Bean There, Roasted That

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By Terry Montague

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When we drink our morning cup of coffee it is not necessary to know that the beans used in your brew have travelled from remote mountains, passing through exotic ports, before finally leaving a brown ring on your newspaper. They move through many lands and many hands and are subjected to various processes until they are transformed from the seeds of a cherry-like fruit into the delicious beverage we all love.

The roastmaster concerns himself primarily with the intermediate steps in this journey, the selection and acquiring of green coffees, the roasting of the beans and the blending process. This will be an overview intended as general information for the coffee novice.

There is an incredible variety of coffees grown in the world.  Originally native to the highlands of Ethiopia, coffee has spread, with the help of man, until it is now grown in almost every area of the globe that has a favourable climate. The better coffees usually come from high in mountainous areas and are hand picked, making coffee production very labour intensive. Each growing region produces a variety of coffees each with their own tastes. Different varietals, different processing methods and even which specific farm the coffee is from can make it unique from others.

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In general coffees from Central America are bright and lively. Those from Africa range from floral and light to heavy and winy.  Indonesian coffees are usually heavy bodied and rich. (These are very simple descriptions of complex tastes, details of individual coffees will follow in later articles and will be discussed in other columns).

As coffee is grown in a cherry or fruit it has to be processed and dried before shipping.  This processing of the coffee beans has a great influence on the final taste.  Traditional ‘natural’ coffees are simply dried in the cherry, pounded with a stick or pestle to free the beans from the hull and sorted by hand.  Natural coffees often are sweet and not acidic.  They can be complex and fruity with intense, full flavour.  As this process can be done by very small producers with little or no equipment, the results may be inconsistent or the beans might have ferment or spoilage from poor handling. Good, old fashioned, natural coffees are some of the best in the world but they can be rare.

Semi washed or ‘aqua pulped’ coffees have the fruit first removed then the beans are washed and dried.  This is a common method for Sumatran coffees, it requires only a simple wooden machine to pulp the cherries and this process can be done in remote villages by small producers.  Coffee produced this way can have earthy or musty off-tastes if it is not properly done.

Modern coffees are for the most part ‘washed’.  The pulp is removed, the beans are fermented for a short period, and then are washed and dried (actually a much more complex and careful process than my brief description indicates).  This usually involves farmers bringing their coffee to a central area where it is then processed.  Washing coffee involves considerable equipment and expertise.  The coffees tend to be bright or acidic and clean tasting.

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Some of the best coffees are in great demand. The roastmaster has to find a variety of beans that are of suitable quality, acceptable price, and available supply.  This is one of the most demanding tasks but can also lead to great excitement when an exceptional and unusual offering is discovered.  Very few small coffee roasters purchase beans directly from producers and when they do it is usually the result of personal relationships developed over a period of time.  Often the road from producer to roaster is a long one involving many middlemen and thousands of miles of transport.  Most coffee beans are bought from brokers or merchants who specialise in coffee.  They select and purchase beans and then re-sell them, often building a reputation and business relationships with many large and small roasting houses.

The roaster receives samples of coffee beans from his suppliers and this is where things get really fun.  The sample is roasted and ‘cupped’ or tasted to assess its qualities.  It is an exercise that is crucial to the roaster, the source of excitement or disappointment. For some reason it seems to be one of the most difficult tasks to get done. We often have dozens of samples that they have not ‘cupped’ yet.  Cupping is best done in the morning before the taste buds are jaded by that caesar salad for lunch.  It demands careful thought and concentration, not just a quick ‘coffee break’, only a few samples can be cupped each sitting and it is not a job to be done when tired or distracted but in a small business it is the usual state of affairs to be busy, tired, and distracted.

After making the decisions on which beans to buy it is still necessary to, at some later date, unload the truck ( the bags can weigh up to 150 lbs. each) and put away the stock.  Time to rest the aching back from dragging bags of coffee into every available corner, pull a shot of espresso, take a seat on a coffee bag, and have a break.

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We’ve had an introductory look at the process involved in processing coffee, from the farms and trees to the green beans in 150 lb. bags – large bags with markings from far away places. Leaking out from small holes in the bags are hard, bluish, greenish or yellowish beans. The smell of burlap hangs in the air, soon to replaced by the aroma of fresh roasted coffee.

Early in the morning, I go to the roasting house, fire up the propane shop roaster, throw a couple of logs in the woodstove and have a cup of coffee while checking the orders and planning the day’s work. The roasting house is a cedar log building in a small rural Acadian village. This would not be considered a typical situation in the coffee world. There is a lot of coffee roasted every day and most of it is done in large factory situations located in giant industrial parks near heavily populated areas. I am happy to be drinking my coffee next to the wood fire instead of in a car crawling through commuter traffic.

Coffee is usually roasted before being consumed. There are some countries where green coffee beans are ground with cardamon seeds and then steeped like tea before being drunk but it isn’t what comes to my mind when I need a cup of joe. The reasons that coffee beans are roasted is the same reasons that food is cooked, that being to make it taste better and to make it more digestible (when not thinking about coffee it is usually food that is on my mind). Some common foods are not edible when raw or not digestible, during cooking heat will cause chemical changes, breaking down or converting unwanted natural components. The same for taste, a raw potato might be edible but is starchy. When it is cooked it becomes sweet, and if it is pan fried, it ‘browns’ as sugars are caramelised. Coffee is similar, I guess my job is that of a ‘bean browner’.

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Soon the roaster is hot and it is time to toss in a pail of green beans. Not much happens at first, time to fill out a roasting log, and pull a shot of espresso. In a few minutes the beans start to look a bit yellow brown ( there is a tiny window in the roaster that serves little use other than to make people exclaim ‘oh look! the beans are going around’). The heat is drying out the beans and driving the water off. At this point the beans smell like straw. As the process continues the beans get hot enough that the remaining water inside them boils and causes them to make popping sounds and puff up, much like pop corn.

This stage of the roast is in what is called ‘first crack’ and the beans at this point get larger, are light brown and have very little smell. Soon the starches in the beans are converted to sugars. The coffee starts to smell sweet, and the ‘second crack’ stage begins accompanied by the crinkly sound of crumpled cellophane. The coffee soon takes on the typical coffee smell we associate with a light roast, the surface of the beans become smooth, and the crack of the bean that runs up the flat side, opens up a bit. How this is observed? There is a little scoop called a ‘tryer’ that sits in a hole in the roaster, it can be used to remove a small sample of beans to look at and smell. The tryer is hot so if you see a roastmaster with burn marks on his face you now know why.

If is to be a light roast coffee (about 14 – 17 minutes from the start) the beans are dumped into the cooling tray and room temperature air is drawn through them to stop the roasting process. Light roast coffees are sweet and bright or acidic. They retain the particular characteristics typical to the beans origin. Coffees with fine and delicate character are usually roasted light. The delicate floral and citrus notes would disappear fast if the coffee was roasted dark.

If a medium roast is desired the coffee is left in the roaster longer into the second crack until it reaches a higher heat. At this point of the roast things happen fast. The sugars in the beans start to caramelise and new and different tastes and aromas are being created. The smell of the coffee us now spicy and caramel-sweet, time to dump and cool the beans for a medium roast. These beans look medium brown with no oil on the surface, if the beans were left in a bit linger the oil from the beans would start to come to the surface and the roast would be less sweet, less acidic, and become slightly bittersweet. This would be a Dark roast (mi-noir). At this point of roast the original character of the bean is less pronounced and what is tasted is to a degree imparted by the style of roasting.

One further roast can be done, the Black (noir) roast, to some this is sacrilege to others it is heaven. By Black roast I do not mean the burnt, charcoal, thin and bitter tasting, but the bittersweet, smoky, ‘corsé’, coffees preferred in some countries. ‘Common roasting knowledge’ usually dictates that one uses the cheapest beans for the darkest roasts as what is being tasted is not the bean but the taste of the roast. I follow the opposing view, it takes a bean with exceptional or assertive character to survive that much heat and still be able to come through with its own identity. Beans such as Kenyan and Haitian can hold their own. The difficulty is to find the correct finish point. As the oils come to the surface of the beans they touch the hot drum of the roaster and they smoke, this will perfume the coffee. The difference between a good black roast and charred coffee is only a matter of seconds not minutes.

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You will notice that I am not using the common terms of description for the degrees of roast. Scandinavian roast, Cinnamon, roast, American roast, City roast, Full city roast, Continental roast, Viennese Roast, Fench roast, Italian roast, etc., etc., They might sound colourful but there is not much general agreement on these terms, ‘Is the Italian roast darker than the French roast?’ and such. I like the terms Light roast, Medium roast, Dark roast and Black roast. I think of these as more a description of the taste I want the coffee to have than the actual colour of the bean.

There is a more accurate technical way to quantify the darkness of the bean but these numbers mean little to the average coffee drinker. As the roasting of coffee progresses through different stages the beans go through various chemical changes accompanied by changes in the taste and aroma. Each different origin of bean responds in its own way to the roasting process. A proper light roast, (where the coffee is sweet and showing none of the grassy sourness of under roasted beans), occurs at slightly different temperature and time for each bean. I find that the method of determining the finish point that serves my temperament best is to take a ‘craftsman’s approach’. For this it is necessary to know both the technical aspects of roasting and the chemistry of the processes but the final determination is based in not only on the time/temperature of the roast and the physical look of the bean but more importantly by the smell of the bean. This might seem a subjective way to do things but the sense of smell is very accurate. There is a close connection between ones sense of smell and taste where there is little connection between taste and sight and taste after all is what we are interested in.

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The Petrocini in our shop, just finished dumping beans and the cooling cycle begins.

These descriptions applies only to small ‘micro-roasters’. The coffee industry in general has a much more efficient approach to coffee, often using giant computer controlled roasters that can process as much coffee in a few minutes as a small farmer can grow in a year. The advantage of computerised coffee roasting by trained technicians is consistency. Name brand coffees need the taste of their blend to be the same for each and every can. The micro-roaster might place a higher value on the rare and unusual coffees whose excellence might be associated with a single estate coffee from a specific harvest year. Thinking with my stomach again, the comparison might be similar to a talented chef preparing a meal for a handful of guests using the finest seasonal ingredients available (taste taking priority over conformity) and that of food prepared in a factory setting to consistent standards.

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In front of our microroaster, a very capable Petrocini.

There are several different methods used in coffee roasting, from traditional drum roasters to modern fluid bed units as well as different theories on roasting styles, from very fast ‘high yield’ roasting to very slow ‘Brasilian’ roasting and even a ‘twice-roasted’ technique is used by some. Personally I like ‘old fashioned’ natural coffees with their full taste and low acidity and use a drum roaster that draws hot air through the tumbling beans as they roast. This enables an even roast from the hot air with the ‘traditional’ flavours of drum roasting. Fluid bed roasting uses heated air forced through ‘floating’ coffee beans which gives the coffee a clean finish and a ‘bright’ taste. The ‘style’ or approach of the roastmaster as well as the method of roasting and the type of equipment used will greatly influence the taste of the coffee.

As soon as I have finished roasting and cooling the beans they are packaged and sent out to customers. Other beans are put into 5 gallon plastic pails when still warm and sealed with a lid for the next days use. One of my greatest pleasures is to remove the lid the next morning and stick my whole face in the pail of beans and breathe in deeply.

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Grinding the beans and brewing a cup will complete the process. A bright winy cup of Kenyan or a smooth, sonorous mug of Java will be sure to satisfy. There are many single varietals that will suit your mood at any occasion, but what about a coffee that is a little more spicy than the Colombian you had for breakfast, or a little sweeter than your regular Guatemalan? This is where the ‘art’ of blending comes in.

‘Art’, that is an unusual word to come from one who claims to be a craftsman. If coffee roasting is a craft, that is it attempts to bring out the best qualities of the materials it works with (the coffee beans), then where does art, or the creation of new and unique things, enter into it? Well blending is the area where those who have the artists temperament can use their skills. They can carefully mix coffees to create a new taste that is so singularly distinctive that it truly represents the artist who has created it.

Unfortunately, having absolutely no artistic abilities myself, it has been necessary to blend as a craftsman, trying to recreate tastes from the past or playing ‘matchmaker’ for coffee beans, introducing them to each other and seeing if they ‘get along’. I fully realise that I will probably never create a coffee taste that no one has experienced before, and that any combination of beans that I may intentionally or accidentally mix together will have already been done previously by someone else. Blending has occurred from the earliest times that various coffees were available, at one time the only two areas that cultivated coffee were Yemen and the Dutch colonies in what is now Indonesia. These coffees were mixed to create the original Mocha – Java blend, the taste of which many coffee blenders still attempt to reproduce. It is my hope that by blending together various coffees I will be able to find those that compliment each other in a way that will produce a cup which is pleasing.

There are different reasons to blend coffee. A ‘brand name’ blend produced by a large company needs to taste the same each time it is brewed. Each ‘lot’ of green beans might have varying qualities and in an attempt to keep both the taste and the price constant it can be necessary to make appropriate changes in the ‘recipe’ of the blend.

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Another use of blending is to take beans which have ‘incomplete’ taste profiles and mix them with other beans to achieve a more balanced coffee, few coffees by themselves have a well balanced profile. A coffee that is perceived as having a lot of acidity and a light body might be blended with a bean having poor acidity and a heavier body. The result can be, if it is done right, to take average quality beans and use them to produce a good blended coffee.

Blend and taste, then blend and taste again, it may take weeks or months of work, keeping careful notes, to achieve what is desired. It is not just a matter of mixing together all the left over odds and ends and naming it House Blend. The biggest problem with the ‘mystery blend’ approach would not be just the random inconsistency of it but the danger that, if by accident it happened to produce something very excellent, it could have the potential to become a great source of frustration in never being able to reproduce the same ‘perfect’ taste.

Through a process of frequent ‘cupping’ of coffees from the original samples and through the roasting process, the roastmaster becomes very familiar with the various beans that he has selected to work with. This knowledge of taste and aroma is the foundation upon which the blends are built. It is possible to blend to try and achieve a desired taste. If a sample of a coffee is available the blender might try to reproduce it.

However if the desired taste exists only in the mind of the blender or the customer, the task becomes very difficult. Ones imagination might translate well into visual images, and for composers of music there are those who ‘hear’ the music inside their heads and can write it down, but the sense of taste has a hard time travelling from the brain to the cup (at least in my experience). Fortunately the sense of smell is remembered well and the slightest whiff of a pleasant coffee can trigger the tastebuds.

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Most coffees respond differently to roasting, different beans are often roasted first and blended after (post-blending). Post-blended coffees allow the particular tastes of each type of bean to remain somewhat distinct in the final blend. Coffees that respond well to similar roast profiles are sometimes pre-blended before roasting This seems to meld the tastes of the individual beans (this will be discussed in greater detail in a later article on ‘Roasting and Blending Espresso’).

Blends can be ‘straights’ composed of the same bean at different roasts, they can be different beans at the same degree of roast or a combination of both. Frequently coffees that seem to embody the desired tastes are selected and after blending these qualities cancel each other out or a blend that is successful at one colour of roast can be a disappointment when roasted a bit darker or lighter. Sip and spit, sip and spit, test again as a vac-pot, press, drip, or espresso, then finally sit and have a mug when it is right.

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“So what is the big deal?” – I hear this frequently – “It’s just a small cup of very strong coffee”. There is no use trying to explain in these instances, those who understand espresso learn from taste and until the palate is converted the mind will not accept the truth. Espresso is the ‘essence’ of coffee, when it is very good it is a delight to the senses of taste and smell, a complex and refined beverage.

Espresso and the coffees created with it have become increasingly popular in the last decade. In the not too distant past these tiny cups of crema topped coffee were favoured mostly by those whose cultural heritage had infused in them an appreciation of espresso. Recently espresso drinks have become popular almost everywhere, often in the form of mild milky drinks that bear little resemblance to the original beverage. When it comes to the straight shot there is much more there than ‘just a small cup of strong coffee’, those who follow the CoffeeGeek site will recognise the extreme enthusiasm, bordering on fanaticism, displayed by many who regard espresso as the ultimate coffee.  In espresso preparation all aspects must be done to very exacting standards if the beverage is to excel but you would never know this by watching a professional barista at work as expertise will make complex tasks seem simple and smooth. Two essential components, the equipment and the operator, have to work together flawlessly in espresso preparation. Both of these are the topics of ongoing articles and discussions and the subject of many interesting books. The vast number of references to espresso machines and espresso techniques on the internet will give an indication of the prominence espresso amongst the coffee community. As this article deals with the third essential component of espresso making, I will discuss basics of roasting and blending for espresso.

Possibly the greatest challenge to the roastmaster is creating good espresso blends. Being a very concentrated coffee, espresso is able to deliver the true taste of fresh coffee but if even one element of it’s production is incorrect it will also amplify the flaw. A small variance in machine function or a temporary lapse of proper technique by the barista can ruin the shot of coffee and similarly a few bad beans in a blend might go unnoticed in drip coffee but un espresso they can spell disaster. This is not to suggest that it is almost impossible to produce good espresso but rather that it can only be done consistently when all the elements are understood and respected. In roasting and blending for espresso it is necessary to carefully choose quality coffee beans, to roast them to the proper point to develop the desired character. Espresso is almost always produced from a blend of coffees, the challenge is to blend them for refinement with strength and having harmony while allowing individual notes to sing out.

Roasting for espresso is the same as roasting other coffees, but not all degrees of roast are suitable. There is a common misconception that espresso is a very dark coffee. This might have come from the practice of some roasters using low quality green beans and over-roasting to cover up the flaws in the beans. Good espresso needs good green beans and the roast should bring out the better flavours inherent in the bean. The lighter espresso blends are a medium roast taken into the second crack but cooled before any oil is on the beans, any lighter than that and the espresso will taste sour. Darker espresso can be roasted until there is a bit of oil spotting on the surface of the beans. This gives a less bright shot and enhances the caramel and spice notes. Taking the beans to a full dark or a black roast will result in an unsuitable thin and bitter coffee when extracted as espresso.

Beans can be roasted individually and then blended to produce an espresso blend. This allows the use of beans with much different roast profiles to be blended. Post-blended espresso seems to retain much of the distinctive notes from the individual beans. Coffee can also be pre- blended before roasting. This seems to mute the individual character of each type of bean a bit and make for a more harmonious espresso. Pre-blending makes the process of roasting more efficient but the disadvantage is that the blend is limited to coffees that have similar roast profiles. It can be very difficult and time consuming to develop a good pre-blended espresso.

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In general, most washed arabica coffee beans have a clean bright taste while dry processed ‘natural’ coffees are valued for their sweetness and body. Coffee made from only washed beans might be delicious for vac pot or press coffees but the same blend concentrated to a one ounce espresso might come across as sour or acidic. A single variety natural coffee might produce an espresso on the other end of the spectrum, rather heavy and lifeless. Exotic and assertive coffees might be extraordinary but when used in espresso can overpower the tastebuds unless used in moderation.

Also as espresso is used in blended beverages as café latté it might need to be strong enough to allow its ‘coffee taste’ to survive the dilution with milk. Blending seems to be full of contradictions, to create the very strong coffee it is necessary to have a complex balance, so…espresso to be drank straight and strong needs to be delicate and refined, when drank mild and milky it must be strong and assertive.  Most roasters have more than one blend they use for espresso and it is possible that all roasters are still working on that one last blend that when achieved will match their ‘mental tastebuds’ , the elusive perfect espresso that exists in the imagination but is so real it seems more a memory than a fantasy. Can this all be achieved in one blend, one roast? Yes and no… possibly… I think…

In my efforts to blend for espresso I have had the best success with using a ‘natural’ bean for a base, a heavier bodied coffee to give the weight to carry through milk and for brightness usually a washed arabica. To this there can be another coffee added to give a ‘grace note’, something special that stands out but not enough to play its own tune. The natural coffee is the most difficult to find.

Many espresso blends are based on Brazilian coffees, this can work very well but it is difficult to acquire the better Brazilians and generic Santos serves only as a filler, contributing little on its own. I prefer Monte Carmello or a good Cerrado but of course there are other quality coffees from this country. Haitian naturals work very well as espresso base and having good body they can be used on a high proportion contributing a low acid sweetness as well as the necessary weight, unfortunately these coffees can be difficult to locate. Ethiopia produces very good natural coffees and my preference of those would be Longberry Harrar which is readily available and delicious. For body and weight the coffees that come to mind are of course Indonesian. Javas give a sweet buttery finish, Celebes coffees are rich and clean and Sumatrans are very spicy. It is common that Sumatran coffees are quite ‘funky’ with many imperfect beans. This can lead to a mustiness and earthy taste that some people like but I do not. Other Sumatrans are just ugly looking and the taste is more spicy, surprisingly this can contribute a taste similar to cumin that can be pleasing in espresso. The cleaner triple picked Sumatra coffees, the Lintongs and the Celebes coffee will work well in an espresso blend, more refined but lacking the spice notes of grade 1 Sumatra.

Brightness is another important quality of espresso, this it to make the coffee ‘dance’ on the palate, to make it alive. This is easy as there are so many good Central American beans. Good Guatemalans are hard to beat but Costa Rican coffees and the better Nicaraguan beans are also excellent Finally to lend a special taste one might add a bit of one coffee to give a specific character. This is usually not necessary but can be very nice. A small amount of Yemen can give hints of chocolate or a bit of Kenyan will increase the brightness of the blend, monsooned malabar also works well for this. Too much of a good thing can spoil the balance.

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Some people think that more beans make a better espresso but I do not believe that at all. There are very few coffees that by themselves have a good enough balance to make a single origin espresso, the exceptions that come to mind might be good Hawaiian or Haitian coffees. I find it usually takes three beans to make a good blend and one more if you want an extra note of distinction. Five beans in the blend might work well but more than that seems unnecessary. The proportion of each bean in the blend is crucial, each component must be tasted separately to understand its character so that it can be identified in the blend and adjusted accordingly.

Coming from a background as a chef, I put more faith in the senses of taste and smell than in technical procedure. Taste and adjust instead of quantify and analyse. I do not do this work with super accurate scales and laboratory equipment, that seems to me like cooking a sauce and finding it does not have enough spice – ‘Quick bring the gram scale and the beakers, we need more oregano here’. These things take time and experience, a little more of this and a bit less of that, all the time keeping detailed notes. There are so many variables just in the selection of beans and the proportions. Taste it as a straight shot, then americano, will it hold up to milk as cappuccino or café latté? Things just keep getting more complicated, what started out as ‘just a small cup of very strong coffee’ has become the object of innumerable combinations and permutations. Again, can one blend do it all? Yes and no…possibly…I think…

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