Coffee is getting a lot more local
By Camilla M. Mann
Until the late 19th century, people commonly roasted their own coffee beans. But eventually, home roasting was eclipsed by the convenience culture that pervades much of our society.
Given that there are only two elements to transforming raw green coffee beans into ready-to-grind coffee, I’m shocked that until this year I’d never met anyone who roasted his or her own beans at home.
That changed when a tip led me to Seven Bridges Cooperative in Santa Cruz. After witnessing their vast array of green coffee beans, home coffee roasting equipment and coffee books, it became clear that this art is enjoying a revival among local home brewers.
Seven Bridges’ Andrew Whitman offered to give me a coffee roasting lesson, demonstrating the process with a small hot-air roaster that reminded me of a tiny hot-air popcorn popper. Same idea. The two elements for roasting coffee beans: heat and agitation.
I have always gravitated toward a dark roast because that’s what I bought when I started drinking coffee—more to keep me awake than because I truly enjoyed the taste.
But it turns out that a dark roast homogenizes the flavor of the beans, muting their distinct flavors. On the other hand, a light- to-medium roast better retains the flavor profile of a particular bean cultivar.
Because the roast Andrew and I made was uneven, it afforded us the opportunity to taste the same bean, a Nicaraguan Segovia, at different stages of roasting. The lightest bean tasted nutty, like a hazelnut. The medium bean still had some nut, but verged on caramel—the delicate sweetness of a crème brulée. The dark bean tasted how I’ve always described coffee: astringent, potent and burnt.
Roasting is fun and can be as effortless or as complicated as you want to make it. The basic process is simple: take green coffee beans and roast them until they are brown. There are many ways to do it, from using specially designed appliances to simple pan-roasting, to repurposing a hot-air popcorn popper. At home, I went old school and used a skillet, but I’m thinking about requisitioning my son’s hot-air popper for a trial run.
First, you need green coffee beans. Seven Bridges Cooperative offers a multitude of beans that you can buy in bulk for between $7 and $9 per pound. All their beans—ranging from Bolivian Cenaproc to Papua New Guinean Enorga—are high-grade Arabica coffees and are certified fair trade and organic. Certain local, artisanal coffee roasters, like Davenport’s Alta Organic Coffee and Tea, also offer green beans; I purchased some green Guatemalan beans at Acme Coffee Roasting Co. in Seaside for $7 a pound. Good Land Organics of Goleta will also soon start selling its Central Coast-grown beans in green form. (See related story, p. 56.)
If using a skillet, fill with just enough green beans to cover the bottom of the pan in a single layer—no overlapping. Then, as the pan and beans heat, agitate them, flipping the beans as you would turn roasting potatoes.
Roasting time varies depending on the method. Convection roasting, using a dedicated home coffee roaster, might take 5–15 minutes, depending on your desired roast. Conduction roasting, using a skillet, might take as long as 20 minutes. To decide when your beans are done, Whitman says, use multiple senses. You can look at the color of the beans. You can listen to the beans—you’ll hear a first crack and, if you decide to roast them that long, a second crack. And you can smell them.
The lighter the roast, the less oil that has been released and burned. Also, the lighter the roast, the more caffeine that is retained.
Will I do this again?
Home roasting affords you the ultimate in quality control and freshness. It’s also quick and easy—I only set off the smoke alarm twice.
I will definitely be roasting my own beans from now on since the difference in flavor and freshness is palpable. Cost-wise, it’s also much more affordable than buying pre-roasted beans. (The last bag of beans I purchased at Peet’s cost me twice as much as the green beans I bought for roasting.)
When asked for his favorite method for brewing his home-roast, Whitman says French press. And he’s adamant on how to take it: Black. No milk. No sugar. That way, you can taste the nuances, he says.
He is right. I have never had a better cup of coffee.
Camilla M. Mann is a food writer, photographer, adventurer and passionate cook. She blogs at culinary-adventures-with-cam.blogspot.com and lives in Monterey.
Seven Bridges Cooperative • 325A River St., Santa Cruz 831.454.9665 • www.breworganic.com
Jay Ruskey has created a sub-tropical haven of exotic crops at his ranch called Good Land Organics in Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara. With the warm, southern orientation of his Condor Ridge Ranch, Ruskey cultivates cherimoyas, dragon fruits, white sapotes and goji berries.
Nine years ago, he also began growing coffee, but he didn’t have high expectations.
“I was skeptical when I saw blossoms,” he says. “Berries followed. And suddenly we had mature red coffee cherries.”
Almost all of the world’s coffee grows between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, and until Ruskey began his experiment together with Mark Gaskell of UC Santa Barbara’s Cooperative Extension, the northernmost place that anyone was growing coffee was some 19° latitude to the south. Since then, Ruskey has become the first American farmer outside of Hawaii to sell coffee.
Ruskey and Gaskell are evaluating all aspects of growing coffee in California and testing a dozen varieties of high-quality Arabica coffee plants. Among them is Geisha, an ancient Ethiopian bean prized as a single-origin coffee with a lightly floral aroma; coffee magnate Price Peterson, of Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama, personally transported the plants to Ruskey.
“As with wine, you can’t make a good wine with bad grapes, right? Well, you can’t make a good cup of coffee with inferior beans,” Ruskey says.
Coffee plants normally require moderately warm temperatures and humidity to flourish, and rely on a rainy season typical of the tropics to properly flower and pollinate. Hawaii is the only U.S. state that offers these kinds of conditions.
Still, Good Land’s coffee plants are adapting. Under the protective shade of Ruskey’s avocado trees, Ruskey’s coffee bushes operate on a different growing cycle, with their coffee cherries taking 12 months to mature—longer than anywhere else. Slower maturation means that the bean has more time to darken and develop. Dark red coffee cherries have the highest sugar level, which translates into a better cup of coffee—and indeed Good Land’s coffee has received excellent ratings. But the bushes are continuously producing new berries, and the long-term effects of this lack of a rest period for the plants are unknown.
And there are other challenges to growing a profitable local cup of coffee in California.
“One tree yields 6–7 pounds of ripe cherries, or about 1 pound of roasted coffee beans per year. That’s a lot of picking and processing for a small yield,” Ruskey says.
Still, the value of good coffee has increased—and is rising all the time.
Only a short time ago, Americans were content with unspecified coffee blends. Today, more discerning consumer palates have raised the bar for coffee—and the prices. The Geisha variety, for example, can sell for upwards of $100 per pound; Ruskey is currently selling his Caturra/Typica variety through Good Land’s website for $22 per 5-ounce bag, or about $70 per pound. (If that price isn’t too staggering, place your order and your locally grown coffee will be roasted-to-order.)
Farmers have tried over the years to grow coffee in California and, in fact, coffee was cultivated successfully near Santa Barbara in the 1870s. But coffee pioneers were hindered by the high cost of labor and low productivity of the plants in these temperate regions.
Today, considering the growing interest in specialty coffees and the current ardent appetite for locally grown produce, Ruskey is convinced of the viability of his project and would eventually like to become a coffee wholesaler.
He and Gaskell are organizing a Santa Barbara coffee growers association and are recruiting farmers in other parts of California to join them in their research.
Thus far, the northernmost grower to participate in the research farms in Morro Bay, but Ruskey considers thriving citrus and avocadoes to be a good indicator that a particular area could also support coffee plants. If you farm land where these trees thrive and you’d like to become a part of the coffee research trials, Ruskey would love to hear from you.
Good Land Organics • 805.685.4189 www.goodlandorganics.com