Home Coffee Roasting: A Bump on the Butt of Specialty Coffee

by Thompson Owen

A guy goes into a coffee roasting shop and asks if he can buy some green coffee to roast at home. The owner says, “Sure, and I will give you a 10 percent discount off our roasted coffee price.”  The guy says, “Gee, since I will have 20 percent weight loss, that means I am basically paying 10 percent more to have you NOT roast my coffee for me.” The guy then starts a web site for home coffee roasting, naming it for his wife, who was certainly sweet to sell $12,000 of Grandpa’s stock to get the ball rolling.

The story is not entirely true. I didn’t have the wherewithal to think of that 20 percent weight loss right there on the spot. And if I did, I wouldn’t have mentioned it. I would have just bought the coffee, and gone home pissed off and resentful. That’s just how I am.

But Sweet Maria’s Coffee did start out as my own personal alternative to locally roasted coffee when my wife and I found ourselves, rather regrettably, living in Columbus, Ohio. The owner of the aforementioned roasting shop was a bit hostile to my questions. He made a point to serve me personally when I visited, which sounds like kind attention, but I actually think it was rather defensive; he didn’t want other salespeople to say something they shouldn’t.

So my business was born out of this awkward relationship (or non-relationship) between a coffee roaster and a home roaster. This uncomfortable situation persists in the coffee trade, an ambiguous tie between professional and amateur. It must exist in other crafts and activities, between the professional and the DIYer: beer brewing, bass fishing, bowling… you know, all the pinnacles of Western culture.

Little general wisdom can be intuited from any of this, since each contact between the two counterparts must be driven by individual personalities more than something essential to the craft. A hobbyist roaster can either be a true fan of the coffee, or just a royal PIA (pain in the ass). I really can’t say which of the two I was in my seminal encounter. Perhaps a bit of both.

I would not discount amateurism in any way; it’s regrettable that the word has a negative whiff to it. Perhaps the amateur enjoys the purest pleasure in the activity, not guided by profit motive, unfettered by professional taboos (or tattoos, as the case may be), and not constrained by the need to serve any public. Guided only by genuine interest and their own sense of taste, amateurs can explore coffee roasting and preparation in any way that makes sense to them. And some unusual innovations have come from home roasting.

An example? Hmm, give me a minute. Well, the first person I’d heard of vacuum-packing green coffee was a home roaster. AAnd nowhere have I learned more about roast profiling than through the unorthodox methods home roasters use with Hottop, Behmor, Gene Café, Quest, and Fresh Roast coffee roasting machines, not to mention the legendary modifications of the West Bend Poppery Mark I popcorn popper. (Yes, one of the best home roasters is still a popcorn popper). And the feedback from the home-roast community is invaluable. Trust me, they catch every mistake I make.

Sure, home-roasting equipment in some cases can be dumbed-down roasters, machines that have lots of safety features and pre-programmed settings so folks don’t set their houses on fire. And those can make it hard for home roasters to make fine distinctions in degree of roast or temperature profile. But honestly, based on the five used Probats and Diedrichs I have bought in various states of disrepair and abuse, I think some of the “professionals” out there are rather clueless about air flow or cooling or cleaning their stacks. (Of course, none of these types would be reading this, nor would they be members of the SCAA!). Some home-roasting people are more in tune with cup quality and coffee crop cycles than some professionals who focus on different pricing tiers and inventory stability.

There are always the extremes in any crowd. I am sure some home roasters take a little knowledge and use it for undue recognition on an Internet venue or in a coffee shop. I hear tales of know-it-all home roasters giving rather audacious advice to the professional in her own shop. I imagine most retail roasters can recount stories of famously bad encounters of a customer telling them about the roast profile they use on their PID-controlled popcorn popper to draw out first and second crack.

But in a broader way, I think a roaster is a roaster is a roaster. And in this age when so many small roasting businesses cut their teeth with years of home roasting—supplying friends or the office or their church group before hanging out their shingle—the distinction between where one fires up their roaster seems less important than the outcomes.

Historically, home roasting is as old as coffee itself. For as long as people have roasted coffee for others, they have roasted coffee for themselves, their friends and families. Sears & Roebuck sold green coffee in the early 1900s, along with small charcoal-fired, hand-crank home roasters. Buying your coffee already roasted was a bit luxurious, like buying canned beans instead of growing and canning them yourself. It was also a way to have fresh coffee in rural areas, away from the conveniences of a city, where a local commercial roaster was one of the amenities urban life offered. These were crude little roasters, pure conduction heat transfer, solid sheet metal drums turned over open flames. It was more like a coffee barbecue than a proper roast, really.

Yes, the home-roasting machine still suffers a lower quality of build and less control of the roast process in most cases. But you should taste the results people get with homegrown modifications, time and practice. Would anyone argue that roasting in a Probat makes coffee good, necessarily? Does “professionally roasted” mean a good cup? Even back in ‘97, I knew I could do better than the smoked Yirgacheffe the local coffee shop in Columbus was selling. So in retrospect, it WAS actually worth paying 10 percent more to have them NOT roast the coffee. And so goes the 14 years of my life since then.

Thompson Owen has been in the coffee business for two decades. He started Sweet Maria’s Coffee in 1997 and Coffee Shrub in 2009.