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By Tracy Howard
You’ve purchased the perfect home coffee roaster (be sure to check out our home roaster test in the Jan/Feb 09 issue) and you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and start roasting some beans. What do you do next? James Vaughn from The Coffee Project offers his top tips for purchasing and storing green beans, as well as helpful suggestions for roasting a perfect batch every time.
1) Remember that coffee is a crop.
Like wine, coffee varies from crop to crop due to where it’s grown and how it’s processed. It’s also seasonal, so certain coffees are only available at specific times of the year. If you find a variety you love but it’s availability is limited, you can always stock up. Green coffee is fairly stable and can be stored like any other dried bean for up to a year.
2) Don't shop by price.
Some of the world’s best coffees can cost upwards of $20 a pound unroasted. That’s because pricing is often based on a particular bean’s scarcity or rarity. These coffees can be amazing, but there are plenty of great varieties that are grown in large enough amounts to be offered at lower prices. For example, at The Coffee Project website, you can snag an Ethiopian Yrgecheffe for $5.68 a pound.
3) Don't shop by labels alone.
Just because a coffee is organic or fair-trade doesn’t mean it’s the best-tasting coffee. While these and other certifications are worth supporting for social and environmental reasons, if it is what's in the cup that matters to you most, they won't necessarily be the best choice.
4) Decaf doesn’t have to be a downer.
Want to roast your own decaf coffee or espresso? Just buy decaffeinated green coffee from a reputable vendor, and their decaf green coffees should be of the same quality as their fully fueled beans. And since it can be notoriously tricky to find a killer cup of decaf, roasting your own allows you to create your own perfect version.
1) Coffee breathes.
Keep your green coffee away from anything with a strong scent, and be sure to store it in a cool, dry place. While cloth or burlap is fine for the hold of a ship or the back of an 18-wheeler, for home storage, a tightly sealed Ziploc bag or an airtight container is best.
2) Raw coffee can change subtly over time.
Over a long enough period of time (many, many months) raw coffee can lose its lively freshness, but it can also gain additional body. Some coffees are aged intentionally for this effect. In the most extreme example, Monsooned Malabar has almost no sparkle at all, but tons of body. At home, this change is almost imperceptibly gradual. If you're holding beans at home for less than six months, don't sweat it.
1) Never walk away from a roaster that’s roasting.
No matter how tempting it is to step away for a moment, DON'T. Just like a batch of cookies, coffee can get away from you quickly. It's better to hover nearby. And remember, a safe roaster is one that's unplugged when not in use.
2) Don’t smoke yourself out.
All roasters emit a certain amount of smoke (some more than others), so always be sure to roast your coffee in a well-ventilated area, such a porch or garage.
3) Size matters.
The larger the batch, the more it will continue to coast into a darker color as you begin the cooling process, so plan for that. A smaller batch will roast faster than a larger one. A faster roast tends to be a little brighter, while a slower roast tends to have more body. Also, all roasting produces some smoke, but large batches generate more smoke than smaller batches.
4) Time is part of the recipe.
Once roasted, pay attention to how long the coffee needs to rest before it tastes best to you. It might seem contrary to the idea of freshness, but if your coffee begins to sing at four, five, even six days out, then plan ahead for that. Some coffees will be perfect the day after roasting, while some espresso blends find greatness more than a week later.
5) Try blending a coffee to itself.
Here's some homework: Roast a few batches of the same coffee—dark, light, and in between. Note how they taste different on their own, then start mixing the batches together. Some combinations will go muddy; others will become vibrant. You can have a lot of fun with this, and knowing one particular coffee well will give you greater insight if you do decide to introduce other beans into your blend.
Read about home roasters perfecting their craft in their own backyards.