[Ed. Note: This article concludes Off-Topic Week at TOP.
It didn't go so well, I'd say. Next time I do this I need to write the articles in advance; I didn't have much time this week for writing. Plus, I really actually would prefer to write about photography, which, I guess, makes perfect sense. I only made it till about Wednesday before I got the itch to start posting photography-related posts again. But at that point I figured yet another about-face on my part would just confuse people.
Well, I guess if you never do any experiments, then you never learn anything. But I probably won't do this again—I think one regular off-topic post a week—"Open Mike," on Sundays—plus the occasional unscheduled blip, blurt, or blat are plenty for me.]
My Behmor 1600 home coffee roaster gave up the ghost this morning. I met Zander and his girlfriend for dinner at a roadhouse in the tiny Wisconsin town of Lomira on Friday—it's halfway between Waukesha, where I live, and Oshkosh, where they're students at the U of W—and the batch of Phil Rosenberg's Kona I took to them as a "care package" turned out to be the last gasp for the Behmor. This morning the motor is dead.
That's right about on schedule. I roasted my first batch of green beans (that's what unroasted coffee beans are called) on Friday, December 23, 2011, and the Behmor 1600s are widely reputed to last for just about two years. Mine did that and another two months plus.
Cost-wise, fresh roasted coffee is about a wash. The roasting machine cost 38¢ a day; but because green beans cost about 1/2 to 2/3rds the cost of shop-roasted coffee, I probably saved at least that much over the 26 months the roaster was in operation. (Precise accounting is impossible, because I buy different coffees when I buy green beans vs. roasted, packaged commercial varieties.)
Quality is a big win for home roasting. If I were to quantify the quality of various options subjectively, here is what I'd say:
Canned, instant, and convenience-store coffees: 0–2, maybe rising to a 3 for those who have succumbed to slave mentality and habituated themselves to their misery;
Grocery store or gourmet shop whole beans, vacuum-sealed: 2–5;
Starbucks: a narrow range of about 5–6, with the substantial caveat that you must enjoy overcooked, roasty-flavored coffee (the primary benefit of Starbuck's is convenience and consistency—you'll never get good coffee there, but you'll never get bad coffee there either);
Seattle's Best, the best pre-packaged coffee I ever found (now owned by Starbuck's but operated independently, or so everyone claims): 6
Independent coffee-house coffee: 4–7 (the high end of this range might seem insultingly low to baristas, but I've personally never had a cup of coffee in a coffee house as good as what I routinely make at home. I should add that coffee houses are thin on ye ground in the Wilds of Waukesha and I don't seek them out in any case).
My fresh home roasted coffee in the Behmor: 7–9 (I'm not exactly tootling my own horn here, at least not too much: there's a lot to be said for a) truly superior beans [search this site for "Kuni'i" for more on that], and b) freshness (grinding 4–12 hours after you roast and brewing right after you grind).
Why no "10"? Just being realistic. I tend to come up to speed in my enthusiasms relatively quickly, to whatever level I choose. But I haven't become a true coffee geek. I was revving along at full speed learning the minutiae of coffee connoisseurship until I brought that particular train to a halt because I don't believe I have good enough smelling and tasting abilities to allow me to learn to become a true savant. My very good cup of Phil's Kona in the mornings is good enough for me. So I'm assuming that my subjective evaluations of coffee quality are just true for me, and might not be agreed to by real savants who have better tastebuds and more sensitive olfactory organs than I do.
Besides, every rating system needs to leave room at the top for future surprises, right?
Home roasting is more bother than buying prepackaged roasted whole beans or ground coffee, but less bother than you'd think, once you get set up to do it. You do have to come up to speed with the basic skills, which I would estimate I did over the course of about three weeks. At this point, though, I roast coffee approximately every four days, and it's as automatic as any other household chore. I would say (subjectively again) that it's as much trouble as washing the dishes. No less, but no more.
It takes about 25 minutes. Through most of that time you're just waiting (I usually read or surf the Web on my iPad Air), and cleanup takes less than two minutes.
You have to attend to the machine during the actual roast (there's a danger of fire, which means you should never let the roasting stage go unattended), but you don't have to stay in the room for the cooldown period, which is almost as long as the roasting time.
Many's the time I've woken up to find I'm out of roasted coffee and I have to roast a batch along with my other morning chores, and even that is not too much of a bother, although I usually wish I'd remembered to do it the night before.
Bottom line: I've bought another. My second Behmor 1600 is on the way. Without complaint.
Using the Behmor 1600
For those few of you who might be contemplating a Behmor 1600 of your own, I'll cover some details about how to use one. If you're interested in that bit, please click past the break.
Using a Behmor 1600 home coffee roaster ($299) is simple—too simple for real connoisseurs. However, there isn't a true small-scale alternative that's unreservedly better; most of the home roasters on the market have drawbacks of one sort or another, and commercial "sample roasters" and "shop roasters" can cost $3,500 to $10,000 and require more expertise to run. The best home roasters are probably the Hottop ($820) and the Quest M3 ($1,350 and currently not available). I've never used either.
To use a Behmor 1600 you need a ventilated space to put it—it's about as large as a large toaster oven and needs a foot or two of free space around it. It has a pretty effective smoke-reduction system so it's okay for using in a kitchen that can be closed off—it will set off smoke alarms otherwise. The smell is very strong after roasting but dissipates satisfactorily after running the exhaust fan for a while.
For cleanup, you need a Shop-Vac or a hand-held vacuum with a round or narrow nozzle handy. Cleanup however is very quick, about 90 seconds.
The Behmor has some quirks, most notably:
• Auto shutdown: The machine allows you to extend the roasting time manually, but not indefinitely. Eventually it will shut itself off whether you're ready for it to stop or not.
• For the above reason, most people roast less coffee than the weight setting they're using. That is, when using the 1/2 pound setting (my standard), I load only 6.5 ounces of beans. The machine is advertised as being able to roast a whole pound at once, but it cannot in most cases. If using the one-pound setting, I would roast 12 ounces at the most—and even then you can get into trouble with the machine shutting down before the roast has finished. Note that when this happens, your roast is ruined because the machine will not start up again until it has gone through a complete cooling cycle. It's best to be conservative to avoid wasting beans.
I always open the door completely during the cooling cycle, because the big weakness of the Behmor is that the cooling phase isn't instantaneous enough (commercial roasters stop the roast by dumping the beans out into a giant tray and drawing cool room-temperature air through perforations in the bottom of the tray). Opening the door however is a bit messier—you'll get chaff on the counter. Not an issue for me, but you could experiment with just cracking the door or leaving it shut during the cooling cycle if you want to.
The standard way of timing a roast is by a) listening and b) evaluating the color of the beans. As coffee cooks it goes through two distinct cracking phases—first crack, which is more of a snapping sound, followed by a pause, followed by second crack, which is a thinner, lighter sound similar to paper being crumpled. I usually stop the roast at the end of first crack or the beginning of second crack, because of the degree of roast I like.
You can be as obsessive or as casual as you want to be about the various settings and timing methods. I go the simple route, so I just use Joe Behm's timing method—I wait for first crack to start and then set a standard time for the completion of the roast. Of course, if you are roasting the same kind of green beans over and over again, eventually it gets automatic.
Note, however, that you cannot buy "the same kind of green beans" indefinitely. Even if you buy the same pure variety from the same grower, beans from different crops will roast, and taste, somewhat differently. My last buy from Kuni'i Coffee was 20 lbs., which will last me for a good long while, so after I get the roasting process "dialed in" for that bean, it won't change.
Although roasted coffee will lose its distinctive flavor progressively, becoming "generic tasting" within eight days to two weeks, green coffee keeps just fine for a year, in some cases two years, and sometimes even longer. So there's no rush to use up your green beans.
This machine is not really too suitable for dark roasts. Some people do it, but the danger of fire increases considerably and the machine fights you with its timing safeguards. The rule of thumb is that the darker the roast, the more you taste the roast; the lighter the roast, the more you taste the distinctive flavors of the bean cultivars you're roasting. (Besides, if you like roasty dark coffee, you probably already like Starbucks just fine.) For the light to medium roasts I like, the Behmor 1600 is perfect.
Finally, a couple of tips: try home-roasted coffee without sugar. People put sugar in coffee because it's bitter, but that's a fault, not a feature. Good fresh-roasted coffee ground just before brewing just doesn't taste bitter at all. A final tip is that really good fresh coffee changes flavor as it cools. If you allow it to cool toward room temperature as you drink it, you'll find that your last sips are just as enjoyable as the first.
In short, if you have the room in your kitchen or a ventilated back porch, and you're interested in roasting your own, I'd encourage you to try it. If you work your way through a few pounds and find the process isn't for you, a newish Behmor 1600 would sell readily on eBay, I'd think. Just keep track of the number of roasts you've used it for.
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Mike Anderson: "Mike, I'm curious about your (and others') brewing technique. Perhaps you've already covered this in a previous post. I recently got an Aeropress and it's an improvement over techniques I've tried at home—bonus: it's cheap. Still working on dialing the process in."
Mike replies: I wrote about that on 6/9/13 in a post called "Open Mike: Indexer." To save time, start reading at the header that says "Try again."
Rob L: "I get my caffeine the way god intended: in a can, or a bottle. :-) But still interesting to read about what it takes to get a good cuppa. Granted, I can get pedantic on the proper temperature and filtration of water for a perfect soda fountain, so nice to know we're all a little crazy about what we consume—as well we should! Life is too short for crap. (My favorite coat is from Filson's—whose motto is 'Might as well get the best.' That might be on my tombstone. :-) "
Mike replies: Guess what? The caffeine in those cans or bottles come from coffee.
Roger: "I'm still running on a v. 1.0 Behmor. I think that's at least four years with the original parts. Damn thing just won't die. I'd love a new model with the fine mesh drum and the improved chaff tray but this one has to slip its mortal coil before I drop another three hundred bucks on one. It certainly has paid for itself and I still enjoy my weekly roasting session. Kind of nice having a hobby that saves me money instead of sucking my wallet dry."
Philip Rosenberg: "Hi Mike—thanks for mentioning Kuni'i again, and am happy you still enjoy our coffee. I just finished pruning our 1600 trees, and need a break. Maybe a trip up Mauna Kea again this week to see some snow for a change! Stay well."
Zalman Stern: "The Hottop roaster is a fair bit more money, but rock solid reliable and has a great reputation for replacement part availability. It will also absolutely do as dark a roast as you want. The thing I like best about home roasting is I don't run out of coffee because I forget to buy it."