Roasting coffee on a Sunday (better than church)

In honour of Koran-burning, rabble-rousing Pastor Terry Jones and his ecstatic (read wacko) disciples, I decided to write a blog about something better to do with a Sunday than going to church. Roasting coffee!

Yes folks it’s actually more productive and fun than voodoo, witchdoctery and inciting other religious nut-jobs to violence, and if you do it right you won’t get anyone on the other side of the world beheaded. Right on!

People like Pastor Jones and Mullah Omar (for they are closely related species) could even use coffee roasting as a kind of non-violent therapy. Roast beans instead of witches! Peace.

Seriously though, I decided to roast coffee beans today because the news from the world outside my little apartment was just too depressing. It was my therapy for the disturbing madness of people like Jones and his counterparts in Afghanistan and Indonesia etc.

So I went to the helpful breworganic.com and read up on the basics. Pretty simple really, much as I had guessed from watching coffee being roasted at a shop in France years ago. You can use popcorn poppers to get an even roast but I don’t have one of those so I used a wok. The website mentions using a frying pan but as woks are made to evenly distribute heat over a larger surface I thought I’d go with one of those instead.

I didn’t bother measuring the temperature in the wok. I just put it on a medium-high heat for a couple of minutes so it was good and hot, threw in about a cup of beans and started stirring.

I’d bought the beans a few months ago in East Timor. Timor is famous for its coffee, but the tiny little country has hardly any industry so it’s not that great at marketing its products. I bought two kilograms (four pounds) of green beans and two of roasted beans from a wiry, cheerful old man in a wooden shack near Dili airport. If I was Elizabeth Gilbert I might have stayed for a while and asked him to read my palm. But I’m not Elizabeth Gilbert so I paid him a nice tip over his heartbreakingly low asking price of around $5 a kilogram and went on my way. The roasted beans were great, and when I finished them last week it was time to get the green ones out of the freezer and try roasting them myself.

The coffeereview website sums up East Timorese coffee thus:

In terms of taste, most current versions of Timor are typical for small-holder wet-processed coffees from the islands of the Malay Archipelago: Low-key, sweet, with a musty pungency that can range from soft and intriguing to hard and oppressive. However, the very best and cleanest-tasting Timors can be extraordinary: full, round, smooth, sweet, and deliciously cocoa-toned. These coffees, already promising, may continue to improve as the first decade of the millennium unfolds.

By way of explanation for tea drinkers like my Taliban friends, coffee is all about freshness. They say green beans will keep for about two years, roasted beans for about two weeks and ground beans for two hours. Or something like that. I can’t really tell the difference, but then again I’ve never drunk coffee that I was 100% sure was freshly roasted – another good reason to roast my own.

The trick, according to breworganic, is to keep stirring. You don’t need any oil or anything in the pan – just chuck in the beans and stir. Coffee beans are flat on one side and curved on the other, so naturally they tend to fall on the flat side. Keep stirring to make sure the curved side gets its share of the heat.

After a couple of minutes they start to brown. Then they start to audibly crack. The experts have a very technical term for this phase of the process. They call it the “first crack”. Just keep stirring. You’ll see the beans getting browner. By this stage, after four minutes or so in my case, the beans were light brown and had reached what’s called a light or cinnamon roast. I could have taken them off the heat then but I wanted a darker roast, in the Italian or French style, so I kept stirring.

I’d bought some lightly roasted New Guinean beans in Paris a while ago and didn’t like their grassy, sour taste. Basically the more you roast the more flavours you get in the coffee.

After a few more minutes my beans started to smoke. I had to open the door and windows to avoid setting off the fire alarms. This is a normal reaction, so I kept stirring. Then the beans started to crack again. Strangely enough, the experts call this phase the “second crack”. Now I knew I was close. I was lifting the wok to toss the beans around, while stirring all the time, much like a stir-fry. Even so, some beans looked darker than others. That’s normal in a do-it-yourself roasting operation like mine, I suppose. It took about 10 minutes to get the beans nice and dark the way I wanted them.

The next picture shows the lightly roasted New Guinean beans on the top left, some  Sumatran beans I’d bought in a supermarket in Jakarta on the top right, and my home-roasted Timorese beans below.

You can see the greener Papua beans are dry compared to the more oily Sumatran and Timorese beans, which have been roasted longer.

They say you should leave the beans for 24 hours to allow the chemical processes started with the roasting to run their course. So I’ll have to wait a night before I get to blend my beans and brew them in my Italian-style percolator. With a bit of toast and honey, hopefully it will make for a great Monday morning!

And I did it all without getting any blood on my hands, unlike the American pastor.

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