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Bean town

Local coffee aficionados use everything from pots to popcorn poppers to pricey machines to join the home roasting boom

By Devra First
Globe Staff / June 11, 2008

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Lynne Biziewski of Lynn uses a pot on an electric stove. Tyler Hunt of Jamaica Plain uses a Behmor or Gene Cafe drum roaster. Bob Yellin of Underhill, Vt., uses a German machine from the '80s that he's tricked out with a thermocouple and a proportional-integral-derivative controller, splitting the heater and fan into separate voltage outputs. (No, you don't need to understand what that means.) All are practitioners of the art of home coffee roasting, which can be as complicated or as basic as you want it to be. Regardless of your approach, it may well produce the best cup of coffee you've ever had.

"It takes 12 minutes, that's it, and you've got the freshest coffee in the world," Biziewski says.

As the Internet makes supplies and educational resources readily available, and as more affordable machines hit the market, home roasting is growing in popularity. Websites such as Sweet Maria's and Coffee Geek offer a platform for roasters to discuss topics such as "Advice on roast profile for Guatemalan Huehuetenango" and "Espresso machine follies - am I cursed?" Yellin, who has been roasting since the '70s, is a cupper (or taster) for the Green Coffee Cooperative, whose members join forces to buy large amounts of unroasted beans. "The membership has just exploded," he says. "We have close to 1,000 members now. Without the Internet, it would not exist."

Why do they bother? Coffee beans are at their best within a few days of roasting; by the time they reach your grinder, they're often past their peak. People roast their own coffee for the same reason they bake bread: It's that much better than store-bought. A first taste of these beans can be a real eye-opener, for reasons that have nothing to do with caffeine. The brew they produce is vibrant, bold, nuanced, with a great range of flavor - it's as if you've had a cold every other time you've tasted coffee, and now it's finally cleared.

Roasting your own is also a way to connect with what you consume, a la making your own cheese or brewing beer: part and parcel of the artisanal aesthetic. It connects you to a coffee's source. Many purveyors of green beans provide extensive information about the places beans are from and the people who cultivate them. Roasting a single variety of bean rather than a blend can be a window into a site's terroir. "I'm a single-origin guy," Hunt says. "If you're going to take the time and roast on your own, for me it's about tasting and appreciating different origins, not throwing things together."

Terroir, cupping, appreciating complex aromas and flavors. The coffee aficionado's mind-set is not so different from the wine aficionado's. "Coffee hasn't reached the status of wine, but it's heading in that direction," says Yellin. There's a substantial difference between the two, however: control. "With wine, you get what's in the bottle," Yellin says. "There are a limited number of ways you can vary it. But with coffee you can start from the beginning. You buy a seed, you roast the seed, you roast it any number of ways - darker, lighter. Then there's probably half a dozen major ways you can prepare it."

Home roasting may sound like the highest form of coffee geekery, but getting started is quite simple. "Basic home coffee roasting ranks in difficulty somewhere between boiling an egg and making a good white sauce," writes Kenneth Davids in "Home Coffee Roasting: Romance & Revival," a hobbyist's bible. Of course, not everyone's a believer - some say home roasts will never be as good as professional. But for anyone who cares about coffee, it's worth a try. Even if you don't love the results, you'll have learned something about the dark elixir that has the power to bring zombies back to life.

The first step is to select your device. This can be a pan and a spoon for stirring, a method that requires vigilance. It can be a home-roasting machine, available for under $100 to well over $1,000. It can be a stovetop popcorn popper with a crank, or a hot air popcorn popper with side vents. This is important, as vents placed elsewhere can lead to conflagration. Popular models include West Bend's Poppery and Poppery II, which are no longer being produced; it's a safe bet the manufacturer never imagined the heated eBay bidding wars that would one day ensue among home roasters over its products.

Frankly, your equipment can be just about anything. Ingenuity is a hallmark of the home-roasting community. "There are two major characteristics of human beings who do this," says Yellin. "No. 1 is the love of good coffee and wanting to do it themselves because they can't find the quality of roasted coffee on the market. Another is a love of tinkering with things."

Home roasters rewire poppers, hook up laptops to various devices, drill holes to install thermometers. They build drums and fit them to rotate over grills. (The benefits of drum roasting vs. air roasting are a subject of debate, as are many things coffee-related.) There's even a contingent of people who roast their beans in stainless steel dog bowls using heat guns. Not surprisingly, when perusing her customer list, Maria Troy of Sweet Maria's finds quite a few e-mail addresses for MIT students and alumni.

Started by Thompson Owen, Troy's husband, Sweet Maria's is based out of Oakland, Calif. It's one of the best sources for green beans, roasters, and other paraphernalia. The site offers encyclopedic information on coffee and home roasting. Closer to home, the George Howell Coffee Co. in Acton - the outfit of the eponymous Boston coffee guru/single-origin missionary - is another that sells green beans, as does Karma Coffee Roasters in Sudbury.

Green beans are considerably less expensive than roasted. For example, at Sweet Maria's, a pound of unroasted Java longberry cultivar from Nicaragua's Limoncillo Estate is $5.90, while roasted it's $10. But ask many home roasters whether they save money with their hobby and they'll laugh, remembering the beans they sacrificed aiming for that perfect roast, thinking of the different devices they've collected.

Once you've got some green beans in your roaster, apply heat and wait. Soon the beans begin to smell, not like coffee so much as hay or toast, with background notes of burning, cocoa, and perhaps a touch of gasoline. Some find the strong aroma unpleasant. Others love it. Either way, it lingers, so many prefer to roast outside or near a window.

After a few minutes the coffee begins to make little popping noises. This stage is called "first crack." The beans are expanding, their sugars beginning to caramelize. After first crack, you can stop the process for a light roast, or keep going. Soon you will reach second crack, another round of popping noises. The longer beans roast, the more caffeine burns off. Darker roasts have less caffeine.

Suppliers of green beans will often suggest how far to roast each varietal, generally on the spectrum from city roast (after first crack is completed, when a thermometer registers 425-435 degrees Fahrenheit) on up to a very dark French roast (after second crack, at 470-490 degrees). When you are starting to roast and don't yet know what to look for, the addition of a thermometer can be incredibly helpful. Once the beans are where you want them, pour them into a colander and stir or toss till they're cool. Note that roasting can be messy, as the chaff that's separated from the beans tends to fly about.

After the beans sit for a few hours or overnight, grind some up and make yourself a cup of coffee. Taste. What do you think? As with any art, it's easy to pick up the basics of home roasting. Now comes the rest: modifications to your equipment, blending, experimenting with times and temperatures, fast and slow roasts. This could be the beginning of an obsession.

As Hunt says, "I found a roaster at a thrift store, I found some green beans, and it's been an addiction and a hobby ever since."

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.