(or how to put us out of business!)
As our standards on coffee went up we learned to buy quality coffee directly from small roasteries, not the mass produced, stale coffee for sale in grocery stores. The next step was roasting our own coffee to ensure we had truly fresh roasted coffee and had quality single source coffees that we personally liked. Green beans stay good for two or three years, maybe longer; roasted coffee beans are stale after a month; ground coffee is stale after twenty minutes. Even purchasing roasted coffee beans from a grocery store is purchasing already stale coffee.
A small roaster who also sold green beans sold us some Kenya AA green beans explaining that Kenya AA was very forgiving as it was good from light through dark roasts and everywhere in between. We still managed to burn the first eight roasts!
So rule number one for us is keep careful records then each roast informs the next roast. Our roasts, numbered sequentially are now over a thousand. None of our home roasters provided temperature information; but, we recorded quantity of beans in grams (much more accurate than volume measurements), ambient temperature, the time the beans turned yellow, the time of first crack (both when we heard the first crack and when the cracking was vigorous, the time of second crack if we went into second crack and the end time when we removed the beans from the heat.
Before we go any further “Home Coffee Roasting: Romance & Revival (revised edition)” by Kenneth Davids is a must read. None of the home roasters he mentions are current; but, the explanations of the process is background understanding needed to hone your roasting skills. You will learn what is happening in first crack and second crack and learn about roast levels.
First a few general comments before dealing with particular roasters. Roasting coffee produces smoke and leaves a pungent smell. We like the smell but do not want it and the smoke lingering in our kitchen. So for us roasting always takes place in the garage or outside. Drops in voltage affect the roasters that use electricity so an outlet close to the electrical service panel is a plus. In one old house we used a heavy duty extension cord from the service panel to the garage. The wiring for that garage went from the service panel in the basement to the ceiling of the basement, the length of the basement, down a basement wall, under a sidewalk, into the garage, up to the ceiling of the garage, half way along the garage, and down to an outlet. The wiring was up to date; but, five times as long as the extension cord which was heavier gauge than the wiring. A small voltage meter may be a good investment. Coffee roasters run hot so never leave a roaster unattended! Do not risk a fire from burnt beans and always be ready to pull the plug. We have never had a fire; but, one would be more than enough! A comfortable chair and a good book are essential equipment while attending your home roaster. We roast outside and in an unheated garage, so having the green beans at inside room temperature helps the roast get off to quick start.
All the described methods and equipment we know well. However, coffee roasting as a hobby keeps growing and new equipment is being marketed that we do not know at all. When you buy do your "homework" and research what you buy.
Our first “roaster” was a popcorn popper. An air popper that has a solid base with vents along the side of the chamber to agitate the popcorn kernels or in our case the coffee beans is what you need (see photo below). Use as much green coffee as you would use popcorn kernels. Trying to roast a lot is a mistake. You will find instructions on line for roasting coffee this way. Be wary of the quality of instructions which will vary from excellent to poor.
Initially the beans are heavy and we used a wooden spoon to agitate them to get an even roast. As the beans dry and grow lighter they agitate well without being stirred. Also we used the wooden spoon to lift a few beans out several times to check the colour. Every popcorn popper is different and you need to figure what works for you. We took the ends out of a small can. The resulting cylinder extended the height of the roasting chamber so the beans did not fly out. The chaff or silver skin from the beans flew everywhere. But in our roughly finished garage it was just a matter of sweeping up after the roast.
Once the beans are roasted they need to be cooled quickly or they continue to roast past the level you want. We used two large screened colanders and a fan outside the garage pouring the beans from one colander to the other and back again to cool the beans. We did this operation outside because the chaff will also fly from the beans. One can use a breeze but the fan is more predictable. Using the colanders close to the fan we quickly had cool chaff free beans ready to roast..
From start to finish the roasting takes six to eight minutes and then you add the time for cooling the beans.
We recommend the popcorn popper as a way to start roasting your own coffee. I checked in the fall of 2016 and saw in a large hardware store's kitchen section a popcorn popper with the right kind of popping chamber for $20. If you decided after a while that roasting coffee is not for you then you have not invested much and the popper can still be used to pop popcorn. Also the popcorn popper is a simple roasting method and easily learned.
The disadvantages include small roasts; difficulty in seeing the colour changes in the beans; difficulty in hearing the cracks because of the noise of the electric motor; and the mess from chaff flying everywhere.
Using a small digital kitchen scale weigh out 90 or 95 grams of green beans. The machine is rated for 130 grams; however, we have never seen a roaster, big or small, home or commercial, that efficiently roasted its maximum rated capacity. The Fresh Roast roasts well with 90 to 95 grams. Four roasts will fill a 1000 ml Mason Jar, a great way to store and seal in roasted coffee.
Put the beans in the glass roasting chamber and assemble the roaster. Make sure the roasting chamber and the chaff collector are nestled together properly. Nothing but gravity holds the parts together! Turn on the roaster with the fan on high and the heat on low. You want the beans to lose moisture (become lighter) before using more heat.
The built-in timer counts down from six minutes in tenths of minutes (5.9 minutes actually). Confusing! Use a separate kitchen timer that counts up in minutes and seconds. At the one minute mark hit the cool button and restart the roasting after 30 seconds. The purpose of this move is to dry out the beans without scorching them. The move keeps the beans “cool” while they dry out. You will end up with an even roast.
When the beans are agitating well (approximately at 1:50) turn the heat to high and lower the fan speed to 1:00 o'clock. The beans turn yellow in the 2:30 to 3:00 time frame.
With the lower fan speed and higher heat the beans will roast and reach first crack: usually easy to hear. As the beans agitate more and more keep lowering the fan speed to the minimum to maintain heat and still keep the beans agitating for an even roast. As long as the beans keep moving down the side of the glass roast chamber there is enough movement. The fan will be around 7:00 o'clock (lowest fan speed) near the end of the roast.
Because manufacturers of home roasters are paranoid about fire, the machine will shut down before you are done. Add time as needed with the add time button. However, we find it easier to quickly shut the roaster off and back on again (use the heat button) which gives you 5.9 minutes again, plenty of time to complete a roast to any level you like.
Second crack is harder to hear because of the sound of the motor. Anything after first crack is a drinkable coffee. Anything after the start of second crack is a dark roast.
Use second crack and/or the colour of the roasted beans to determine the roast level you want. For us the roasts finished at 6:30 to 8:00 minutes on our kitchen timer. The cool cycle takes three minutes or a couple of seconds less. One of the beauties of home roasting is you choose the roast level that you want. We use a really bright LED flashlight, 1000 Lumens, to observe the beans for the roast levels we like. Judging the roast level from the colour of the beans improves as you gain experience.
Ambient temperature and voltage level affect the speed of the roast. Use a voltage meter (KillA Watt for example) to measure voltage. Use an outlet close to the main panel or a heavy duty extension from the main panel.
Some beans let off large flacks of chaff that do not make it into the chaff collector but fall back into the roasted beans. Using two large screened colanders pour the beans back and forth in front of a fan to “winnow” away the chaff from the beans.
Nothing but gravity holds the parts of the roaster together: use care in moving and storing the roaster. We kept the original carton and the styrofoam in the carton. We wrapped the carton in clear packing tape: years later the carton still is as good as new for storing the roaster.
The roasts are small but quick. The Fresh Roast is a modestly priced home roaster. How well you can see the beans as they roast is a big plus. The glass roast chamber and the two part chaff collector can be cleaned easily with gentle cleaners such as Simple Green.
The manual that comes with the roaster is good. There are many excellent instructions on line by roasters who use the Fresh Roast and tailor it to their own roasting patterns.
The Behmor 1600 has been updated to the Behmor 1600 Plus. There is a modestly priced kit to upgrade the Behmor that we have not purchased. The Behmor is a drum roaster that looks like a toaster oven from the outside. It is listed as roasting up to one pound of green beans, a large amount for a home roaster. Our bias is that like all roasters it works best at less than maximum capacity. We ended up roasting 270 grams at the one pound (454 gram) setting.
The roaster comes with an excellent manual that you need to read thoroughly before trying the roaster. We also suggest reading instructions on line put there by businesses that sell the machines. There are three settings for weight: 1/4 pound, 1/2 pound and one pound. There is a choice of five profiles: you cannot make your own profiles although you can add or subtract time from the profiles.
The Behmor is not designed for dark roasts so if dark roasts are your thing you should probably choose a different roaster. We tricked the roaster into darker roasts by roasting the beans for 90 seconds on profile one then shutting off the roaster and putting in the settings we wanted and starting over. Any time longer than 90 seconds the roaster may not start up again without a rest period. For medium roasts the Behmor is an excellent machine.
Voltage variations can be a problem. We plugged the roaster in close to the main panel. We live in a rural area where the electric grid is often suspect. On hot muggy summer days when neighbours were all using air conditioners voltage was lowered enough that the Behmor slowed down and did not complete roasts to our satisfaction.
Behmor is well built. The roasting drum tumbles the beans so that an even roast is produced every time. And Behmor is quiet: so quiet that second crack is easy to hear. We never strained to hear second crack as is necessary with other roasters we use. Once the roaster is up and running there is not much to do until you hit the cool button. But do not leave the roaster unattended! Who wants a fire? Have a comfortable chair and a good book. We have not found ambient temperature to be much of a problem. There have been winter roasts during which we wore knitted gloves and warmed our hands on the surfaces of the roaster in spite of the warnings about hot surfaces.
The Behmor has built in smoke suppression; but with roasts going beyond second crack smoke is a problem.
The manual calls for the machine to be cleaned after every five roasts. Use a gentle cleaner such as Simple Green. Abrasive cleaners (a No No!) will scratch the stainless steel surfaces. Because we lengthened the roasts out we cleaned after every four roasts. Then we conducted the prescribed dry run “roast” as part of routine cleaning. Every three months or so we cleaned the fan's impellers and removed the exhaust channel cover and cleaned the inside of the cover and the exhaust channel itself. Keep the window in the door clean so that you can see the beans change colour. We found the interior light inadequate: our 1000 Lumens LED flashlight provided much better light for viewing colour change in the beans and judging the progress of the roast.
Although the Behmor roasts relatively large even loads we have stopped using it much. We get tired of so much cleaning. We wonder as we roast if we have enough time to get to the roast level we want. We think the sensors will soon need to be replaced and have not bothered to pursue that. And we want more control over temperature and length of roast.
SHaBean Coffee Roastery started selling coffee we started using an RK
Drums roaster. The roaster is a converted gas BBQ with a stainless
steel roasting drum, a handle/rod for the drum, an electric motor to
turn the drum, and an accurate thermometer for the "roast
chamber" measuring the temperature inside the BBQ cover. RK Drums
rkdrums.com sells conversion kits for turning a gas BBQ into a coffee
roaster. The parts of the kits are mostly high quality stainless steel.
There are various capacity drums and instructions for the size and heat
capacity BBQ needed for the different sized drums.|
The roaster provides himself or herself the BBQ so every conversion will be different from others. Use a new BBQ (best solution!) or at least an absolutely clean BBQ. Roasted coffee beans are a sponge for smells and tastes so a new BBQ used only for coffee roasting is best. Coffee roasting does not produce fat drippings that over time mess up the burners and heat deflecting plates of the BBQ.
Our experience is that the quality of our RK Drum is excellent and the advice and assistance at getting operational are top drawer. As of this time of writing, we have done 557 roasts and roasted over 2200 pounds of green coffee and the roaster is going strong showing no signs of wearing out! The parts of the conversion kit are as good as new and the burners and heat deflecting plates of the BBQ show little sign of wear after two years of use.
The limitations include only outside use, cold temperatures, cold winds, not seeing the coffee beans change colour. We can hear first crack easily, and second crack by listenning carefully.
Our pattern has been to raise the temperature to our chosen roasting temperature and then when first crack is vigourous lowering the temperature some until we get to second crack. A timer that counts up in minutes and second is a must. For medium roasts that do not reach second crack knowing the time in seconds beyond first crack matters. The "knowing" comes with experience.
When the roast is done the beans are dumped into a cooler that uses a 20 inch square household fan turned on its side in a wooden frame and a cooling bin with a stainless steel screen sitting on top of the fan. The inexpensive household fan has not let us down. We made our own cooler but RK Drums sells cooling drums.