we were aiming for initially was a colour that matched or was a little lighter than the beans we had previously bought from the supermarket for our morning brew.
- Take the beans off the heat when the colour is a tiny bit lighter than what you want to achieve. This is because the beans will keep roasting for awhile from accumulated heat.
- Rapidly cool the beans by passing from colander to colander to let air get at them. This is best done outside as there is a husk still attached to the green beans that separates during the roast and this will blow away with a gentle breeze.
- Ten minutes after beginning, the roast was ready to come off the stove.
What we found we were left with was a deeply rich brown bean that was significantly oily on the surface. The colour was slightly darker than we were aiming for, but just looked gorgeous, conjuring archetypal images of a sun-drenched Africa. The beans lost about twenty-five percent of their weight during the roast, due to the green beans being loaded up with moisture. Much of the smoke that is produced during the roast is this moisture evaporating from the bean. The roasted beans are also significantly larger than the green beans, due to swelling.
The experts suggest that beans are at their best for drinking between four and perhaps twenty-four hours after the roasting. They slowly but relentlessly lose aspects of their flavour from that point on as oxygen starts to have a deteriorating effect on the beans.
There was no way, however, that we were going to wait for hours or days before trying out what we’d created. We were up for a grind immediately. What we found was a coffee rich in aroma, though not as overpowering as I’d been half-expecting. The taste was more bitter on the tongue than we were accustomed to but a nice strong brew to drink. There is a lingering tingle of coffee aftertaste in my mouth as I write, some hours after the cup was consumed.
We sampled the roast after twenty-four hours of ageing to compare, then after another two days, we roasted a second batch, aiming for a lighter coloured bean. Three days after that, we tried a different region of the world. We had begun an exciting new journey into the romantic revival of home coffee bean roasting, and that journey hasn’t stopped to this day, when a double batch was roasted, before lunch, out on the back veranda.
© Frank Prem, 2016