Friday, November 30, 2012

Off Topic: Home Coffee Roasting

Like most homebrewers, my interest in food and drink is not limited to beer alone. Rather, it seems like the more beer I brew, the more reasons I have to branch out into other culinary endeavors. For beer always tastes best when accompanied with good food and dabbling in the kitchen is nearly as much fun as brewing. Starting out, my first foodie projects were mostly related to collecting wild edibles - hop shoots, mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns - and then I got into fermenting my own foods; sauerkraut, preserved lemons, hot sauce, kim chi, and kvass. And then one day I got the brilliant idea that I should be making my own raw milk cheeses, having never made any sort of cheese before. That project ended in total failure... and probably has something to do with my recent lactose intolerance. After that debacle, I thought it would be best to go back to safe-to-eat foods and soon got into tea (namely puer and oolong), before moving on to bread making and barbeque

Sumatran Beans
My most recent culinary interest, however, has been coffee roasting. For the past few months, I have been home roasting a small amount of coffee each week for my own consumption. However, what originally got me interested in coffee roasting is that I wanted to make my own coffee blends for use in brewing. Admittedly, almost all of my attempts to include coffee in my beer have not turned out very well. Most of the time the finished beer ends up with an overwhelming and often unpleasant coffee flavor, or it tastes like someone took a two day old pot of Starbucks and dumped it into a keg. There had to be a way I could make a beer that actually has a pleasant and balanced coffee flavor. I figured the best way to do this was to roast my own beans.

Surprisingly, roasting your own coffee at home is actually pretty easy to do and is largely low cost. Once you find a source for green coffee beans, which can often be found at your local coffee roaster for 1/2 the price of the roasted stuff, all you need is a roasting device and about 15 minutes. The coffee roaster of choice for many people starting out are (hot air) popcorn poppers; those that have air vents on the side of the roasting drum, as to keep the beans agitated and the chaff from burning. After a bit of looking around, I was able to find an older popcorn maker of the recommended design (the legendary Poppery II) at one of my local thrift stores. You can also find suitable popcorn poppers at Walmart and Target for around $15-20.

A tad uneven roast?
The basic premise process for DYI coffee roasting is to add three or four ounces of green beans to your popcorn popper, turn it on, and then wait a few minutes. As the beans approach the roasting temperature, the chaff - the thin, papery covering of the bean - slips off and is blown out of the popper. It can be somewhat messy with all of the chaff flying around. After about 2-3 minutes of roasting at high temperature, the coffee reaches the "first crack" stage, where the moisture inside the bean is released in the form of steam, cracking/expanding the bean. It is easy to know when you have reached this stage, as the sound is quite audible. After the first crack, the beans are technically considered roasted (City Roast) and the process can be stopped if you so desire. Leaving the beans in the popper for a bit longer continues to caramelize the beans, with the color and smell becoming more intense. In the Poppery II, right around the 4-5 minute mark, the beans become fully caramelized and very fragrant, somewhere around a Full City roast. Leaving the beans in the roaster for even longer continues to caramelize the beans to the point that they start to burn, so called the "second crack," because of the sizzling and snapping sound the beans make. This has been right around the 5-6 minute mark for me. Beans past the second crack are considered Vienna or French Roast, as the natural sugars inside the bean are carbonized and the original character of the bean has been obliterated. Hello Starbucks!

Last batch of Sumatran
After the beans have been roasted to your desired stage, they are removed from the roasting apparatus and cooled as quickly as possible, usually in a metal strainer or on a cookie sheet. Once the beans are cooled, they can be used right away or stored overnight for the supposed best taste. The coffee beans will release some C02 as they cool, so it is best not to seal them up right away. Although I must say that the smell of opening a container of roasted beans from the night before has to be one of the best olfactory experiences known to mankind. Truly amazing!

As simple and easy as coffee roasting seems, like brewing, there are a lot of little 'unknowns' that can make the process rather difficult. For instance, continuing with my tradition of jumping into things way over my head, the first batch of coffee beans I roasted were Sumatran. Now I love Sumatran coffee... the tobacco, rustic, and old leathery flavor you get from it is similar to that of a good English porter or old ale. However, it appears that getting a proper roast with these beans can be quite difficult and it takes time, practice, and knowledge to know when the beans will taste their best; all things I currently lack when it comes to coffee. After a half dozen attempts at roasting the Sumatran beans, I managed to burn out the heating element on my Poppery II. Not the biggest of calamities, since I only paid $3.50 for it, but still a road bump none the less. Looking back, I think I under-roasted the first few batches and probably stressed the machine more than I should have on the latter ones. I guess you could say roasting coffee is a lot like learning what the hops and grain to use in brewing. Mistakes will be made.

Since killing my Poppery II, I have purchased another popper, the West Bend Air Crazy. So far this machine has worked well - I've been making some nice tasting Brazilian and Kenyan coffees of late - although it does take longer to roast the beans. And the heating element on this model is of a lower wattage than the other one, so instead of 5-6 minutes to roast a batch of beans, it is now taking me closer to 15 for a dark roast. Hopefully, as I continue to roast more coffee and learn which varieties taste best, I should be able to get a better handle on how to properly roast each variety of bean. And how to turn those grounds into coffee and beer. More on that later.

Therefore, if you have any desire to get into coffee roasting, I highly recommend visiting Sweet Maria's for all the information and beans you'll need to get started. Even if you aren't interested in coffee, their website still worth a look


  1. Great post! We're putting together a piece on home roasting that features home roasters and would love to include you. If interested, please email Alix at Also, check out our selection of green beans at (we offer high quality beans sourced from unique sources in Africa & Asia)

  2. Have you found any effective ways to add coffee to homebrew yet? I had a pint of New Belgium Choc Coffee stout and now I have to have something dark with coffee in it. I keep hearing to cold brew or steep 1/2 lb of coarse ground coffee per 5 gal of beer and then add the strained coffee to the secondary, or in my case the keg. Any ideas?

    1. Short answer, not really.

      I've tried pretty much all the methods people use and my best results were racking the beer onto coffee grounds in the secondary and letting it sit for a week. The coffee flavor from this method was the strongest and 'cleanest' - it had the most pure coffee flavor - but the problem was that the coffee flavor overwhelmed the beer. The cold steep method resulted in the most balanced coffee flavor, as it didn't overwhem everything else, but the flavor seemed flat and like I added a pot of old coffee to the keg. Adding coffee beans to the boil ruined the beer.

      I think if you want good coffee flavor, cold steeping a small amount of VERY strong and fresh coffee (espresso) and adding it to the keg is better than adding a larger amount of less strong coffee. However, I've never got good coffee flavor out of the really dark, store bought french roast/vienna... hence my forays into making my own. Also, 'dry-hopping' the beer with ground coffee seems promising, it might just take some tinkering with amounts and coffee types before I get a good balance.

      Lastly, I am 100% convinced that adding coffee to a beer is better suited to strong and dark beers. A dark, strong, and chewy porter or stout is going to take the coffee flavor better than a medium gravity brown ale or something. Next time I brew with coffee, it's going to be at least 8% abv, thick in body, and finish a bit sweet... so the coffee flavor doesn't taste harsh.


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