My Life’s Work

Such a beautiful plant.

Such a beautiful plant.

I’m reaching my goals.

Slowly, sure. But I’m reaching them!

Coffee has always been a passion of mine, and I’m taking necessary steps to realize my true vision. My career.

I see bumps in the road. I see many challenges. But at the end of all that, I also see great reward. A great joy knowing that I’m following the path toward my dream.

Over the past few weeks, I have been showing you rudimentary methods by which coffee beans can be roasted. These methods produce a fine coffee, sure, but my sights are set on bigger, better things.

These coffees that I’ve been roasting I have begun to score. Let me explain: to be considered “specialty coffee” by the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America), it must meet certain criteria. The coffee must be scored based on criteria discussed in a previous post here: Fragrance, Aroma, Acidity, Body/Mouthfeel, Flavor, Finish/Aftertaste, and a special consideration to the overall Balance of the cup. Each of these scores are rated on a 6.0 – 10.0 point basis, with scores that fall below that considered below the realm of specialty coffee. To truly be considered “specialty,” the coffee itself must score about an 80.0.

There are a few other aspects that go into the overall scoring of the coffee, but these are the most basic, necessary criteria.

Long story short, I’ve taken up researching the process, and have begun scoring my coffees.

One day… hopefully soon, the best of the best will be available for all of you!


Adventures in Coffee Roasting — Part 2: A Guide to Home Roasting

Fresh Roasted Beans

It smells as good at it looks!

The last post on coffee roasting got such a great response, I’ve decided to post a step-by-step guide to roasting your own beans in the comfort of your kitchen. You don’t need special equipment, though there are many wonderful machines available for you to purchase. Instead, you can get a great-tasting roast using your home oven.

My coffee workstation.

My coffee workstation.

My workstation is modest: a handful of green coffee selections, a kitchen scale, and of course, a coffee roast journal, where I log each and every one of my roasts. Today, I am allowing you a look inside my book of secret recipes. Prior to this, only my fiancée and I have seen the inside of this journal. Welcome to the inner circle, my readers!

Ethiopian Blend

Ethiopian Blend

In keeping with my last post, I decided to make a variation on the Mokha Java blend. Sadly, I found that I was low on my Yemeni beans, so I went for the next best thing. I started with a blend of Ethiopian beans I had a stash of, weighing out at six ounces.

The full green blend.

The full green blend.

Figuring that the roast process would shed about 80% of the moisture found in the beans, I needed an extra four ounces of coffee. Combining the Java beans, I now had the ingredients I needed to make my variation Mokha Java blend.

Oven prepped, and beans ready.

Oven prepped, and beans ready.

The whole lot fit quite nicely on a cookie sheet that I covered with some parchment paper. You can never have enough parchment paper! The oven had already been preheated to 500 degrees, and I now, we’re ready to roast.

You want a hot oven when you’re roasting coffee. Anything less than 450, and the beans take too long to reach their full potential. When using an oven, you want to keep the roast process fairly quick, or you run the risk of coffee with a sort of “baked” taste as opposed to a softer, more pleasing “roasty” flavor. MY roast today is going to be fairly middle of the road, so you need to make sure your beans can reach temperatures of 430-440 fairly quickly. To measure this, I placed an oven thermometer in with the beans to get a rough estimate of temperature.

Be sure to agitate the beans.

Be sure to agitate the beans.

Every five minutes, I take the beans out of the oven for a few seconds and mix them around with a spatula. This has two effects: it loosens the chaff, or outer skin around the beans, allowing it to fall away as the beans roast. It also allows for a much more even, uniform roast. I do not recommend skipping this step!

The view from the outside.

The view from the outside.

All the fun happens when the beans are in the oven, so I find myself sitting down next to it. Waiting. Watching. And, most importantly, listening. You are waiting to hear a series of loud POPs inside the oven, not unlike the sound of popping corn. As the moisture inside the beans is released, the beans expand and, quite literally, explode. The first series, called first crack, is really your first indicator that the beans are ready to be ground and brewed. Drinking a roast that has not undergone this first crack will leave you with a mealy, grassy, yeasty cup of, basically, discolored water.

My first crack began around the eight minute mark, and intensified about nine minutes into the roast. Wanting to keep that medium roast body, I took the beans out to agitate at the ten minute mark, ten placed them back in for just a few more minutes, allowing first crack to finish throughout the batch.

Had I wanted a dark roast blend, I would have let the beans sit until the second series of explosions began, also known as second crack. As mentioned in previous posts, this process is much more violent, and causes little shards of bean shrapnel to fly around the oven. Want it darker? Let the sound of beans popping build to a crescendo, but be very careful. The difference between “dark roast” and fire could only be a few moments…

Imitation Mokha Java blend.

Imitation Mokha Java blend.

Just like that, less than fifteen minutes later, you have a fresh roast of beans that you can call your own!

One thing to be aware of: the beans are still giving off CO2 at this point. This is an important part of the roast process as the moisture continues to evaporate and sugars continue to caramelize while the beans settle. Though the temptation will be there, you should allow your beans 24-72 hours before grinding and brewing. Trust me, it will be worth the wait!

All according to plan!

All according to plan!

As I calculated, I was left with eight ounces of fresh roasted coffee! At this point, find a container, I recommend a clean, dry mason jar with a lid, and store your beans. Don’t screw on the lid too tightly yet. Remember to allow a few hours to let the beans expel some CO2. In a day or two, you’ll have the freshest coffee money can buy!

A sneak peak at my secrets!

A sneak peak at my secrets!

Now you too can see my coffee notes. Keep them as detailed as you like, but I definitely recommend keeping notes so you can reproduce roasts you enjoy! Yes… I did cover a bit of the recipe. I can’t let ALL me secrets out!

That’s all there is to it! With these tools, as well as a good source for your coffee (like Sweet Maria’s), you too can roast and brew your best at home!

READERS!

Would you like to win a free half pound of roasted coffee?

I will be giving away a free, hand-crafted, fresh-roasted half pound of beans to one of you!

Send me an email at oflifeandcoffee@gmail.com and include the following information:

  • Your name.
  • Your drink of choice at your local coffee shop.
  • What you look for in a coffee shop.
  • A topic you would like to see me cover in a future post.

One of you will receive an exclusive half pound of coffee with tasting notes, and a mention in a future blog.

You must be a subscriber, and you must live within the contiguous United States to qualify. I look forward to hearing from you, and good luck!


One Blend to Rule Them All

Lord of the Coffee Rings

Lord of the Coffee Rings

Okay, so maybe this title is a bit of a misnomer, as everyone’s palate is different. Therefore, not everyone will necessarily agree with my assessments today, but proceed I shall!

A quick look into coffee history would take us back to Ethiopian, noted for being the “birthplace” of coffee. After stories of energetic goats and herders from far and wide trying to get their hands on this newfound “energy fruit,” we can begin looking at the two sources that begat the world’s first coffee blend: Mocha/Mokha, Yemen and the VOC (Dutch East India Trading Company) controlled island of Java. (See where I’m headed yet?!)

Mokha was, between the 15th and 17th centuries, the premier trade port in the country of Yemen, especially for coffee beans. The flavor of these Yemeni beans was so highly regarded that even when the coffee plants were discovered and planted the world over, these beans were still among the most prized. Named for Al-Makha, the port through which it was traded, this coffee boasts a distinct chocolate tone, and is where the name for the modern café mocha is derived. It is through this port that coffee first became an item traded on the world market.

A few thousand miles to the east, the Dutch East India Trading Company controls the second such coffee port on the Indonesian island of Java. It was on their trade routes, with Java beans in tow, that these traders loaded up their hulls with a fresh crop from Yemen. These beans sat in the ship for the remainder of the route, and by some happy accident, the Mocha Java blend was born.

The flavors in this blend were found to be very pleasing to the Europeans. Coffee from Yemen tended to have what was described as “wild” flavors, and the addition of the Java beans, which tended to be slightly more mellow in nature, brought the brew to an easy-to-drink balance of sweet and spice with the signature Yemeni chocolate tones.

Sadly, since this point in history, the ports in Al-Makha have fallen into landlocked ruin, and the higher quality, arabica coffee crop on Java largely fell to coffee rust, a devastating fungal infection occurring on a coffee plant, making a true “Mokha-Java” blend much more difficult to come by. Some coffee chains resort to substituting Ethiopian and Sumatran beans with similar characteristics, hoping to get a close approximation. Even looking through the coffee bean offerings at Starbucks, you cannot find a Mocha Java blend.

All is not lost. In truth, there are still worthy, healthy crops in those regions, for those worthy to seek them out. The chains that substitute beans still have a worthwhile product, and there are coffee companies that have dedicated their resources to offering a true Mocha Java.

My challenge to you this week is this: go to your local coffee shop and ask for a french press of Mocha Java. This has always been my favorite way to enjoy this sweet, syrupy coffee. Ask to smell the ground beans before they pour in the water. Allow the beans to sit in the water for four minutes, pour into your mug (or a decanter to keep them from over-brewing), and before you drink, take a deep inhale. Smell the aromas. The sweetness, the spice. Let the coffee fill you before you even take that first sip. Think of the history of the blend. Imagine the centuries worth of people who have enjoyed this very blend you have before you. Take a moment to appreciate the coffee for what it really is.

Sit back, and sip away.


Adventures in Coffee Roasting

Good day, coffee lovers! It’s been a while since we last sat down together.

Since my last post I’ve gotten engaged to a truly wonderful girl, I’ve managed my coffee team through another retail Christmas, and I’ve finally embarked on an adventure that has started paving my way to my own shop.

I’ve started home-roasting my own beans.

I still go out to some of my favorite haunts to sit down with a cappuccino or latte, chatting with the employees about how business has been, or even catching up with old friends. I have my favorite roasts and blends from many different locations. The atmosphere and ambiance of my local coffee shops is hard to replace. But with an eye on my future shop, and an intense curiosity, I began researching green coffee beans and various roast methods.

The transformation of a coffee bean.

The transformation of a coffee bean.

Among the methods I’ve researched (and until I have the $$$ to grab the $35k roaster I REALLY want), I’ve been using a combination of air roasting with this nifty machine purchased through Sweet Maria’s online coffee shop, and a regular, everyone’s-got-one home oven. The results have been surprising, consistent, and downright tasty.

Using the sampler included with the air roaster, as well as some beans I purchased out of curiosity, nearly twenty different batches of coffee have been roasted, both blends and single-origin, spanning the entire coffee roast spectrum, as shown above. This is where the experimentation really becomes fun.

Roasting single-origin beans to various degrees of darkness, I am able to taste the natural, inherent flavors of their geographical home, or turn the heat up a bit and really taste how their natural sugars caramelize and what taste the beans achieve at the darker roasts. From there, I can analyze these flavors and make a fairly educated guess as to how the beans would taste when blended together.

A few roasts (and a few burns) later, I’m close to establishing my very own “House Blend.” The blend I can call my own. The blend I will serve to friends and family when I have visitors. The blend that will perfectly embody my ideal “introductory” coffee. The blend that has my store’s name on it.

I am very close to establishing the blend that you, my readers, will think of when you think of my coffee shop.

What are some of your favorite coffees at your local shops? What makes them special? How is the body on the coffee? Is it smooth? Tangy? Tart? Acidic?

Leave me a comment telling me what makes a coffee perfect for you!


Growing With Coffee

Time to spill the beans…

Travelling between coffee shops, there is one question I hear asked of the employees behind the counter constantly…

“Do you have something like the [insert coffee chain] xxx-ccino?”

Okay. Looking for familiarity. I understand that. What surprises and shocks me more is when the employees attempt to explain the products they do offer…and are met with a scoff and something along the lines of…

“You DON’T have that?! Uggh.”

Happens more than you may think, and it’s really a shame. It seems as though there is a ceiling we’re at now, a stagnation, where current coffee shops cannot (will not?) break through the barrier and allow coffee to flourish.

Misinformation and misnomers confuse the coffee culture and have confounded two, almost three generations of “coffee drinkers.” For example, a macchiato is espresso with a dollop of milk staining the top. Marking the coffee, where the name comes from. It is not a latte topped with a drizzle of caramel.

It seems clear to me that the industry is in need of rejuvenation.

The industry is ready for a rebirth.


The Best of These Worlds

Truer words have never been spoken!

Hello friends! It’s been a bit of a hiatus as of late, and I must say, I’ve missed writing. But his has given me some time to gather some thoughts for this very moment, so let’s jump right in!

I’m beginning to put together the pieces for my own shop… but that fear keeps setting in. Where should I open it? What should it look like?

Most importantly, just how much do I need to make to keep my doors open?

These are the questions that haunt anyone looking to open a business, I’m sure. There are days where I feel like nothing in this world can stop me, I could open my doors tomorrow, and nothing could stop me on my journey to coffee success. Other days, I fear I’ll never gather the gumption to be able to open up.

It’s in those moments that I decide to fall back on a favorite pastime of mine: visiting different coffee shops. For this blog, three pop into my head. For purposes of this post, I’ll refer to them simply as the Lakeside Shop, the College Stop, and the Old Friend, Renamed.

I had never visited the Lakeside Shop before very recently, but it’s a location my folks enjoy, not only for the java, but for the wonderful view over the neighboring lake. The shop was cozy and had a very homey feel, though, without air conditioning, became very warm the day I visited. Not a deal breaker, by any means! Just something that I noticed. The menu was simple; maybe a dozen or so drinks with a few syrup/flavor options. They did have a great sandwich-builder menu. Easy to read, well laid out, and some great options for food.

I ordered a cappuccino and a sandwich (turkey and salami on rye! One of my favorite combinations.) The sandwich was excellent. The cappuccino…well, it was okay. Technically, it was a cappuccino! One part espresso, one part milk, one part froth. The issue I had with it was that it was created like a…how shall I put this… a coffee parfait, the froth scooped on top like a garnish rather than being allowed to incorporate with the flavors, bodies, and textures of the other two ingredients. The coffee itself was adequate. It was made well with a quality machine, but the beans weren’t special. And isn’t that why we go to a coffee shop? For coffee?

The service was okay. One particularly…abrasive employee, but everyone else was pleasant and friendly. I did not have an opportunity during my visit to pick their brains about coffee…they had a fairly busy afternoon. And in the end, that’s the ultimate judge of a coffee shop’s success: the lines they service.

During my visit to the College Stop, a little shop in a strip mall by a local community college, I was greeted by a large seating area, a case full of baked goods…and employees behind the counter doing…I don’t know. They were looking at something behind the counter, and seemed a little surprised to see me. A sign of the store’s “success”? Once greeted, the employees were friendly, but very matter-of-fact. Very little chatting or banter, just a very business-like approach to my coffee transaction.

I ordered an espresso and a muffin. As seems to be the pattern so far, the muffin was good…the espresso was just okay. I couldn’t tell what machine was being used to pull my shots. I did notice that it took about 15 seconds to pull them, which is, even by espresso standards, exceptionally short. A quality shot of espresso should pull for a minimum of 20 seconds, and even that is too short by the standards laid out by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. The shots were bright and acidic, lacking the signature caramel-like sweetness caused by the extra time spent extracting in hot water, allowing the sugars and oils in the beans to actually caramelize and sweeten the espresso naturally. It wasn’t the worst coffee I’ve ever had…but it certainly left a bad taste in my mouth!

Out of curiosity, I had to visit a location that I used to frequent under a different name, but was now new and reopened. My Old Friend was still in that very familiar location near the train tracks. Walking into the doors was strange, expecting to see some very familiar seating and decor. Instead, I felt as though I were swimming in a very large space. Almost thrown together, but vacant. It was day one, so I was willing to overlook this minor gripe.

Perusing the menu, I noticed a golden word: Ristretto. I challenge you to walk into your favorite mainstream coffee shop and ask for a ristretto. See what kind of reactions you get.

Simply put, a ristretto is the first half of an espresso shot. Remember my earlier post on brewing coffee, where I mentioned that the first half of the pot would have the strongest perceivable flavors from the beans? On a home coffee maker, this would give you half a pot from a full pot’s worth of beans, which becomes costly, wasteful, and fairly difficult to successfully manage. On an espresso machine, where you’re using beans in much smaller batches and in a much more specific environment, you can experience this sweeter, stronger, richer brew without the guilt of wasting a massive quantity of coffee beans.

Curious, I ordered my ristretto and the process of being run in started. A young girl (very young…likely the daughter of the owner) manned the register. She was kind and quite pleasant…but had no clue what I was getting (yes, I told her), or how to find it. That’s okay. Everyone has to learn. A bit of coaching in the moment is a great learning experience. I received my shots and downed them. Still standing at the register, I waited while she struggled with the credit card machine. Long story short, my five minute visit turned into fifteen minutes while I waited to pay for the drink I had already consumed.

I understand that the register can be scary, and I do have sympathy for the girl…though as a potential business owner, I have to think you’d want to put your best foot forward in this situation. Put someone knowledgeable in both coffee and the store menu in position to handle the customers. I was kind, friendly, and courteous during my visit… but I can imagine a customer or two becoming quickly frustrated and not showing the same kindness, which would be a shame both to the girl’s psyche, and the young reputation of the store.

The ristretto, on the other hand, was fantastic! Perfectly pulled, the color was a wonderful, glowing bronze. The brew had a sweet, decadent aroma, and the taste was creamy and smooth. If/when I return to this shop in the future, it will be for the coffee. Judging from these shots, the barista was well-trained and knew how to handle and brew the product. That is invaluable to any specialty coffee shop worth its salt.

The point of these three illustrations is this: each store had a little something to offer, but each store fell short of perfection. It’s visits like this that will undoubtedly help me in my coffee quest. Use those positive qualities while learning from the things that can be considered drawbacks. Take bits and pieces of these experiences to create that one-of-a-kind shop that people will flock to.

That’s the dream!


Community of Coffee

Doug graciously asked me to write a guest post for his blog this week, and I jumped on the opportunity. Let me introduce myself briefly: my name is Amy, I adore coffee, regale people in captive audience situations with “hilarious” tales about my cat, read indiscriminately, and blog over at Caffe Vita.

People hate listening to me talk about coffee because I get a little nerdy. They usually only make the mistake once of asking, “What are you drinking?” when I’m holding a coffee cup because the answer is obnoxiously long, as I launch into an explanation of really good froth versus average froth, and what crema is, and so on.

But, if I’m being honest, although I love coffee both as an art form and as a skill, there’s something I love about it more.

I love coffee because it creates social bonds. Coffee links people. I think that most of us would agree that too much of our lives are fractured like shards of a broken glass, and that we long for more connection, more meaning-laden moments with people. I mostly experience these moments over coffee.

I learned more about my Oma (the informal German name for grandmother) in a little story snapshot she told us, for example, than I ever have before. One May morning, while visiting her in Florida, we all sat drinking coffee, when she began to reminisce about coffee in the old country.

When she was young in Serbia, families would buy green coffee beans because they were cheapest and would roast them on trays in the oven. Then they would grind the beans very fine in a brass grinder with a hand crank. In the mornings, they would brew the coffee in a pot over a “spiritous lamp,” as Oma called it: a small alcohol-fueled burner. This way, they didn’t need to wait to stoke up the wood burning stoves to brew coffee. They set the little, long-handled pot filled with water and newly ground coffee atop the burner. When it bubbled, they lifted it off the burner for a moment, then set it back down. It would bubble up again and be lifted off again, the process creating a natural crema on the coffee. The brewed coffee was then poured into tiny cups. On more leisurely days, like Sundays, the family would sit for hours drinking coffee and talking, nothing rushed. After the family finished their coffee, they would tip the cup upside down onto the saucer, wait for it to dry, and then read their fortunes in the whorls and swirls of the dried grounds in the cups.

Now, as then, coffee connects me to those I love. On Saturday mornings, I meet with several of my close friends at a local coffee shop, and we sit for hours (annoying the baristas, no doubt, as we commandeer several tables): I with my espresso, MaryBeth with a soy vanilla latte, Hannah with an iced white mocha, Hope with drip coffee mixed with her gluten-free creamer and sweetener from home, and Kaitlin with whatever strikes her fancy that week. We sit and we talk, slowly sipping our drinks and simultaneously interweaving bits of our lives, creating a richer and stronger personal fabric than we had previously possessed.

Perhaps coffee is slightly magical. It provides a focal point around which we naturally gather. Its pull is so strong that Charles II attempted to ban coffee houses in 1675 because he was threatened by the Enlightenment political and religious conversations that transpired there.

I think we all sense the power that coffee has to bring us together and to trace a line through history, connecting us with all the coffee lovers before us. So, why don’t you plan a coffee date with someone and enjoy a nice long conversation. You’ll feel just a little more connected.


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