Roasting in New York

Posted by on Aug 5, 2012 | 0 comments

Oven-roasted coffee from Singing RoosterThis summer has hit record high temperatures all over the U.S., and New York is no exception–so it seem like the wrong time to experiment in the kitchen with new cooking techniques that require a hot oven. (On the positive side, the oven preheats quickly when the air in my kitchen is already a hundred degrees.) Still, a little sweat can’t stop me when I’m on a mission, and for me, coffee is a mission.

Molly from Singing Rooster is responsible for it. I’ve been buying green beans from her for a while now and playing with different home roasting techniques. She recently asked me to try experimenting with different roasts, giving me some pointers, and asking for tasting notes. I almost always make espresso at home instead of drip coffee, and in the past I’ve found very light roasts to taste a little sour and dark roasts to be undrinkable, so I settled on comparing a medium-dark roast and a medium roast. These are also known as a City (or City+) and American roast. Some would insist that a City is the same as an American roast, but these designations aren’t written in stone. There’s a lot of conflicting terminology around roasting, and in the U.S., standards differ between the west and east coasts. For the technical experts, I was aiming for a temperature of 428F and 410F.

I’ll be honest, my first results were mixed, but they helped me perfect my roasting technique.

Regardless of the name, it’s traditional to measure timing of different roasts not by color or a magic time/temperature formula, but by sound. Coffee beans will expand quickly while they’re roasting and at a certain point let out a very audible “crack,” the same principle as popping corn. In fact, many home roasters use a hot-air corn popper as a cheap home coffee roaster; it works well, though it produces a lot of smoke. Unlike popcorn, however, coffee beans actually have two crack points. For a darker City roast, you remove the beans from heat once they reach the second crack; for a medium American roast, you do it just at the end of the first crack. (For darker roasts, just keep the beans on heat through the second crack until you don’t hear any more popping. For good Haitian beans, that would be a crime, as it destroys any delicate flavors.)

The best method I’ve found for getting an even roast without special equipment is to use a preheated cast-iron skillet in a 430-degree oven (Fahrenheit), opening the oven to stir every three to five minutes. (This is a cross between two common techniques that I find to be less reliable. I call it the “Corey method,” but I won’t be patenting it, so feel free to try it at home. Just don’t forget to give me credit!)

I’ll be honest, my first results were mixed, but they helped me perfect my technique. Important lessons learned: roasting the beans to 410 degrees still requires a 430-degree oven, or even hotter; roast half cup at a time, as the beans should line the bottom of the skillet in a single, even layer; toward the end of roasting, stir every two to three minutes instead of five; cool immediately in a colander or large sieve; wait 24 hours before grinding, to allow the roasted beans to release built-up CO2.

The results? Well, Molly converted me to green beans some time ago, so I didn’t need to be convinced that even mediocre home roasting is better than most commercially roasted beans you can buy, which are typically roasted months before they land on your grocery store shelf. (There are definitely exceptions, depending on the speed and method of packaging. For instance, I’ve had incredible packaged coffee from La Colombe, which I think is consistently the best commercial coffee I’ve tasted. Full disclosure: I’ve been working with La Colombe recently to connect them with small organic coffee farmers in Nepal. I wouldn’t work with them, however, if I didn’t already think they were doing fantastic things with coffee.)

The key to good home-roasted coffee is to start with high-quality beans, and the best single-origin green beans that I’ve tried come from Haiti. Obviously there’s also a second level of pleasure that comes from knowing your money is supporting very poor farmers in the remotest parts of one of the world’s poorest countries. These beans came from the Artibonite region, and I look forward to repeating this experiment when Molly gets in her next shipment from Thiotte, an isolated village high up in the mountains that produces some of the best coffee anywhere in the world.

My tasting notes

I tasted three different espressos made with these beans: the medium-dark City roast, the medium American roast, and a blend of the two, ground together before brewing. I usually prefer a little steamed milk and a dollop of foam with my espresso, so I also tried the three with milk. Overall, I found that adding milk reduced the acidity and mellowed strong flavors, as you might expect.

The medium roast tasted a tiny bit burnt, thanks to my poor technique. I’d tried roasting it at a lower temperature; this was a mistake, as it took much longer and entirely dried out in the oven instead of giving a satisfied “crack.” (I’ll be roasting another batch soon and will add an addendum to this post when I do.) That off flavor was just one note in a very complex cup, however, and it didn’t spoil the overall experience. There was also a hint of that sour taste I don’t like in lighter roasts, yet in this cup, it connected beautifully with a strong citrus note and a lot of natural sweetness. It had beautiful acidity that was the coffee equivalent of fresh-squeezed orange juice–refreshing. This was a cup I’d want to start my day, not at the end of a heavy meal. Milk did not change the basic flavor profile of the roast, though it did entirely remove the off burnt flavor due to my mediocre technique.

The slightly darker roast had an entirely different flavor profile and was all toasted nuts and chocolate. It had the sweetness that I love in medium roasts, no sourness, and surprisingly little acidity considering these were the same beans that reminded me of orange juice a second before. This was the coffee equivalent of Nutella on toast, and the slight sweetness of steamed milk brought out this flavor combination even more strongly. Still, this was a roast I’d prefer served as an espresso, not a cappuccino. Unlike the first roast, it would be a perfect close to a good meal. I’d imagined–especially after smelling the two aromas–that I’d greatly prefer this roast, but there was a certain complexity missing from it, and I’m convinced that anything darker than this would have killed all the individual character of the bean. As good as this was, in future, I may remove it from heat about 30 seconds earlier.

Molly’s final recommendation was that I try blending the two roasts before grinding and brewing. Fantastic idea! The espresso that came from my touchy old La Pavoni machine was divine, with milk and without. It was well balanced and had hints of the chocolate and acidity of the individual roasts. Instead of orange juice and Nutella, this was chocolate with orange zest. That’s my favorite flavor of gelato, and it worked for me in my coffee as well. There was no burnt flavor, and it hit every taste bud in a beautiful harmony of clarinet, violins, viola, and cello: this was Mozart’s clarinet quintet.

The final verdict? I plan to keep the beans from the two roasts separate and blend them according to whim–but I’m pretty sure this multi-roast combo is my new “house blend.” If you’re in the Brooklyn area, stop by and let me know what you think.

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