As ever, we’re charmed you’ve decided to spend a little time with us today. Once you’ve found your seat and your favorite warm beverage, we’ll start!
Making coffee beans taste delightful can be quite the complex process, so that’s what we want to talk about today. While the basic ingredients of coffee may only include some hydrogen, oxygen, a little heat, and ground beans, the process is what makes the difference. To tell the story of coffee, the ingredient list doesn’t do it justice. Neither does its origin, drying process, or brewing method. These are wonderful things—yes—but by themselves they don’t encapsulate the awe when you realize you’re sipping on a solution of water flavored with the dust of a ground, roasted, inspected, shipped, seed of a cherry from a plant located in another continent. This is the story we must tell, because to talk about our “roasting process” alone wouldn’t be enough.
Step 1: Sourcing
For us to brew good coffee we must roast good coffee, and to roast good coffee, we must know how coffee is farmed. This is the first step in our roasting process: deciding what to roast.
When we source, we source for two broad categories of coffees: Blends (Billy Goat, Roastmasters, etc.), and Single Origins (Guatemalan, Ethiopian, etc.). Since Blends are composed of multiple coffees from various regions, we must decide what we would like the coffee to taste like. Light and juicy? Bold and savory? These are questions that influence where to look. For our Single Origins, we decide what variety or region we want to highlight in our cafés, and then fill any gaps. For example, if we’re low on a Sumatra, we may set our sights on a Bali since they can have similar taste profiles.
With the Single Origins, once the region or country of interest is decided, then we’ll begin our evaluation. This step isn’t terribly exciting, but we essentially write up a contract for the highest quality coffee we can get. Anywhere from 6-10 bags are contracted, sometimes even up to 15 depending on the season, availability and exclusivity. Considering each bag is 130-150 lbs, that can end up being quite the shipment.
We’ll return to this step if or when our needs change. This requires us to keep our thumb on the proverbial pulse. We must familiarize ourselves with harvest schedules, yields, and farm conditions which impact the taste of each coffee. For example, if a particularly tasty Costa Rica becomes available, we might just stop everything and order some bags! But if our requirements are different, it’s smooth sailing. If anything changes, we navigate as necessary.
Step 2: Profile Building
Our offerings would go South very quickly if we threw the green coffee in the roaster and called it a day—we put too much effort into sourcing special coffee to be that negligent. This next step requires us to imagine what we want the coffee to taste like. Should our fancy Ethiopian grow up tasting like dark chocolate and blueberry? Or do we want to preserve its light, floral notes? Similarly, how do we want our blends to taste? Should the Billy Goat taste a bit citrusy? These are decisions we get to make before we get a-roastin’!
This step is multi-purposed. The early stage dictates how the coffee will taste while at the same time it becomes a form of quality control. It is constantly evolving since coffee is the seed from a fruit after all, and so batches can be inconsistent. Due to this, it is our job to stay dedicated to our original vision for each coffee. It’s a bit like steering a ship.
Step 3: Roasting
Who would’ve guessed that the third step to roasting coffee, is roasting coffee? Consider us over-complicators. Anyway, let’s get cracking! (That’s a joke you’ll understand later).
In one hand we have our green coffee beans, and in the other we have our profile notes—we’re ready to go. Within a few minutes, our pale, greenish-yellow beans will begin to taste like milk chocolate goodness. All it takes is a short trip in our Probat G60 roaster—which our human roaster, Joe, has yet to name.
Like we mentioned before, this is the step where everything comes to life. This is the step to which the others were prerequisite. I say that to impose the idea that we’re not simply “roasting” beans at this step. We’re not churning out “light roasts” or “dark roasts”—no. Instead, we’re building profiles that we spent time imagining. We’re taking site-specific flavors that already exists inside the bean and bringing them out from an otherwise tasteless coffee.
Coffee roasting is generally considered to occur in three distinct phases, Drying, Yellowing/Browning, and Caramelization/Acid Development.
In the first phase, the beans are added to the pre-heated roaster which will get to around 180°C – 205°C (356°F – 401°F). As its name implies, this phase dries the coffee. While the beans were dried before shipping, there’s still moisture inside the bean that needs to be extracted. Once the water is evaporated, the heat can start developing some of those flavors—most notably, sucrose—coffee’s main sugar.
The second step involves less water and more gasses. Here the bean might double in size and turn to a yellow-ish brown. An enormous amount of pressure begins to cultivate as temperatures are starting to expand the denser oils trapped within.
The third and final step is sometimes described as the “first crack”, when all the gasses developing inside the bean rapidly escape creating a distinct “pop” (think of popcorn in the microwave). This step is home to the charming coming-together of the coffee’s acids and sugars that give it its unique profile. The sugars which were just starting to develop in the first step are now beginning to caramelize in a process called the Maillard Reaction.
This is one of the most important crossroads in the roasting process. Caramelize the sugars too fast and the coffee will taste burnt. Emphasize the acids too much, and you’ve got yourself a drum of 400°F sour patch beans. Roast too slow, the coffee will taste baked and muted. Learning to navigate this balancing act is one of the greatest obstacles of the roasting process—and rightfully so. Carefully emphasize the acids of a Honduras while meeting it with a little sweetness, and you’ve just created a coffee that tastes like strawberries and milk chocolate.
Like many of the steps we already mentioned, this one will assuredly be revisited. Roasting coffee is a complex process composed like a clock. When one cog turns, so does the other. If a harvest changes, so does our profile building, which will impact our roasting. Alternatively, if we want a different flavor profile, we adjust the roasting, which can require a change in source country. These steps all move together, but they do so carefully. We take great pride in the coffee we serve you, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.