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September 1999 Issue
Bean There... Done That.
by Chris Schaefer
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This, the last of the appliance reviews, focuses on a new category; the coffee bean roaster. We began our adventure last year, with coffee grinders and espresso machines. Next I showed you, the reader, what to look for when purchasing such common kitchen appliances as slow cookers and mixers. We have come full circle. It is my sincere hope that when you have finished reading this, you will be prepared to indulge yourself into the next best thing in regards to home specialty coffee.

"Coffee is ROASTED?"
That's right. Coffee beans are actually the seed of a berry, which grows on coffee trees and shrubs. These plants favor semi-tropical climates and can be grown at varying altitudes. It is harvested once, sometimes twice, a year either by hand or mechanical means. The cherries are processed (I'll discuss processing more in a following article) and the seeds, the beans, extracted and are also processed. By some means or another, the whole beans make its way on to the soil of the coffee drinking land that purchased it.

Specialty, or "gourmet" coffee is sold to either large roasteries, or green coffee (raw coffee) brokers. From the roaster it is then sorted and perhaps processed once again before being roasted in large drum machines. The roasted coffee is sealed in bags and then shipped to you the consumer. Some green coffee is sold to smaller roasteries, called shop roasters or batch roasters. These roasteries usually roast a mere fraction of what the larger roasteries produce and sell either right on the premise or by other means. Check your phone book. You may be surprised to find that you have a local roastery right by you!

Coffee can be purchased still in its raw form and roasted at home too. First, let's discuss the different methods of roasting coffee.

I mentioned above that larger roasteries use drum-shaped machines. These are akin to extra-large clothes drying machines, if you pardon the liberalness of my imagination. Heat is brought to the drum either by means of gas-fed fire, electrical means, or infra-red means. The heat then enters the batch of beans through the metal in the drums. This is called "conductive roasting." A sub-class of conduction roasters, called combination drum roasting, incorporates a stream of hot air into the drum while heat is being added to the walls of the drum. Example: roasting coffee on a cookie sheet in your oven.

Which brings us to hot-air roasting. If one forces a powerful stream of very hot air up into a mass of particle, it suspends and cooks those particles. This is called convection roasting. The hot-air quickly and efficiently drives energy into the green coffee beans. Thus, convection roasting takes less time than conduction roasting. However, there is a limit to how large a mass one can roast using convection. It's a trade-off. Example: roasting coffee with a hot-air corn popper. (The manufacturers of hot-air corn poppers prohibit the use of their product for means other than what is originally intended for: corn. Thus, the use of any appliance for any other means than what was originally intended for, voids the manufacturer from liability and damages.)

Finally, the use of infra-red waves to roast. This method also is efficient in delivering energy into the beans, but takes somewhat a longer time than convection roasting. The end-product, many claim, lies between a conduction and convection in terms of quality.

What's Available on the Market
As this is still a very, very new product to the consumer's market, there are only a few listing available. Actually, this is a good thing for us as consumers. Why? If you don't like one roaster, you can return it and easily pick up the next one. By the end of a month, if you haven't found a roaster you like, you won't.

Let's begin with conduction and infra-red roasters. Currently, at the time of this writing, there is no conduction roaster available for sale. One manufacturer, SwissMar, is planning on releasing a roaster called the "Alpenroast" sometime in the future. Also, there is only one manufacturer for I-R (infra-red) roasters who is selling in the U.S. "RoyalMax" (formerly "Unimax") sells a 1/2 pound and 2.2 pound roaster. They are currently undergoing a business re-organization and all products are on back order. A web search or going directly to http://www.unimaxcoffee.com will provide you with more details. In short, the raw coffee is loaded from the top, the unit is programmed for a desired time, and the beans spit out when finished. While this machine is costly, it does provide the user with a fairly easy method that is also relatively quick. Some owners suggest that, in order to ensure consistency from roast to roast, one must also consistently provide their own care and maintenance program for their roaster. In all cases, this is a very good idea.

The most popular roasters on the market now are of the convection variety. The first company, Fresh Roast, sells for around 130$ - 150$US. It is only capable of roasting 2.5 ounces of raw coffee, by volume. The yield, while quick, is also quickly used up as it is sometimes not enough to make one ten-cup pot of drip brewed coffee. Per SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) standards, it takes roughly 3 - 3.5 ounces of green coffee to provide enough for 10 - 12 cups of drip brewed coffee.

Which brings us to two models from the Hearthware company. The "Gourmet" and "Precision" models of roaster utilize either a swirling stream of air or a vertical forced flow, respectively. Owners of the "Gourmet" model speak highly of its ability to collect chaff (a paper-like by-product created by the heat of the roast ripping a very thin skin of material form the bean's surface) and its glass globe but also mention that it is a very loud product. In an apartment or flat, I would not personally recommend the use of this product. Its brother, the "Precision" offers an easier to use control panel and also a visible roasting chamber. It is reminiscent in style to that of the Fresh Roast. While not on the market at the time of this writing, it is suggested to retail at 150$ or more. Both models are capable of roasting 3.5 or roughly 1/2 cup of green coffee.

All roasters come with one way or another for the consumer to replenish their stocks of green coffee. One such manufacturer has paired up with a very popular broker who has been in the business for a long time. This type of partnership suggests a strong commitment to quality on both party's part. And is good news for the customer.

Finally, a popular appliance manufacturer, West Bend, has entered the market with the launch of their new product line "wb." This roaster, like the Hearthware models, is capable of roasting 3.5 ounces of green coffee. Unlike the bulky appearance of its competitors, the "wb" features sleek curves both on its body as well as its removable glass roasting chamber and lid. Built into the product is a removable chaff collector.

One advantage that the new "wb" has over its competition is its controls. To date, the "wb" is the only roaster to feature a programmable digital control with an LCD screen. It also has three built-in pre-programmed times for a light, medium, and dark roast. The "wb" also has a custom setting, which allows the user to program any time they desire. This model, debuting in August 1999 will retail for 130$ and up. More information can be gleaned from http://www.wbproducts.com.

Advantages Galore
Quite simply, the best tasting coffee you will ever make is that coffee that was roasted only a couple days before you grind and then brew it. It makes the argument of home roasting very strong. Additionally, green coffee is nearly half the cost of roasted coffee, on a per pound basis.

"So, where can I buy green coffee?" Mentioned above, each manufacturer has paired with one source or another for buying more green coffee. But this is where we truly see the benefits of Internet commerce. For a full list of available on-line retailers of green, visit http://www.homeroast.com.

Also, roasting at home allows you to make an infinite number of blends to please your palate. You can blend coffees of different origins and degrees of roast to produce an exact range of tastes that you prefer most. Also, blending could potentially help you save on cost in addition to the money you're saving from roasting at home in the first place.

And the disadvantages? Well, roasting at home is very easy … especially with the new products available. However, roasting coffee produces some smoke and may produce small particles of chaff (mentioned above). While this alone should not deter you from roasting, follow the manufacturer's recommended usage of the product to ensure that your experiences with it are as positive as possible. Allow yourself a couple of times to screw up before you learn all the ins and outs of this new and exciting culinary art.

In Conclusion....
I mention above the important role the Internet has played in helping promote home roasting. (Thank You, Al.) I highly encourage anyone who might harbor interest in home roasting to visit the above sites and those you might also find via web searches. There is a wealth of knowledge and opinion available. Experiment. Take the time to learn more about it and the origins of America's favourite hot beverage. As always, I also encourage you to email me with any questions or comments you might have. Enjoy!



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