Gear Review: Roasting Coffee on the Road
When we first started our blog nearly two years ago, we intended to do regular gear reviews. So far we’ve done a grand total of zero gear reviews, and have leaned more toward stories from the road. A few months ago, GSI Outdoors came to us and asked if they could help us out by outfitting us with a brand new car kitchen setup, as well as a new camp cookware setup. We’re excited to get to the Himalayas to give the camp cookware a good shakedown, but in the meantime we’ve been using the Nacho cooking setup a bit. So please allow us to step out of character for a moment for a gear review- something that we hope to do more of in the future.
Back before Sheena and I became destitute vagabonds, we were always in good supply of freshly roasted coffee. We ensured that our stream of tasty caffeine remained unbroken by sticking to a weekly regimen of home coffee roasting. Life was good, and the living was easy. But on a long road trip such this, being addicted to coffee can be a real problem.
Forget about freshly roasted, at times it’s been a battle to even find anything that resembles coffee. We initially set our standards low, and said we’d be content with anything in whole bean form, that we could grind ourselves. But by the time we hit Argentina coffee became next to impossible to procure at all, so we did the unthinkable: we switched to instant coffee. I can already hear the collective gasps, but it was necessary. And it was horrible.
So what did we do? The same thing any addict would do in a time of desperation: we started roasting our own coffee on the road. Whenever we found raw coffee beans we would buy a few kilos and keep the fresh roast coming until we ran out. We recently procured some fresh beans in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and for the sake of future overlanders in need of a fix (or those coffee loving souls at home who simply don’t have a coffee roaster), here’s how to keep the good times rolling…
CHOOSE A LOCATION. Setting is important. Do you think you can make a pleasantly quaffable wine in a Shanghai slum? Well you can’t! Same goes for coffee. For today’s roast we chose this sleepy seaside camp spot on Cambodia’s southern coast. Wherever you are, be sure that you have good ventilation because coffee roasting produces quite a lot of smoke. Open the windows and turn on the fans. If you’re doing this at home and you have a fire alarm, ask the nearest sucker to stand under the fire alarm with some newspapers and some stamina.
THE COFFEE. You’ll need to find some fresh, unroasted coffee beans. Back home I ordered mine through Sweet Maria’s, but on the road you’ll have to be inventive. We usually buy ours from coffee farmers, but for our latest roast we bought them from a coffee shop that roasts their own coffee. After some pleading and sad eyes, they relented and sold us five pounds. The typical cost of a pound of unroasted coffee is around $4-$5, or 50-70% less than what you’ll pay for quality roasted coffee back home. This, by the way, was an unstated aspect of our savings plan for this trip. The coffee shop in Chiang Mai sold us 5 pounds of hill tribe grown beans at $8 per pound. It’s high, but it’s still half the price of commercially roasted coffee.
THE HEAT SOURCE. Back at home I use a legitimate coffee roaster from Hottop. It’s easy, and requires minimal training to produce good coffee. In lieu of a real roaster, you’ll simply need a stovetop. There are other ways to do it, but this is the most widely available heat source on the road. We’ve roasted on stovetops in our little cabin in Colombia, in a climbing refuge in Hatun Machay, Peru, and inside of Nacho.
THE HARDWARE. You’ll need very little in the way of equipment: a high quality large pan for roasting, a stirring implement such as a spatula or spoon, and a large heat-resistant container for cooling the roasted beans.
Here’s a list of the equipment we use, which is all of very high quality and produces an excellent roast:
In this roast we used the Bugaboo 10″ Frying Pan from GSI, and it worked very well. However, in a subsequent roast I used the smaller of the two pots included in the Pinnacle Base Camper set, and it worked much better because I could stir more vigorously without worrying about spilling. Both have Teflon coatings, so the beans slide around easily to resist burning, and both are robust enough to avoid hot spots.
This time I used the GSI Pivot spatula to stir the beans, although in the future I will use something made of wood, as the beans get very hot and can deform the spatula if you’re not careful. We really like this spatula because it folds in half for easy storage.
Once the roast is finished, we transfer it to the larger of the two pots from the Pinnacle Base Camper set. It comes as a part of a bigger set of cooking pots and pans, and they all nest nicely in one another, taking up minimal storage space. The folding handles are a plus, as the pot itself can get quite hot when the beans are transferred.
The Nacho Guide to Roasting Coffee on the Road
Step 1: Measure out the green coffee. Don’t roast too little at a time or else it’ll be hard to keep a consistent temperature among the beans. Today I’m roasting about 600 grams. I typically see weight yields of 85-88%, meaning that if I start with 500 grams of green coffee, the roasted coffee will end up weighing around 430 grams (~ 1 pound).
Step 2: Turn on a medium-low flame. We don’t want to burn the hell out of the coffee, so cook it like a lady. The same advice can be given for fried eggs, but we’re not talking about fried eggs today. Slow and steady wins the race.
Step 3: Put the pan on the flame and immediately add the beans. Don’t preheat the pan – you’re not making a stir fry here. Add the beans to it while it’s still cold.
Step 4: Stir, stir well, and stir continuously. You heard me, never stop stirring. The goal here is to keep all of the beans at about the same temperature, so don’t let the beans on the bottom stay on the bottom for long. Scoop, stir, twist, scoop, stir, twist. Settle in, because you’ll be doing this continuously for the next 45 or 50 minutes. Yep. (NOTE: As mentioned before, I recommend using a pot instead of a pan for this, as it allows you to scoop and stir more vigorously to more closely approximate the action of a drum roaster.)
Step 5: Watch, listen, and stir. The overall roast will take about 45 or 50 minutes. After 15 minutes you’ll begin to smell something like sweet, wet hay. At 27 minutes I saw the first wafts of smoke and the beans started to undergo what is called “first crack”. This will sound like breaking pencils; it’s the sound of the beans parching. First crack, using this roasting method, will be spread out over about 20 or 25 minutes.
Step 6: Listen more, watch more, stir more. Once the beans become uniformly brownish the first crack will slowly wind down and there will be a period of silence, the duration of which will depend on many factors, most of which are extraneous and immeasurable, so just relax and get a feel for it. If you like a light roast, you’ll probably stop roasting just as you hear the first of what we call “second crack”. This is when the beans start audibly cracking again, but this time with the sound of breaking toothpicks. Once second crack gets rolling and steady, you’re probably about done. Just use your eyes to see when it looks good. Oh, and you should still be constantly stirring, because you will have never stopped doing so.
Step 7: Pour and wiggle. Once the coffee reaches its desired roast level, quickly pour the beans into the cooling pot and then proceed to swish them around until they’re sufficiently cool. Failure to do this step will result in burning, because late in the process the coffee can become exothermic and continue cooking themselves long after being removed from the pan. So swish them, toss them, and blow on them for a minute or two.
Here’s a pictorial account of today’s roast from start to finish. Note how the color change occurs slowly at first, but really picks up at the end.
WARNING: Don’t go too dark! If your beans look completely black, you’ll have to start over. Some inexplicably popular coffee brands like to roast dark because it burns away all of the actual coffee flavors, hiding the origin notes. The scientific name for that flavor is “ash.” If you haven’t yet been, you will soon be born again. Your coffee, depending on origin, should have notes like citrus, chocolate, loamy soil, tobacco, cinnamon, caramel, cherries, and nuts. The flavors that you taste will depend on roast level and coffee origin, but if you go all the way to “French Roast”, you will have turned all of those characteristics to coal.
And no, there’s no such thing as “espresso roast.” Espresso is best made with a quality medium roast coffee, not dark as usually found in America. Espresso brewing makes the coffee stronger because it’s brewed at pressure and with smaller grain size, so the flavors are exaggerated. Big companies, whose beans are typically not very good, market their ashy black beans as “espresso roast” so that you won’t be able to taste just how bad it actually is.
NOW DRINK IT. Well, not so fast. First you should bag it up in an air tight bag with a one-way valve and let it rest for a day (for regular coffee brewing) or two days (for espresso). This gives the beans time to off-gas, during which time the gases from the roasting process escape. You can visualize this by making a French press with freshly roasted coffee. When you add the grounds to the water you’ll notice a distinct volcano-like phenomenon as the trapped gases all escape at the same time. Also, your coffee won’t smell like coffee until several hours after roasting, and if you drink it too soon after roasting it’ll taste unpleasantly sour and bitter. So hold your horses.
OKAY, NOW DRINK IT. Grind your beans as you need them, not all at once. Because of the higher surface area of ground coffee and the resulting attack on it by Oxygen molecules, ground coffee will go stale in about 20 minutes. Use a quality burr grinder (we use this one from Black & Decker in Nacho). Don’t use a whirly blade grinder, as they produce too much variability in grain size. The big grains will brew slowly, while the small dust particles will brew quickly, making the coffee somewhat sour. But if all you have is a whirly blade, knock yourself out.
Now choose your favorite method of brewing and go to town! Here’s our magical GSI espresso maker at work. Enjoy!