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A Home Roasting Primer
Home >> Other >> Home Roasting >> Primer

A Home Roasting Primer

Hearthware closeup

Why Homeroast? Is this something only the truly obsessed and tyros out there are doing? Have you even heard of the act of "home roasting" your coffee? Maybe three or four years ago it was something that the average coffee enthusiast never thought possible, but today, thanks to the Internet, things are changing. Homeroasting, once done by everyone then done by no one, is now being "done" again.

Up until about 160 years ago, most people who enjoyed coffee roasted it in the home. Then the trend started shifting. Companies like Arbuckles started selling prepackaged, roasted coffee. The road to convenience, efficiency, and time savings had begun. By the time the 20th century commenced, home roasting in North America was on the serious decline, and after World War II, anyone who home roasted was almost considered a crank or eccentric. At best, they were considered "quaint".

Blame it on Ariosa from Arbuckles. Blame it on Yuban. Blame it on Maxwell Instant Coffee. And blame it on the quest for convenience, a road that often sacrifices quality along the way.

Now before you go thinking that things were necessarily better for all back when, I won't fool you: home roasting in the 19th century was spartan and decidedly low tech. Burnt and scorched beans were often the result, and the pan was the most favoured roasting method. The average person just roasted beans, and didn't care for blending or roast levels much. There were a few who considered it an art, who fooled around with blends, and who experimented with better ways to roast. They enjoyed some of the freshest, most intriguing blends and whole bean roasts of the day, often comparable with what we have today. But not everyone did. So in many aspects, controlled roasting by a company and delivered to you was better.

Except for one thing: freshness.

Freshness was lost. Many things were attempted, from Arbuckles' sugar egg coating of every individual bean, to vacuum sealed packages. But a roasted bean is a bean that gets stale, and quick.

Coffee's Steady Decline in the 20th Century

It didn't help that during the 20th century the quality of coffee and roasts faced a steady decline as big coffee conglomerates and corporations continually looked for ways to increase profits. Bean quality declined and roasting methods, while more streamlined and efficient, resulted in less than superb roasts. The introduction (or bane, depending on your viewpoint) of instant coffee (first seen on a large scale in the Great War, but really hit the common scene thanks to World War II and beyond) is the prime example of how much quality we can lose for the sake of convenience.

The 1950s and 1960s were the epitome of seeking convenience over quality. America was ready to chuck out all those tedious, time consuming home devices, like vacuum coffee brewers, waffle irons, bread pans, cookie cutters and other baking and kitchen devices for the convenience of percolated and drip coffee, prepackaged waffles, loaves of bread from the store, bags of old, dry cookies and more "convenience items". For a time, the majority of N. Americans simply forgot (or shut out) how good these items could be when made at home. If you could buy it prepackaged and premade, that was the kicker. So what if my tastebuds are offended... they'll get used to it.

In the 1970s, the trend started to reverse, and by the 1980s, a swing back to "home made" was really starting. In the roasting arena, guys like Michael Sivitz and Kenneth Davids talked about the art of roasting, and roasting in the home. This time, they didn't talk about roasting in a skillet (well, they did, but didn't promote that idea)... no, instead, they talked about taking one of Americana's convenience items - the home hot air popcorn popper, and turning it into a small batch home roaster for coffee! The deal is, the hot air popcorn popper uses the same principles in design and function as modern day fluid bed commercial roasters... something Sivitz invented and Davids picked up on, along with many other coffee aficionados.

(Re)Enter the Home Roaster

Click for larger image
All you need...
This is all you need to start home roasting today: a popper, a wire mesh colander for cooling the beans, a thermometer (optional), and of course the green beans. A scale is nice, but you can go without.

The homeroasting method, using a fluid bed of hot air, provided a much more even roast than roasting in a skillet, or even in a stove top popcorn popper with an agitator. Tyros and hobbyists picked up on this, and started the trend towards homeroasting coffee again. Companies like Melitta and others brought out "first generation" automated home roasting devices. They basically sucked - the Melitta roaster couldn't reach proper roasting temps, and was a likely a candidate for blowing up.

Still, we had the basic hot air popper, including the venerable West Bend Poppery (and it's successor, the West Bend Poppery II, or WBPII) were ideal for home roasting. Sure, you had to quench your beans manually (the act of rapidly cooling down beans after the roast, to prevent burning and charring), but some obsessed homebodies even found a remedy for that - they started the practice of modifying home poppers so that the heating elements inside could be switched off, leaving only the fan running.

That was the 1980s. The secret was still in the bag though - only the truly obsessed and slightly crazy were roasting at home using this method. Even into the early 1990s, it was a well kept secret amongst uber-serious coffee aficionados. Then one thing changed all of this, one major technological leap that has really affected our lives in more ways than you can count. That one thing put "home roasting coffee" back on the map, and into the periphery of many a coffee lover. That thing is the Internet.

The Internet is the vehicle that spread the word wide and far that homeroasting was not only easy, but you would get the best possible coffee you could ever have. It started out small - hobby websites with rough descriptions of the process, and maybe a picture or two. The usenet newsgroup alt.coffee featured writings as far back as 1994 and probably earlier about the technique. More and more people tried it out. Businesses started to appear online that directly targeted the home roaster. And new machines, second generation machines, started to appear.

Second Generation Machines

The mid to late 1990s saw a fair amount of what I call "second generation" machines show up on the scene. There was the (now defunct) Unimax Micro roaster that used infrared heat to roast coffee. A company called Hearthware introduced the very popular Hearthware Gourmet. Another company introduced the FreshRoast, a micro roaster that could roast only a few ounces of beans at time.

These were, for the most part, "dumb" machines in that they were purely mechanical and worked on timers and all or nothing heat sources. But they did the job, and they helped to promote the knowledge and function of home roasting coffee.

Homeroasting did gain ground amongst coffee aficionados, and the reason is simple - the hot air fluid bed method was easy, fairly hard to screw up, and resulted in even roasts when done right. Even roasts meant good roasts. Good roasts give you excellent coffee, super fresh, and super quality (especially since the upper echelons of Arabica beans were becoming readily available to home roasters).

The word was getting out, and the beginnings of a trend were starting form. Home roasting was slowly moving away from being a tyro and hobbyist thing to something anyone could do in the kitchen without much effort. The hot air popper home roaster was still the hobbyist, and that hobbyist often commandeered whatever room they roasted in for an hour or more, with poppers, bowls, brushes, measuring devices, colanders, oven mitts, spray bottles and much more occupying a lot of space. Some of these purpose built machines helped to ease the job, but many still went the popcorn popper route, mainly because it was the cheapest way to go.

2.5 and Third Generation Machines

Convenience still wanted to rear it's sometimes ugly head in this new home roasting trend, and why not? Make it convenient for the consumer, and they will come. It happened with bread machines. It happened with juicers. It's happening with home roasters.

1999 saw the introduction of at least three new home roasting machines. Two were full third generation devices, one is what I call 2.5G, but with some highly sought after features. West Bend, long aware of the popularity of their $20 West Bend Poppery and Poppery II machines as a home roast device, decided to develop the wb Roaster, a neat home roasting appliance that was fully automatic and had an LCD display for the roast cycle. An actual home roaster was part of the development team.

Hearthware, happy with the small success their Gourmet model was having, developed their first 3rd generation machine - the Hearthware Precision. The brains of that roaster featured a built in roast profile following the SCAA's recommended roast cycle, and it actively controlled the air volume and heat temperatures. No more "dumb" roasters - they were getting brains now!

Inside an Alp
Inside the Alp
You can see the heating coil system inside a then minty-fresh, unused Alp (it's since been used. A lot). This coil system is great for heating, but a bad thing for cooling - it still has lots of residual heat during the cool phase.

The third roaster was not quite 3G - it was a 2.5 G roaster. Mostly mechanical, but it used a barely-there computer chip to indicate times. It did have one feature that made it highly desirable. Where most other home roasting appliances were designed to roast 2, 3 or 4 ounces of coffee, this new model could roast a half pound, and it didn't use fluid air: it was a drum roaster, roasting in a similar fashion to what the "pros" used. That roaster was the Swissmar Alpenrost.

What is unfortunate is that the wb and the Precision didn't make it. The wb roaster was an early bow-out, and barely sold any units before West Bend pulled the plug, literally. Early production units had some serious design flaws and manufacturing problems, and West Bend didn't want to spend any more money.

Getting off on a rant here: The Precision stuck around for three years, but early in 2002, Hearthware decided to pull the plug on it as well. It did roast very well when it worked, but the problem with the HWP (as it is called online) was that it too suffered from production and manufacturing issues, and breakdowns were common. While I believe that Hearthware did have some major manufacturing flaws, I also think that sometimes home roasters were also to blame for the woes the machine suffered - many used the machine way beyond its design tolerances.

This is a 3.5 ounce (or around 85 grams) roaster. It is not designed to be a 1.5 lb roaster. But many people pushed the roaster to this limit, banging out 5, 6 8 or more roasts in succession, and causing premature wear and tear on the device. They would then send their malfunctioning roasters back to Hearthware for replacement because HW had a "no questions asked" replacement polocy. This must have cost the company a fortune. I'm sure many of the machines replaced were legitimately defective, but also many of them were simply abused.

These units were pushed way beyond their tolerances and operating limits, and some folks went through several units, still abusing them, still sending them in for replacements. Add all the defective components to the mix, and well, the company could only give so much. The HWP is no more. In the end, we all pay - it would have been nice for Hearthware to use more reliable, industrial strength parts, but it also would have been nice if more people used the roaster as it was intended. rant over

One of these three roasters is still around: the Alpenrost, or the "Alp" as most people refer to it. It has its problems - an anemic cooling cycle, the inability to view your roast as it progresses, and unpredictable levels of roasts at times, but by and large, it's a great roaster, albeit pricey at $300 or so average price.

What the Future Holds

Click for larger image
HotTop Roaster
The HotTop, now just ramping up for production (March 2002), holds a lot of promise, and is very much anticipated.

Actually in some aspects the future looks awesome for home roasters. Even if Hearthware's bow out is serious (they were working on a successor to the HWP, but that's in limbo as of this writing), a few other companies are stepping up to the plate.

One particular unit many are waiting for is a roaster called the HotTop, which is being made by a Taiwanese company, and is prepping for launch in North America very soon. In fact I may be getting an early production model and will be doing a detailed review on it for the CoffeeGeek site.

There's a lot to like about this roaster, at least from the specs. First off, it can do 250 grams of coffee (and possibly 300 grams), which is technically more than even the Alpenrost (which does 227 grams, or a half pound). It is a drum roaster like the Alp, but lets you see the beans as they roast, a huge plus.

It's so heavy and beefy, it actually needs to preheat (commercial roasting machines do as well), which is something home roasters might not be aware of, or prepared for, but they will. Temperature stability is a big thing in espresso preparation in the home, so why not in home roasting? It leads to better roasts, so we will hopefully get used to it.

And the good news about this roaster is that it is a third generation roaster (though it may be hard for the layperson to fathom this). It uses a chip that contains the SCAA's recommended "starter" profile for roasting, and it does the job well, ramping up the roast slowly, but then finishing off fairly quick. Neat stuff. The chip is also replaceable, meaning that they may get into a market where they sell different profiles on chips for different roast types.

Rosto Roaster
Caffe Rosto
This roaster is available today, and can roast about 6 ounces of green beans, almost double what a standard popcorn popper can do.

Other roasters are around too: The second generation Fresh Roast has been updated, and now instead of roasting 2 ounces, can do 3.5, or about the same amount a popcorn popper can. At about $60, this is the cheapest regular price for a dedicated coffee roaster available today, and it does do the job pretty well.

There is also the Cafe Rosto fluid air roaster, which is essentially a second generation roaster, but capable of roasting up to 6 ounces of beans, and is available for around $150. It has a lot of fans, but is more geared towards dark roasts because of its design.

And rumour has it a new generation Alpenrost may make the scene in 2002. I wouldn't hold my breath though - the first Alp was vaporware for almost 2 years.

What does the next few years offer us in the home roasting arena? I think three things are going to happen. First, the convenience factor is going to continue, with larger batches and even more efficient chaff and smoke systems - maybe even a built in ionizer to convert roasting smoke to harmless particles? I also think cooling cycles will be enhanced, mainly because they have to be - cooling cycles are by and large the Achilles heel of the current crop of roasters.

I also think we're going to see more complex roasters that operate on "automatic mode", but also a mode that lets you plug into a Palm PDA or Pocket PC to plot your own roasting profile. Lastly, I think we're going to see home roasting move from a fringe thing to mass market, much like how breadmakers did it back in the early 1990s. That means more machines, more manufacturers, and better prices.

At least that's my hope :)

Other Parts of the Home Roasting Coffee Section.
The Current Setup Home Roasting Progression
Here's what I got in my current arsenal for home roasting, complete with tiny micro reviews of each product. [ more ] Just like my espresso progression, I have one for home roasting as well, an here it is! [ more ]

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