November/December/January 2013-2014: The Home Roasting Tradition and The Holiday Season

1We’re gearing up for the holiday season here at Sweet Maria’s.  The holiday madness starts in November and goes through January.  We thought a history of home roasting would be nice as we head into colder weather and roasting for friends and family.

Home coffee roasting has a long history in the United States and all over the world.  Immigrant communities were an important part of bringing the tradition to the United States and the practice was part of daily life for many decades before falling out of fashion. Americans developed an affinity for coffee starting in the 1800’s and coffee consumption continued to steadily grow. Unroasted coffee was available at the local general store.  The coffee was usually sourced from the “East Indies,” what we would refer to today as Indonesia. We even have an old Sears catalog at Sweet Maria’s that offers green coffee, including one from the Antigua region in Guatemala.

Just like today, the home roasted coffee was fresher than what you could buy in most stores and less expensive, though the green coffee was lower in quality overall due to poor transportation, bean processing and storage. The common roasting method of the day was roasting over a fire, stirring frequently for about 20 minutes with mixed results. There were a few home roasting machines available back then, usually hand cranked or turned by steam, but they were expensive and didn’t work well.  Sweet Maria’s has a collection of vintage roasters from all over the world.  The majority are clunky and heavy, made out of cast iron, and a few are even key cranked!  Most vintage roasters are conductive, meaning the hot surface is what is roasting the beans, which can lead to baked and scorched coffee.

The brewing methods were also much different. The popular “cowboy coffee” preparation method would make many coffee drinkers cringe today: boiling grounds for up to 10 minutes and mixing in many eccentric additives likes egg shells.   Hopefully the freshness of the coffee made up for some of the roast quality problems and brewing peculiarity!

Roasting coffee at home remained popular up until the early 1900’s, with the rise of industrialized food and large scale coffee roasters. Coffee was just one of many food items that was transformed as the country shifted from home production and raw materials to a new emphasis on packaged goods. In the early 1900’s larger coffee brands started to emerge, like Folger’s and Maxwell House, and gained a bigger market share in what had previously been a very localized business with difficult distribution logistics.  Many stores started to sell roasted and packaged coffee, moving away from selling green coffee out of a bulk bin. Coffee became another product in which vendors and consumers expected consistency and uniformity.

Commercial roasting machines of the day were rudimentary as well and didn’t produce high quality coffee.  Early commercial shops roasted coffee using large drums without real ventilation. The beans were loaded into brick ovens and then dumped into train cars without cooling and stayed hot for a few hours before cooling off. Commercial roasters eventually improved, such as the roaster created by the Probat Burns company in the 1860’s. The roaster was collaboration between a German inventor, Probat, who created the bulk of the machine, and an American coffee industry veteran, Burns, who created the cooling mechanism used in many modern roasters. Probats are still used and loved today, including Sweet Maria’s Probat L12 that we use to roast for our subscription program. One improvement that came along with large scale roasters was improved packaging. The roasted coffee was packaged in moisture proof bags, a big step up from green coffee that had been sitting in bulk containers soaking up other smells from the general store.

Today home roasting is much different from the early 1800’s.  The nostalgia and romance of roasting your own coffee is still a factor, but many variables have changed. The quality and supply of green beans, design and technology of home roasting machines and the brewing methods have all improved.  The emergence of a “Do It Yourself” (DIY) movement has also helped to spur the popularity of home roasting in the past few decades, as people have been interested in reviving old food traditions.  The DIY payback for home roasting makes sense, as it’s easy to have fresh high quality specialty coffee at an affordable price, especially in areas that don’t have access to good local roasters.

The quality and supply of green coffee has vastly improved over the years.  We’re able to get high quality coffee because of working closely with farmers, offering feedback on lots and buying directly, which means we’re able to provide amazing coffee and support the livelihoods of farmers. Green coffee storage and transportation has also improved, with technology like GrainPro bags that allows us to control a few more variables to keep the coffee intact during in its long journey. The lots we are able to offer now to home roasters become more exceptional in quality year after year.

The Holiday Season
We do work as quickly and efficiently as possible but please understand that our usual 24-hour turn around on orders does not apply during December and January. We try, we really do, but the volume of orders slows us down. No matter how fast we can type – we are still human. So please don’t be alarmed if we are a bit slower in processing orders or answering email, we will catch up and get back to you.
Do let us know about problems as soon as you can so we have a chance to fix them. UPS and USPS generally see big increases in package volumes for the holidays- so damaged and lost packages are more likely. We think UPS, all faults considered, does a much better job in the holidays than Priority Mail We are closed for the Holidays December 23rd through January 2nd.


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