Roasting fools

Posts from my Pacific Northwest trip still to come, but first, adventures in roasting. What happens when three baristas think they can cook some beans?

My friend Courtney signed up last week to try out a home roaster for a TV show. She invited a bunch of people over, Counter Culture kindly sent up some green beans, and everything went swimmingly for the cameras. After at least two hours of shooting — which will be cut down to less than two minutes of aired footage — Court was exhausted and the few of us remaining at the party were relaxing in the living room.

David, who had just returned from Berlin, was there as well. He brought with him a bag of green beans he’d bought somewhere in Tanzania this summer. Their sourcing was suspect to begin with, but months of storage in a ziplock bag hadn’t done the beans any favors. They were noticeably spongier and moister than the ones from Counter Culture.

This being perhaps the only time that David’s beans and a home coffee roaster would ever be in the same room, I suggested we roast them up. “It only takes ten minutes,” I said. So while Court curled up on the couch with her dogs and her boyfriend, the three baristas David, Joel, and I ran into the kitchen for our first attempt at roasting.

None of us had actually used the roaster before, and I was the only one who’d even seen it in operation. David poured a bunch of his moist Tanzanian beans into it. “That looks like a little too much coffee,” I said.

“You think?”

“Yeah, Courtney didn’t use that much. Let’s take some out.”

We took some of the beans out and then, feeling a bit unsure of ourselves, went back to the living room to question Court about it. David asked her, “So you just put the beans in and turn it on, right?”

“Right,” she said. “Just check the directions to set the temperatures and times you want.”

Not really believing that changing the settings would do anything good or bad to this particular coffee, and being men, we took this as affirmation that there was no need to read any directions. David pushed some seemingly random buttons and the roasting process was begun.

Lots of things happen to green coffee beans during roasting. Moisture is evaporated, the beans expand drastically in volume, and carbon dioxide (plus very small amounts of carbon monoxide) is released. Contrary to popular belief, the smell of roasting coffee isn’t all that great. Freshly roasted coffee smells delicious; the smoke it produces, not so much. All of these facts were about to conspire against us as we tranformed Courtney’s kitchen into the world’s worst small batch roastery.

Normally, the beans circulate throughout the roasting chamber as the air blows through them. But since we’d used too much coffee, when the beans expanded they had nowhere to move. They were pinned in place, with a small amount of them stuck right at the hottest point in the roaster. Those burnt to a crisp while the rest sent out plumes of smoke and steam.

Smoke pouring into the kitchen was the first sign of things gone wrong.

It’s a good thing the camera crew had left already. People in the kitchen barely show up on film.

I think the carbon monoxide is getting to David in this photo.

At this point the smart thing to do would have been to unplug the roaster. In our defense, it was Court’s idea to have us pose for pictures instead. Perhaps she just wanted evidence for the civil suit?

Nearly two years after Court and I stopped being roommates, I can still find ways to leave a royal mess in her kitchen.


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