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Their cup of tea: home-roasted coffee

Businesses grow to fill need for beans, tools

ARLINGTON, Va. -- America's most finicky coffee drinkers exhibit their caffeine connoisseurship in many, often contradictory, ways. They spend a bundle at Starbucks, or refuse to patronize big chains. They drink only espresso, or decline any cup of joe they didn't brew themselves.

Then there are people like Chris Becker of Arlington, whose coffee worship involves a ritual that places him at the outer edge of the country's java culture.

Becker roasts coffee beans at home.

"Even my less-than-good batches are fresher than any [beans] I'd buy in a store," said Becker, a 30-year-old government employee who uses a gas grill to transform flavorless green coffee beans into savory dark-brown kernels that he then grinds and brews within a few days, if not hours.

It doesn't require a lot of time, money, or equipment to roast coffee beans at home -- less than 10 minutes in an air popcorn popper does the trick -- but enthusiasts devote plenty of each to the craft.

Home roasters congregate at websites such as coffeegeek.com, where they exchange techniques; they get together in person to sample, or "cup," each other's beans; and many maintain log books, where they record details such as the amount of time and heat applied to each batch they roast.

"Some guys are over the top," said Dave Borton of Monroe, Wis., who has been roasting at home since January, belongs to an Internet-based bean buyers club, and gives away about two pounds of freshly roasted beans every week to friends. "My wife would tell you I am over the top."

To cater to this tiny-but-growing market, a cottage industry that exists mostly online has blossomed over the past decade, selling countertop electric roasters that cost anywhere from $75 to $500 and green coffee beans from the world's best growing regions priced at around $5 a pound.

Perhaps the most popular purveyor of green coffee beans is Oakland, Calif.-based sweetmarias.com, which sells around 400,000 pounds a year, according Maria Troy, who has run the business for nine years with her husband, Thompson Owen, the founder and something of a folk hero in the home-roasting community.

Sweet Maria's offers customers more than 60 varieties of beans from Central America, Africa, and Asia. Prices range from $4.45 to $29.90 a pound.

There are also plenty of smaller distributors of green beans.

Dean's Beans, a 12-year-old Orange, Mass.-based seller of organic roasted beans began selling green beans about 18 months ago after customers requested them. Without any advertising, the company now sells a couple hundred pounds a week, and owner Dean Cycon said "if we put the pedal to the metal on green beans, we could actually support an entirely separate company."

Dennis Robbins of Kernersville, N.C., meanwhile, launched thecaptainscoffee.com in 2003 and now sells about 18,000 pounds a year. Robbins first learned about home roasting a few years earlier while listening to a radio program about coffee.

"It was like the difference between a tomato bought in the supermarket and one grown in your garden," he said.

Spend time talking with any home-roasting aficionado and it quickly becomes clear that, as with many hobbies, the pleasure comes from the process as much as it does the end product.

To Borton, a human resources manager at a community college, the appeal of roasting beans is that "it's tactile."

"I work with ideas and abstract material all day," he added. "This is something I can take from my hands and give to another person."

Similarly, Becker said that what got him hooked on roasting just as much as the quality of the coffee was "the creation." Then, after considering his initial response, Becker smiled and conceded there was another attraction: "the gadgets."

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