September/October 2011: A Bump on the Butt of Specialty Coffee

A guy goes into a coffee roasting shop and asks if he can buy some green coffee to roast at home. The owner says, “Sure, and I will give you a 10% discount off our roasted coffee price.”  The guy thinks to himself, “Golly gee, since I will have 20% weight loss, that means I am basically paying 10% more to have him NOT roast my coffee for me.” The guy then starts a web site for home coffee roasting, naming it for his wife, who was certainly sweet to sell $12,000 of Grandpa’s stock to get the ball rolling .

The story is not entirely true. I didn’t have the wherewithal to think of that 20% weight loss right there on the spot. And if I did, I wouldn’t have mentioned it … I would have just bought the coffee, and gone home pissed off and resentful. That’s just how I am.  But Sweet Maria’s did start out as my own personal alternative to locally-roasted coffee when we found ourselves, rather regrettably, living in Columbus, Ohio. The owner of that roasting shop was a bit hostile to my questions. He made a point to serve me personally when I visited, which sounds like kind attention, but I think  it was rather defensive actually. He didn’t want other salespeople to say something they shouldn’t.

So my business, Sweet Maria’s Coffee, was born out of this awkward relation (or non-relation) between a coffee roaster and a home roaster. It persists in the coffee trade, an ambiguous tie between professional and amateur. It must exist in other crafts and activities, between the Pros and the DIY-er:  beer brewing, bass fishing, bowling … you know, all the pinnacles of Western culture.

There is little general wisdom that can be intuited from any of this, since each contact between the two counterparts must be driven by individual personalities more than something essential to the craft. A hobbyist roaster can either be a true fan of the coffee, or just a royal PIA (editor: pain in the ass). I really can’t say which of the two I was in my seminal encounter, perhaps a bit of both.

But I would not discount amateurism in any way, and it’s regrettable that the word has a negative whiff to it. Perhaps the amateur enjoys the purest pleasure in the activity, not guided by profit motive,  unfettered by professional taboos (or tattoos, as the case may be), and not constrained by the need to serve any public. Guided only by genuine interest and their own sense of taste, they can explore coffee roasting and preparation in any way that makes sense them. And some unusual innovations have come from home roasting. An example? Hmm, give me a minute. Well, the first I heard of someone vacuum packing green coffee was a home roaster. And I have learned more about roast profiling from some of the unorthodox methods people use in the HotTop, Behmor, Gene cafe, Quest, Freshroast, or the most venerable and nearly legendary West Bend Poppery Mark I. (Yes, one of the best  home roasters is still a popcorn popper). And the feedback from the home roast community is invaluable. Trust me, they catch every mistake I make.

Sure, home roasting equipment in some cases can be dumbed-down roasters, machines that have lots of safety features and pre-programmed settings so folks don’t set their houses on fire.  And those can make it hard for home roasters to make the fine distinctions in degree of roast or temperature profile. But honestly, based on the 5 used Probats and Diedrichs I have bought in various states of disrepair and abuse, I think some of the  “professionals” out there are rather clueless about air flow or cooling or cleaning their stacks.  (Of course, none of these types would be reading this, nor would they be members of the SCAA!) Some home roasting people are more in tune with cup quality and coffee crop cycles than some professionals who  focus on different pricing tiers and inventory stability.

There are always the extremes in any crowd. I am sure some home roasters take a little knowledge and use it for  undue recognition on an Internet venue or in a coffee shop. I hear tales of know-it-all home roasters giving rather audacious advice to the professional in her own shop. I imagine most retail roasters can recount stories of famously bad encounters of a customer telling them about the roast profile they use on their PID-controlled popcorn popper to draw out first and second crack.

But in a broader way, I think a roaster is a roaster is a roaster. And in this age when so many small shop roasting businesses cut their teeth with years of home roasting, supplying friends or the office or their church group before hanging out their shingle, the distinction between where one fires up their roaster, home or retail shop, seems less important than the outcomes. Historically, home roasting is as old as coffee itself. For as long as people have roasted coffee for others, they have roasted coffee for themselves, their friends and families.

Yes, the home roast machine suffers a lower quality of build and less control of the roast process in most cases. But you should taste the results people get with homegrown modifications, time and practice. Would anyone argue that roasting in a Probat makes coffee good, necessarily? Does “professionally roasted” mean a good cup?  Even back in ’97  I knew I could do better than that smoked Yirgacheffe. So in retrospect, it WAS actually worth paying 10% more to have them NOT roast the coffee.  And so goes the 14 years of my life since then.
– Tom

El Salvador Manzano Processing Experiment

We have coffee from El Manzano farm again this year – a tightly controlled experiment where coffee from the same plot and same harvest are processed three different ways.  In the three pound set you get one pound each of the washed (wet-processed), pulped natural and full natural (dry-processed) coffees. We are offering this experiment again this year because we feel this is a unique learning opportunity not just in understanding the taste differences of these processes, but the roasting differences as well. Watch how each process reacts leading up to and during the first crack: the washed coffee (and the pulp natural to a slightly lesser extent) seem to resist the crack and need a little more of a push, while the full natural moves into the crack and it was vital not to let it run away.

There is a pronounced difference in the cup, but at the same time a very logical progression of the development of certain flavors and characteristics which show how similar the coffees are as well. The coffee itself is sweet and bright, not a lot of delicate floral notes, but the transformation is clear. One interesting thing was that my scores increased with the amount of coffee cherry that was left on the parchment; meaning, in my opinion the natural was the best of the three, with the pulp natural being second, and the washed lacked the complexity and dimensions offered in the two other processes./p>

I would suggest that you try to roast all three coffees to the same degree and then taste them side by side.  Another approach would be to roast each coffee to its distinctly best roast – maybe a bit lighter on the washed coffee and a touch darker on the natural. – Tom