Archive for the ‘roasting’ Category

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about roast styles.  I often receive coffees from friends and customers who travel thither and yon and bring back a bag of the local XYZ Roaster’s coffee.  Almost always I find something interesting and tasty in the bag (my friends/customers know not to bring back cat poop coffee or its equivalents).  But anymore, I also am finding a rise, albeit an anecdotal one, in the prevalence of ultra lightly roasted coffee.

I say “ultra lightly roasted” when I mean to say “something that borders on a cupping-for-defects roast coloration,” which is to say, just at the end of the last crackle of first crack and well, well before the approach of second.  If a roast moves from the beginning of first crack to the beginning of second crack in, say, three minutes, these roasts are probably being dropped at 1:30 to 1:50…maybe a late as 2:00.

My personal sensibilities have some issues with this.  My first issue comes upon visual inspection.  Thumbnail down into these beans and crack them open and it’s a rare day in which you see an even strata of roast coloration over the cross section of the bean.  You find the zebra-striping that comes when the drupe’s (coffee bean’s) foldovers show a light outer layer, followed by a noticeably darker subsequent inner layer, and yet another lighter fold inside of that.  Uneven.  And this, to my brain, means the very real potential for misdevelopment.  If a drupe has not had enough time to develop its sugars evenly, this will be evidenced by uneven coloration.  Sugars get more and more brown the more they have been baked, cooked, roasted, broiled, etc.  The colors tell the tale.  And if the colors are “off” then it only follows that the taste is, well, in some way, off.  And that’s kind of the thing.  Often they look really handsome on the outside.  But break them open and you will see they have not been developed evenly–whether by roasting too quickly or by dropping too soon after first (or even to have plowed through the early drying stages)–so as to create an optimum baseline from which to derive tasty liquid of them.  When things look a certain way, there’s a reason.  A cause.

That’s my first issue.  The second is of course, taste.  One hand holds the other.

Externally lovely or not, sugar doesn’t lie.  It either is developed well or it isn’t.  And in coffee a well-executed roast is nothing short of a needle a good roaster must thread to find just the right level of sugar development.  Not too light, and certainly not too dark.  Goldilocks.  Just.  Right.  Every. Time.

But I think I’m in a currently shrinking minority here.  The trend most definitely seems to have swung again back to these very lightly done offerings that, frankly, all taste hay-like and vegetal.  Like quakers.  Which–help me understand–why would you spend good money on non-quakered coffee, only to have it look and taste a little like quakers?

Let me not cause a misunderstanding here.  I am not sitting on my perch from on high claiming what is acceptable and unacceptable in roast profiles.  Do as you please, please.  Nor am I saying one style is superior or inferior.  I am only trying to get to the why of why people would flirt so close to the edge of underdevelopment as to be underdeveloped?

I’m looking for someone to make the solid case as to why Roaster X would roast so lightly and leave so much real flavor via proper sugar development on the table…make the case other than trends and fads.  More importantly, who are the roasters out there doing a really great job at sugar development so we can tout their skills and support them?


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First Kiss

Buying season is upon us.  This is that frenetic time of the year when many diligent roasters act like diligent ants and begin to store up provisions for much of the rest of the year.  I am no exception.

But what this sometimes reminds me of is how many first time visitors to coffee producing countries view and experience the phenomenon of tasting coffees on their home soils.

Cast your mind.  Young buyer (I include myself in that group still) heads off to some Central American country.  Meets a couple farmers; maybe hits up a national coffee association.  And this being harvest time the roaster is invited to cup some of the new crop.  It is sweet, alluring, fresh and alive.  And the roaster is beguiled.  And he wants to sell his soul to acquire this special lot that no one else will have.  And possess it.  And have dominion over it.  And be the envy of all his other roaster friends.

And so forth, ad nauseum.

This is what I call the First Kiss Syndrome.  Everything is set perfectly.  The angels are singing and playing their harps, and it seems like heaven itself is smiling upon the match of you and this perfect creation of a coffee.

And so you make the move.  You purchase the coffee.  And a few weeks later it arrives at your roasting facility.  And you think again at how massive you will be with this coffee by your side.  And you roast up some samples.  And you wait the requisite time to consummate your tastebuds with the coffee.  And the day comes.  And you set up your cupping table the way a bridegroom prepares the bedchamber for his lovely new bride.  And the water is heated.  And the steam of it is rising.  And the anticipation grows to a silent roar.

And you…break the crust.  And….

well, it may have been less than you had built up in your mind.  Frankly, you are now trying to recall exactly what it is you saw in this coffee the first time around.  Maybe you were drunk the first time you came in contact with it.  Or maybe you were just in lurve.

That first kiss can be tricky.

My point is this.  Emotions are serious things to keep in check.  So often I have been guilty of buying as much on emotion as on principle, when the exact opposite should as often be the guiding principle of the day.  Let your customers buy on emotion.  Your job is to sell the steak, but it is also to sell the sizzle.

But first, your job is to buy the right cut of meat, and that is done purely by empirical observation, not with the heart.

Sorry to mix metaphors.

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I’ve said this a bunch of times over my short coffee life:  Dealing with water is the most important part of the roasting process.  More important, methinks, than the latter stages of approach into first and possibly even than the final drop point.

I say it without any science to back it up (this is where you can chime in); but only what I consider to be common sense and my own experiences with my own quirky roaster.

Here’s my thinking.  When greens are first dropped into the roaster they have more ingredients in them than at any time in the roasting process.  Not only are they at their standard 10-12% water content, but Strecker/Maillard has not had a chance to reduce or eliminate any sugars.  You have all the cards in the deck still intact. 

Once water content gets to zero, of course, we start cracking and we move from one type of coffee preparation to another–we go from the cooking actions we do when the steak is first put on the grill, for instance, to the actions we do when the steak has been seared and sealed and now it just needs to continue to cook through to completion.   But prior to that period, during the initial drying stages, one’s approach to getting from twelve per cent to zero per cent water can shape the final approaches into first and beyond and can have a drastic effect on how the coffee will ultimately taste.

I have known roasters who say that the way to attack density/acidity in high-grown coffees is with heat.  They charge at 400, 410, 415 in hopes of keeping the bottom-of-the-curve temp high enough to dry the coffees in what they consider to be an acceptable amount of time.  Another way of viewing this is that they want to dry out all the water in the first 6-7 minutes so that their approach to first shows up at what they’ve been told/taught is within the proper time frame of 9-10 minutes.  I’m not saying 9-10 minutes to first crack is or isn’t proper, good, right.  I’m saying depending on the physical dynamics of the greens, the drum, the ambient space in the drum and how the roaster works there is often a lot of sweetness being left on the table, or, better put, in the roaster.

I’m not trying to project my own tastes and sensibilities on anyone.  I’m merely saying my own empirical testing has shown sweeter, more interesting cups when I slow down the drying stage and hit first in the 12-13 minute area and then slow things down for a 16-17 drop time, before the final approach to second (which I rarely, if ever, hit).

My point here is to ask what others’ approach is to the early stages and what body of experience they have employed in coming to that roasting philosophy.  I simply don’t hear enough discussion about the early drying stages versus the discussion-heavy first through second crack techniques people apply.

Add here the caveat that every coffee is, of course, different and maybe there’s enough ammo to start a little roasters’ discussion.  Bueller?

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IF you’ve been a fan of Brown for a while you know about our DIY roaster, lovingly known as Big Brown.  A few weeks ago Big Brown went under the knife yet again to revamp her ducting, cooling and chaff collection system (all basically intertwined).  The results since she’s been back online have been a keen clarification of roasts that are more on point due, I think, to more optimized airflow.  

Basically, Big Brown received a helping hand from a reclaimed “squirrel fan” that pulls air upward through the ducting into the rafters beyond the drop ceiling, through the fan itself and out the ducting through the roof.  We also added an overhead exhaust vent overhead above the hopper/front face of the roaster to draw off ambient smoke (read:  as when you drop beans into the cooling tray).

The final big improvement is the reintroduction of our old beer keg cum chaff collector.  Originally this was to be the guts of a larger cyclone chaff collector, but upon my protestations, my father in law encased the cyclone he built into the beer keg–a mistake at the time, since it underpowered the chaff sucking necessary.  With the new system the cyclone is modified inside the keg and uses negative pressure to keep the chaff swirling downward to a hole in the bottom, while a filter was fashioned around the internal fan to keep it from being gummed up with chaff.  Any still-swirling chaff falls through the floor hole once the power is cut and is collected in a large bucket…for now.  The backside exhaust from the beer keg is legged through a dryer vent ducting stretch and clipped on the top side of Big Brown’s hopper, feeding very nicely into the overhead vent hood.  

Pics will follow, I suppose.

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