Build an Excellent Coffee Roaster With a Satisfyingly Low Price Tag

There’s a lot of mysticism around coffee roasting, but in the end it couldn’t be simpler. Take a bunch of beans, heat them up evenly, and stop before they get burned. The rest is details.

And the same goes for coffee roasters. The most primitive roasting technique involves stirring the beans in a pan or wok to keep them from scorching on the bottom. This works great, but it doesn’t scale. Industrial drum roasters heat a rotating drum with ridges on the inside like a cement mixer to keep the beans in constant motion while they pass over a gas fire. Fluidized-bed roasters use a strong stream of heated air to whirl the beans around while roasting them evenly. But the bottom line is that a coffee roaster needs to agitate the beans over a controllable heat source so that they roast as evenly as possible.

My DIY coffee roaster gave up the ghost a few days ago and I immediately ordered the essential replacement part, a hot air popcorn popper, to avert a true crisis: no coffee! While I was rebuilding, I thought I’d take some pictures and share what I know about the subject. So if you’re interested in roasting coffee, making a popcorn popper into a roaster, or even just taking an inside look at a thoroughly value-engineered kitchen machine, read on!

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Retrotechtacular: Time For Coffee

If you ask us, it’s almost always a good time for coffee. In the spotlight this week is an educational/promotional film made by A&P, who started in the 1800s as with a chain of shops offering coffee and tea. By the 1950s, they were operating full self-serve grocery stores with a trail of shuttered mom and pop operations in their wake.

This is the story of coffee as it goes from the nursery to the field to the shelves of your local A&P. It covers the growing, cultivation, and distribution of coffee from South American crops that at the time covered more than one million square miles of Brazil alone.

Coffee trees leave the nursery at two years old and are planted in nutrient-rich red soil. Two to three years later, they bear their first crop. Coffee blossoms appear first, and the fruit ripens over the next 8-9 months. Skilled workers pick the berries by hand. We are told that the average tree produces one pound of roasted coffee per year.

sun dried beansThe day’s harvest is collected, weighed, and bagged for further production. The fruits are crushed to remove each bean from its red jacket. Then, the beans are washed and spread out in the sun for 8-10 days. They are frequently rotated so they dry evenly. The dried coffee is packed in bags and sent into the city.

bag stabbingAt a warehouse, the coffee is inspected, sorted, and graded. Bags are stamped with the coffee’s country of origin and intended destination before going to the seaport. A very important step happens here. As each bag walks by on the shoulders of a worker, another guy stabs it to get a sample of the beans. The on-site A&P officials take over at this point and do their own inspections, sending samples to the US. Here, the coffees are roasted and taste tested for both strength and flavor from a giant lazy Susan full of porcelain cups. taste testing

The film takes a brief detour to tell us that the great cities of Latin America were built upon the labors of coffee exportation. We see a montage of vistas, skylines, and shorelines, which bring it back to the subject of shipping the coffee to various ports of call. At the dock, bags are tumbled onto large nets to be loaded on the ship. As coffee is susceptible to moisture, special care is taken to avoid the ill effects of traveling out of the tropics.

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