I had my first cup of coffee in Glasgow at age 19. It was during a tutorial, a group of us students huddled on dusty carpets and burnt-orange upholstered armchairs under the eaves of our Scottish literature professor’s fourth-floor office. Someone put the electric kettle on and soon cups of instant coffee were being passed around. I was a committed tea drinker, but I didn’t want to say no.
I can’t say that I liked the coffee. It was, as all first-time sippers may recall, bitter and thin tasting. But something about the experience stuck. The next day I ordered my first cappuccino at a nearby café. That soon became a regular ritual. Four months later, I arrived back in Baltimore a changed young woman. I was 5 pounds heavier, shorn of my springy, permed bob— and I was a coffee drinker.
Twenty years later, I’m no coffee gourmand, yet I do bother with the bean and the grinder. I allow myself to be treated to cappuccino on weekend mornings, and I always pick up a pound of Small World Coffee’s Rocket Blend for espresso when I visit my sister in Princeton, N.J., or Nicaragua Don Zeledon from Alterra, a roaster that merits a stop in Milwaukee when we pass through en route to visit relatives in Iowa. On a chilly rainy day in the Italian city of Lecce, I downed a memorable café correcto, inky espresso with a dash of booze (in this case, Sambuca), that warmed me, if not the gray city air. And if you’re ever in Columbus, Ohio, I know from experience that Café Brioso makes a mean cappuccino. But aside from sampling, my interest in coffee hadn’t gone much beyond half-heartedly comparing dark roasts to light or Central American to African blends. Until I met Jean Popovich last summer.
I was leaving Zeke’s Coffee on Harford Road, a bag of Bali-Timor blend in my hand, when Jean walked in with her father to buy green beans. “Green beans?” I wondered aloud. Yes, she told me. She was going to roast her own coffee at home, a habit she picked up when she was living in Serbia. “I can show you how,” she offered, and we exchanged contact info and promised to be in touch.
Months went by before I called her, only to learn from her father, Gary, that Jean and her husband had moved their professional flute repair business to Boston. But Gary kindly gave me the Popoviches’ number there, and when I called one morning to get instructions, I reached Jean’s husband, Boris. He had no idea who I was but kindly told me about their coffee roasting experiences.
Growing up in Belgrade, Boris explained, he used to watch his cousin roasting green coffee beans in the oven. When Boris and Jean moved to Serbia for a brief time, they took up the family tradition.
“The problem in Serbia,” said Boris, “is that they have really bad coffee.” So, Boris tracked down a company that sold Arabica beans wholesale to restaurants and went to work, pouring the beans into a roasting pan and roasting them at a steady temperature, shaking the pan every few minutes until the beans met the medium roast (what professional roasters call “full city roast”) he desired. He and Jean liked the results so much that they continued the practice when they returned to the States.
Eager to try my own hand at roasting, I returned to Zeke’s to procure green beans and get more detailed instructions from Todd Brizzi, Zeke’s master roaster. Todd expressed doubt when I told him about the Popovichs’ oven roasting method. Coffee beans require air for even roasting, he explained, pointing out that the roaster Zeke’s uses is essentially a giant hot air popper, not unlike ones folks use to make popcorn.
“I have a Whirley-Pop,” I volunteered, and Todd admitted that that might work. He explained that not much happens until the beans reach 300 degrees, when they start to change color and the chaff flakes off as the beans expand. When they reach 400 degrees, or first crack, “that’s when it sounds like popcorn,” Todd explained. Taking the beans to first crack yields a medium roast. If you roast longer, you hit a second crack and get a darker roast. “French roast,” said Todd, “is pretty much a controlled burn.” I leave Zeke’s with a $5 bag of Brazil Monte Carmelo, a sturdy bean Todd thinks can withstand my experimentation, and an admonition to wait at least 24 hours for the roasted beans to de-gas before brewing them.
At home, I’m oddly nervous. What if I burn the beans, stink up the house, or worse yet, ruin my husband’s Whirley-Pop? I decide to try the oven roasting method first, turning on the convection option in my stove (that’s moving air, right?) and setting the thermostat to 450 degrees. I pour a half-cup of pale green beans onto a cookie sheet and slide it into the oven. At one minute, they deepen in color to pale brown and then brown. At three minutes, they begin to smoke (oven fan: on!); at five minutes, they crack like popcorn. At six minutes they still don’t smell quite like coffee, but by eight minutes, they’ve turned the color of cocoa, with the exception of a few pale stragglers. I decide that I don’t want a dark roast, so I take the pan out of the oven and toss the beans back and forth between two metal colanders to cool them. They look like real coffee, I think, and so emboldened, I try the Whirley-Pop, promising my husband I’ll buy him a new one if I destroy this one.
Everything goes faster in the Whirley Pop. After one minute of continual cranking, the beans begin to brown, then smoke, and I turn the heat down to medium for fear of burning them. After two minutes, they crack and spring lightly in the air. There’s lots of smoke now and the beans are deep caramel before I know it. At four minutes, I judge better safe than sorry and toss them into the colander.
It’s hard to wait 24 hours, but I follow the rules and let a whole day pass before brewing a cup of each method (“Mary’s Home Roast Convection” and “Mary’s Home Roast Whirley Pop”) and sit down to conduct my own informal taste test. The Whirley Pop brew is darker with a little bite, while the oven roasted brew is soft and mild. Neither is spectacular, but each holds its own as a cup of coffee. I feel oddly proud, as if I’d grown and harvested the beans myself, instead of simply roasting them. I have visions of creating my own blends, propping up burlap sacks of beans against my kitchen wall, learning to make heart shapes in the cappuccino foam.
Then the caffeine buzz wears off and it’s time to make another pot of dreams.
Local roasters: Zeke’s (http://www.zekescoffee.com, 443-992-4388) and Bluebird Artisanal Coffee Roasters (http://www.bluebirdcoffee.com, 410-675-2424) sell green beans to home roasters. Seven Bridges Cooperative offers step-by-step instructions (including the Whirley-Pop method) on its Web site, http://www.breworganic.com.