The smell hits you first. It's a mélange of aromas: toasted wood, hot oil, burning leaves, Baker's chocolate. You're smelling your first coffee roast, but it's less Maxwell House's "good to the last drop" and more "there's a fire in the toolshed." After the first flood of aromas recedes you tease out the scent of hot coffee beans.
If you're in Portland there's an excellent chance that somewhere, not far away, someone is roasting coffee right now—in their own kitchen.
Most of the places where coffee beans grow are far from sight—in Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia and Hawaii. But one of the most crucial steps—the roast—occurs with great regularity here in Portland, home to at least a dozen commercial roasters, not to mention a burgeoning crop of trade publications like Roast and Fresh Cup.
Despite Portland's wealth of top-shelf coffee peddlers, from upstarts like Albina Press to giants like Boyd Coffee, there is a diehard community for whom even the finest hand-selected, fresh-roasted, store-bought coffee beans are not enough. They must do it themselves—often with tools more suited to a shade-tree mechanic than to a connoisseur of caffeine. They're people like Joel Domreis, 25, cranking a custom-built steel drum filled with beans over a propane burner, or Johnny Burrell, 31, a software engineer for Nike and an inveterate tinkerer who just happens to really love coffee.
Welcome to the world of the home roasters.
A little background: Until the middle of the last century, commercially roasted coffee was a luxury. But by the 1960s, powdered beverages like Sanka had become the norm, inspiring frustrated consumers to re-examine the small-scale methods of production they'd abandoned. Trailing a national resurgence in home-brewing and boutique-winemaking operations, the coffee trend came above ground in the past decade. Many latter-day home roasters credit their awakening to the Internet and the availability of information, supplies and advice on roasting. It's impossible to get an accurate fix on the number of local home roasters, but conversations with green-bean purveyors, home-roasting advocates and chatroom junkies indicate that Portland has an exceptionally healthy crop of enthusiasts.
To better understand what might drive an otherwise perfectly normal coffee drinker to spend his or her (but typically his) time replicating the work of professional roasters, head to the Division Street Stumptown Cafe, the homegrown chain most often identified with the supremacy of Portland's coffee. On a typical day, Jim Kelso, 39, a former line cook who's now in his second year of roasting for Stumptown, is manning the middleweight roaster—a 47-year-old, 15-kilo capacity German-made Probat—in full view of curious patrons.
Perhaps the Probat itself is a clue to the allure of home roasting. The machine, weighing close to half a ton, is a thing of single-minded purpose and compelling, if archaic, beauty. A matrix of bicycle-style chains, thick canvas and rubber belts drives mechanical scrapers, brushes and blowers, and turns the tumbler, where the green—that is, raw—beans will roast, in constant motion to avoid scorching. A wooden-handled plunger allows the roaster to pull out a sample of the beans for inspection; the margin for error is both minute and costly. Too dark a roast obscures the coffee's intrinsic characteristics, substituting a strong burnt flavor for the more delicate flavors that inferior beans may lack. Underroasted beans can lack richness and body.
The roast takes place at anywhere from 250 to 450 degrees, depending on the bean. An exhaust duct snakes to the ceiling, where an afterburner unit can reach 1,300 degrees. A second stack takes chaff—the dried husks of the beans—and collects it in an ominously blackened iron cylinder. "That stuff is real flammable," drawls Kelso. "We have a fire at least once a week." He doesn't seem overly concerned.
Of course, most home roasters don't have access to such big toys. At Selam Market, a tidy Eritrean market on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, you'll meet shopkeeper Berhan Sebhatu. In Eritrea, he explains, everyone roasts their own coffee, and he stocks many of the tools needed to make Ethiopian-style coffee at home. He motions toward a stack of long-handled skillets. "I don't know what you would call this in English, but we call this a menkeshkesh," he says with a shy smile. The accompanying heat source is an electrically heated, beehive-shaped cylinder. Sebhatu has only stocked green coffee since October, but already he's selling nearly 200 pounds a month, at around $4 a pound. Nearly all of the customers are Eritreans and Ethiopians, he says, "and Gabriel."
"Gabriel," as it turns out, is Gabriel Quitslund, an impish 32-year-old. He's been roasting for 15-odd years, ever since he became enamored of Ethiopian culture as a teenager living in Washington, D.C. When I visit him at his home off Southeast Powell Boulevard, he's drying a batch of green Brazilian beans. At this early stage of the roast, they smell a little like split peas, which they also faintly resemble. "I don't think anything I've done touches the super-premium stuff," he says. "But it's always better than the typical store-bought."
Quitslund is being modest. Using a self-described "ghetto" arrangement of a cast-iron cauldron, his home's electric oven and a colander for drying, he prepares a startlingly fresh, floral and light-bodied brew. The beans leave the oven a deep mahogany color, miles away from the dark roast favored by many larger purveyors. Unsurprisingly, Quitslund spent many years in the wine trade, and has dabbled in home beer brewing. When asked if he'd describe himself as obsessive, he thinks hard, then dodges the question. "Compulsive? No." He waits and frowns a long moment. "Obsessive...maybe."
Not all home roasters stay in the kitchen, though. Din Johnson, 38, recently took his tinkerer's curiosity public, opening Ristretto Roasters this past September in the Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood with his wife, Nancy Rommelmann (a former WW freelancer). "I've used every kind of gizmo out there," he says, "from stovetop skillets to modified popcorn poppers to purpose-built sample roasters." His experience mirrors that of Domreis, that hand-cranking home roaster who began roasting with a "Pie-Iron" he bought at Andy and Bax. And like Quitslund, Johnson likens coffee to wine in its complexities, subtleties, and allure. He also stresses the importance of getting the roast timing right: "Five, eight seconds can make a huge difference."
This is a point that arises time and again in conversations with home roasters: the delicate game of brinksmanship that roasting coffee entails. Portland's coffee fanatics don't turn to home roasting for a lack of high-quality beans, and it's certainly not done for financial considerations. Green coffee typically sells for less than finished beans, but the investment in time and equipment can be daunting—a top-of-the-line, digitally controlled home roaster can approach $700. Simply put, it's the thrill of the ride: turning the beans by hand, waiting for the distinctive "first crack" as the beans begin to pop and release their moisture. Experiencing the rush—perhaps caffeine-enabled—of creating a unique and fresh roast to your own specifications, or the disappointment at having gone one "pop" over the line, as it were, and starting again from scratch.
Perhaps the most eloquent testimonial comes from Muhamed Mujcic, the garrulous proprietor of Taste of Europe, a Bosnian market in Southeast Portland. "My sister still roasts her coffee every day," he says, his piercing blue eyes fixed upon me. "That first coffee of the day is really special. You enjoy it. You don't walk around with it. You just sit. You and your coffee."
Get Your Roast On
Many home roasters get started with a visit to www.sweetmarias.com, a long-running and widely respected purveyor of green beans and roasting accessories. Even the folks at Stumptown—which does not sell green beans to the public—recommend checking with Sweet Maria's.
Locally, green beans are available at: Whole Foods (1210 NW Couch St., 525-4343), Selam Market (3513 NE Martin Luther King Blvd.,
288-8585), Taste of Europe (1739 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 238-3693) and Bridgetown Coffee (3460 NW Industrial St., 224-3330). Additionally, many roasters are willing to sell green beans on a retail basis. Still thirsty for information? The online site www.coffeegeek.com holds many answers, as does www.coffeeismydrugofchoice.com, which ships green and roasted coffee, tea, chocolate and other specialty items from its home base in Eugene.