Editor’s note: Listen to this week’s Eat LA on Off-Ramp podcast from KPCC, which follows Jean as she learns to roast.
My left hand was cramping, locked in a death grip on the wooden handle of a hot Whirley-Pop popcorn popper as my right hand cranked the stirrer that spun around the pot’s interior. Ian Riley lifted the popper’s lid, squinted at the contents and said, “It’s time.” He turned off the gas burner while I dumped out the popper’s contents into an empty roasting pan.
Just like that, I was a coffee roaster.
Along with eight other attendees at a recent coffee roasting class at the Institute for Domestic Technology, Joseph Shuldiner’s Altadena-based foodcrafting academy, I learned that green beans aren’t always a vegetable; for coffee nerds, they’re coffee beans before they are roasted. According to class instructor Riley, who roasts for a local coffee boutique and co-owns Altadena’s Plow & Gun Coffee, you don’t need an expensive contraption to toast up your own beans. The Whirley-Pop, a $29 stovetop popcorn popper, works mighty fine—in fact, better than many electric coffee roasters sold for home use. “I have found that electric roasters don’t have enough power, but [stove] burners have more than enough,” Riley says. “You have a lot of BTUs at your disposal.”
During the two-hour course, held at the Zane Gray estate, a private residence in Altadena, we learned about cupping, the term professionals use for tasting coffee. We compared the aromas and flavors of coffees from Colombia, Brazil and Mexico and judged a range of roasts, from medium to Vienna to dark French. Then it was time to take to the stove with our Whirley-Pops.
With a timer ticking away, we stirred the beans, lifting the pot lid every so often to check the color as it changed from dull green to golden, then to brownish. After eight to twelve minutes, pop-pop! The explosive sound signified “first crack,” the initial stage of coffee roasting. For a darker roast, you cook until second crack, a sound akin to twigs crackling in a bonfire. Second crack can be hard to hear over the noise of Whirley-Pops a-twirling, but it’s unmistakable when you catch it. After that, the longer you cook the beans, the darker the roast. To get it right takes some practice; for more tips, check YouTube for videos of Whirley-Pops in action.
Then it was time for a nice cup of joe, made in a Bodum French press. First, Riley warmed the pot with hot water and poured it out, then deftly added freshly ground coffee, poured in a precise amount of just-boiled water, stirred to distribute the solids and finally, topped the pot with more water and the lid. While the coffee steeped, we students tried to extract as much additional coffee intel as we could from Riley.
“The right grinder is the best investment you can make,” he says, favoring burr grinders, which start at about $45, over less expensive spinning blade devices. Just-roasted coffee will stay fresh for two to three weeks, but the unroasted green beans are far more shelf-stable, lasting up to six months. Keep beans in a cool, dry spot, never the refrigerator or freezer, where they are subject to condensation. And, Riley advises, experiment with grinds until you find the right flavor for your coffeemaker and your taste.
His French press coffee was superb; well-balanced and bold with bright acidity. I, for one, resolved to up my coffee game with my own Whirley-Pop and a supply of green beans (Riley recommends Sweet Maria’s, an online source, at sweetmarias.com).
Another student, Maria Murray of Sierra Madre, packed up her freshly roasted beans and said she had a plan, too. “I am doing it for my husband, who is addicted to Starbucks,” she said. “Tomorrow we’re doing a blind tasting, and we’ll see.”
Update: Murray e-mailed us with the results of her experiment. “Drum roll please … After following Ian’s directions of warming up my coffee maker with just hot water first, and measuring my perfect dark roast coffee beans from class … I was ready for my husband Jim to walk through the door with his usual ‘bold’ cup of the day from Starbucks Coffee.
“After smelling and sipping both cups carefully, Jim declared boldly, ‘This one is Starbucks. It’s smoother!’ Ha! It was Ian’s and to really put the experiment in perspective, Jim has been enjoying Starbucks every day since 1992!”
For info on coffee roasting and other food-crafting classes, go to institutefordomestictechnology.com