A good cup of coffee is likely the most popular beverage in the USA.
A GREAT cup of coffee is a memorable experience.
People talk about the time and place where they had a great cuppa joe for years.
For the price of cheap, stale, mediocre mass-market coffee you can have memorable coffee every day if you are willing to put 20 minutes a week into roasting it yourself.
Step 1: Why Roast Your Own Coffee?
While perhaps the big fish in the small pond effect, neither I nor those I have shared with can find coffee as good as my fresh roast anywhere near our part of Montana. Personally, I prefer mine to any big city coffee I have tasted. I will explain my theory on why later.
I can buy green beans every six months and have freshly roasted coffee every day.
So can you.
Step 2: Roasting Equipment
I graduated from gourmet coffee in stores and mail-order to buying green beans and a hot air coffee roaster ($180 or so). My first air roaster burned out while still under warranty. Plan B was an emergency. I burned my second one out as well. Stove-top roasting, once mastered is as reliable as your heat source.
Drum roasters run $400 on up ... to way-up. I don't think they improve the coffee (maybe not as good), while taking more space than my kit.
I also tried a clever old-school stove-top popcorn popper with a handle outside for stirring the contents. Nope. I couldn't tell what was going on inside. The thin aluminum construction was probably not good for this purpose either.
Any low-to-medium heat element will work, but you do not want to do this indoors unless you have an excellent way to draw the smoke off the pot and out of the house. I built a fan shroud to draw the smoke off the top of the pot and out the window because outdoor or garage roasting in Montana winters is out of the question. On moderate days a campstove outside works as good as anything.
I bought a thrift-store copper-bottomed stainless-steel Revere-ware pot in a thrift store for a few bucks. Remember that this is called "roasting coffee". You want a pan that is deeper than a frypan or skillet. You will never need a lid for it. You need a metal colander to dump the cooked coffee in and stir while it cools. I have two that I move back and forth between for faster cooling, but that is not necessary. A wide pan with sides would work as well, but the colander lets the chaff flake off and out.
I prefer a wooden stir stick. My spurtle has a little width to it and shape that facilitates good even mixing of the beans. Slots are bad because the beans get caught up in them, but most anything can work for stirring.
Finally, you will wish for gloves. It is hot around the pot and beans.
Step 3: Green Coffee Beans
Coffee beans are surprisingly complex and varied.
My gold standard supplier is Sweet Maria's.
Start there with either their four or eight pound sample set. You will get diversified cultivars of beans from assorted regions and different growing conditions.
The language of coffee is rich and varied. The beans are crucial to your result. Experimenting with a number of different beans at several roasting levels will teach you the language and enable you to decide what you really like when good choices are available.
Step 4: Heat and Stir, Stir, Stir
I put about a cup of green beans into my pot, light the burner adjusted to low/medium and begin my constant stirring.
This step should take 15-20 minutes. Quicker is probably too hot while lower heat simply won't get the job done at all.
I have found 2-to-3 inches of green beans to be about right. Your pot should not be more than about a quarter full. Too full will spill out, while too deep is hard to stir and keep the heat shared evenly between the beans.
Develop a stirring pattern that keeps the beans moving from against the hot bottom to up and away. You are trying to roast. You do not want to fry any of them.
Nothing happens for a while. Then you will see some beans turning from green to yellow, then tan. Keep going. It is starting to happen now.
Brown comes along with The First Crack. The outer shell of each bean has to crack before any coffee flavor is available. This first crack is sharper, louder than the second crack. Many, perhaps most of the beans will complete their first crack before the quieter second crack begins for some of them.
Step 5: The Critical Juncture
Your moment of truth is at the beginning of the second crack.
When you look at gourmet coffee in clear bulk-dispenser store displays, most are light brown, moving into a small percentage really dark, even oily at the extreme. That is how tastes in coffee run. Every factor makes a difference, but the roaster can make or break any batch of beans around this second crack.
When quite a few beans have emitted that quieter second crack, transfer the batch to your cooling tray, pan or colander and stir to get the heat out of them. You will have a light-brown batch that looks like mainstream coffee and, if your tastes run this way, will be lovely.
The further you cook, the more the end result moves from what Sweet Maria's calls the flavor OF THE COFFEE into the flavor of THE ROAST. In other words, some of the complexities are shifted from one flavor to another.
Experiment in this area. Roast the same beans different ways. You will be amazed at the flavor varieties available from bean to bean, roast to roast.
I keep going. I want nearly all of the beans in the batch through their second crack. Note I said most, not all.
It will be increasingly smokey, but if the smoke starts smelling burnt, your beans are starting to be burnt. STOP! Quickly!!! Cool It Fast.
Another caution: The roast will darken even after you have taken the main heat away from their surface. They are still hot inside. Do stop a little lighter in color than your desired end result.
Step 6: Handling Your Prize Coffee
Premium big city roasters consider coffee unusable until it has aired out for 14 hours and degraded after 48. I compromise and roast about every 10 days, but admit the first days are better.
Most people grinding whole coffee beans whack them into uneven
particle size from dust to chunks with a high-speed spinning blade. You should do better than that.
I have a couple of hand-crank mills that crumble the beans between two grinding surfaces producing less dust, no large chunks, and none of the damaging heat of your bean whacker. Electric versions like the Cuisinart Burr Mill are far more practical. I have two different brands under $50 each that are both very nice. Of course a hand-crank model in case of power failure is a must for insurance purposes.
If you have a percolator, run over it with a truck. Boiling coffee kills it... dead... destroyed. Reheating even without boiling is also bad juju. Microwave, ugh... gag me.
French presses are nice, but it is even better to get every bit of your ground coffee including the fines away from your brew after about four minutes. This calls for filter papers.
Here too, I compromise. I can get slightly better flavor other ways, but using a Melita #6 cone and filters produces a carafe of coffee that stays hot without boiling away on a hot plate or requiring reheating.
Step 7: Final Notes, Video
Some will say that stove-top roasting lacks the uniformity that a high-end home or commercial drum roaster achieves. While that is certainly true, I now believe that to be one of the reasons my coffee is regarded as better than commercial. That the beans are at several stages of roast brings greater variety of flavors to the brew.
The video clip below is a few years old, but my process has not changed significantly in that time. I would upgrade the videoography were I doing it again, and add that I now prefer Guatemalan beans. Importantly, listen to the difference in the first and second crack on the audio track, but I think you will notice yourself even your first time through.
I published this information at my website. It was written for a different audience, so says the same thing with different words and cadence. You can check it out here: http://www.teddunlap.net/coffee-roasting/