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Saturday, September 18, 2004

Confessions of a home roaster

When it comes to commitment; home roasting one's own green coffee is close to certifiable. Here's a short look into the madhouse; maybe you'll like it.

Of course, all the commitment in the world doesn't help if you don't have a backyard, balcony, or a kitchen with a decent exhaust, since good ventilation is absolutely required. Fortune's apartment doesn't permit her to home roast, so I thought I'd share some of my home coffee roasting experiences with BCCY readers.

Why home roast? For many, it's about access to good coffee. In rural areas, far away from sources of fresh roast, coffee lovers set up BBQ roasters which can do several pounds of coffee at once, same as a cafe roaster. They keep themselves and their neighbors supplied with superb coffee. So while cafes are the quintessentially urban institution; there's lots of "middle of nowhere" places across the US where people knowledgeably discuss the pros and cons of this year's crop of Kenya. All it takes is someone who's built a drum for their backyard BBQ .

But I live in Chicago and have easy access to Intelligentsia, which, as blog readers know, has some of the best coffee on the planet. My home roast isn't better than their coffee; nor, considering the time I spend, is it cheaper. I roast for two reasons; it's an extension of my regular cooking, and it's a great outlet for experimenting and tinkering.

When those who cook themselves go to a good restaurant, they appreciate the ingredients' quality and the skill in preparing them more than non-cooks. So serious foodies cook or spend time in good restaurant kitchens. Roasting coffee is similar. By working with the green coffees, I began to understand the care that went into growing them, and I also learnt how small variations in bean origins or roasting technique affect the taste. Finally, unlike other cooking, I became acquainted with ultra-fresh coffee, 2 days or less out of the roaster. These coffees are not better than the 3 to 10 day old coffees one usually gets from local roasters; in some cases, some of the flavors are still undeveloped. But they have a range of subtle aromas that the older coffees do not. There are even some home roasters who, half-seriously, maintain that coffee more than a few days old is stale.

The ability to compare slightly different coffees or roasts feeds the desire to experiment. How do these neighboring fincas' beans taste different? If I roast the same coffee slowly for 15 minutes and quickly for 7 minutes, to the same finishing temperature, what's the difference? How about a 5 degree difference in finishing temperature? I've found out that there's no general answers to such questions, just a lot of experience with a given bean. I also found out that off-the-shelf home roasters do not hack it for this sort of experimenting. So home roasters tinker, and have come up with a huge variety of do-it-yourself roasting devices. Along with the BBQ roasters, there's people roasting with heatguns in dog bowls, with galloping gourmet convection ovens covering wok-like popcorn roasters , and finally, like me, using 1980s air popcorn poppers modified by the addition of industrial grade motor and heat controls.

Good old American ingenuity (or insanity) is still alive and well; it's just on a coffee break!

Jim Schulman

posted by Jim Schulman | 6:16 PM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 0 comments

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Morning rolls with that ball of dough.

I recently discovered Irish butter; it'll cost me a few extra pounds each year or more exercise; but it's worth it.

But this story isn't about Irish butter. It's about looking at the butter one morning and yearning for fresh rolls to put it on. And not just any old rolls; I'm yearning for a crispy hot crust with a thin layer of bread attached, and the half baked ball of dough in the middle that one pulls out and discards. That's right, the traditional French balon; available, once upon a time, at every corner bakery in Europe, from 6:30 every morning.

Unfortunately, the nearest French bakery, here in Hyde Park, Chicago, is five blocks away, opens at 11, and has balons that aren't what they used to be. So I'm on a quest to have the balons ready to bake when I wake up each morning. I'd pop them in the oven, get ready, and have my preview of heaven for breakfast.

There's no secret to making balons: 3 measures good bread flour, 1 water, some of yesterday's dough for leavening, an 18 to 24 hour rise, punch down, form the rolls, another 4 hours second rise, then bake hot with a dash of water to steam crisp the crust. However, even I'm not crazy enough to get up 4 hours early to punch down dough, then go back to sleep again, in order to have my rolls just so. That 4 hour second rise is a deal breaker.

My first try to get around this was to punch down the dough in the evening, then let the rolls, ready on their baking sheet, rise overnight in the refrigerator. This produced a lovely crisp balon shaped baked item. But it had a bread texture nearly as firm as a bagel's. Nary a trace of a dough ball.

Maybe I'll get used to balon/bagels; or maybe I'll figure out a way of getting my dough ball. Stay tuned.

Jim Schulman

posted by Jim Schulman | 8:16 PM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 0 comments

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Autumn's Splendor

As a recent transplant to Vermont (in my seventh month... only thirty years or so to go 'til I'm no longer considered a flatlander) I'm anxious and eager to see the blaze of color that Autumn promises here. Which only goes to prove that I am a flatlander, as anxiety is not something that native Vermonters practice very much. Even clocks here tend to tick with a slower beat.

The change of seasons is reason enough to celebrate in my book, and when I celebrate I roast coffee. Inspired by the hues and aromas of Fall, I've been having great fun with melange roasts (See, Jim, you're not the only one who can flip a bon mot) or blends of light and darker-roasted coffees.

I've been daring myself to do truly smoky things to some truly high-grown Guatemalan beans. Honestly, it's not easy for me to do... I hear the brittle-toothpick snaps of second crack and it's all I can do to stay my hand and not quench the roast. Let the smoke roll... they can take it!

The results have been easily as tasty as they are colorful. Really, what coffee's not going to sing sweetly with a smoky, caramelly, velvety-bodied bass note underneath it? Pairing a smoky French-roasted treat like that with a fruited Guatemalan Coban is lovely. Toss in a handful of Oaxacan beans, which at Full City have a bit of a reddish hue, and you've got candy for the eyes, too, as well as their palate-pleasing spicy Mexican chocolate note.

Even if you don't roast your own, you can still play with melange blends... pick up some French or Viennese beans from your local roaster, as well as an assortment of bright, acidy coffees to sing in the soprano section and you're on your way. Happy blending!

posted by deCadmus | 10:06 PM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 0 comments

Taste, Tradition, and Artisanship

So what's the difference between good and bad coffee, or good and bad chocolate, bread, or even tomatos? Is it completely chacun a son gout? Are all us mavens merely embellishing on lore passed down from older, more authoritative mavens? Or is there something in the thing itself that makes it better? Anyone who loves and works at appreciating some food or some more permanent art form has been asked this annoying question. Mostly all we can say is "try it, work at it, and you'll see." But it would be nice to have a better answer.

Tim Castle, coffee importer, author and past SCAA president, recently gave a talk outlining his answer. The details aren't all in yet; but there's enough to give us lovers of good things a way to shush the "it's all subjective" babble:

Start with a coffee importer buying from farmers and mills (which process the cherry-like coffee fruit to extract the pit -- the coffee bean). They can instantly taste if the trees are well tended and shaded, that the cherries have been picked at perfect ripeness, that they have been processed and selected flawlessly. As one moves along the line from tree to cup, the people who's business this is can tell whether the previous steps were done well or sloppily, whether they were carried out with care and dedication, or whether they were botched, cost cut, or were otherwise lacking.

So the first key fact about quality is that experts can easily tell how much skill, care and love went into coffee or any other product. Even if a chemist can't tell what compounds are in good coffee; an expert can always tell how much work went into it.

But there's still the question whether artisanship in farming and the subsequent steps really makes the cup of coffee better. Here, the term "skill" works just like the term "ripe." A flower for a bouquet is "ripe" before the fruit even forms, while a dessert wine grape is "ripe" only when it's shrivelled and moldy. So "ripe" means whatever is best for it's intended use. "Skill" is the same: it's skill when the extra effort and care produces something better; otherwise, it's just a waste of time.

This is the second key fact about quality: the skill and care that experts recognize are whatever reliably creates things that, over a long time, to most people who really care, tastes best. This is true of all people, not just mavens. The big four have been cutting coffee quality in a forty year race towards the bottom. Consequently, each year, less people drink supermarket coffee, and no non-coffee drinker takes up the habit after tasting that stuff.

Put the two key facts together, and it does seem likely that there really is something in a good cup of coffee that the poor one lacks. If there weren't, all the skills of the farmers and makers, and all the expertise of mavens in recognizing it, would be for nought.

I'm Jim Schulman, one of Fortune's coffee friends (in case, you hadn't guessed) and vacation substitute bloggers.

posted by Jim Schulman | 3:02 PM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 0 comments

Monday, September 13, 2004


Let me see if I've got this straight...

Fortune's gone traipsing all 'round Europe's boot and she's left me to mind not only her blog, but the assorted cast of characters of all walks and stripes that she's invited to play, too? Despite the fact that I'm hip deep in launching a new web site, and haven't even updated my own blog in four weeks?

Well... okay. I think we [that aforementioned cast of characters] would each of us do just about anything for Fortune.

Ted, while you're in London, maybe you can zip over to Wales and try a babyccino? Apparently infant-totin' moms and pops are requesting cappuccini for their tiny ones... sans coffee, natch. Whatever will the Mermaid think of next?

posted by deCadmus | 4:46 PM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 0 comments

Sunday, September 12, 2004

coffee at the pantheon

dear readers, i'm off. this time tomorrow i'll be sipping cappuccino at the pantheon.

in my absence you'll be entertained and provoked by a startling array of guest bloggers, who'll post who knows what whenever and from wherever the sporadic mood strikes them.

this roster may include:

a good time will be had by all!

in general, dougie's in charge, which means you're in for a good time! so wish me well!

i'll be back soonest. . .

posted by fortune | 10:35 AM | top | link to this | links to this post | email this:   | 0 comments

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