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Roast Your Own 

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Doug Zell makes his living roasting coffee for most of the city's high-end retailers and restaurants as well as many of its citizens, but you won't hurt his feelings if you ask to buy the beans green. Roasting your own "can be fun, and I think people are looking for sensual kinds of things, things that they can put their hands on," he says. Customers at his shop, Intelligentsia--arguably Chicago's finest coffee-roasting operation--started asking him about it a few years ago. "There was a lot of discussion on the aficionado Web sites like CoffeeGeek, and we were getting more calls from people that wanted to buy green coffee from us," he says. So in February he started selling raw beans through the company's Web site (intelligentsiacoffee.com). Sales have been increasing steadily since then, but they're only a minor part of Zell's business--he's not thinking of expanding them to Intelligentsia's two retail stores anytime soon. Like most green coffee sellers, he caters to what's still a niche market, and, also like most, he keeps it virtual.

One of the biggest online retailers is Sweet Maria's (sweetmarias.com), an Oakland-based operation that sells green coffee from around the world as well as roasting equipment. In 1997 Thompson Owen, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute, started the company in Columbus, Ohio, where he'd followed his wife, Maria Troy, a curator. Owen, who'd worked as a coffee roaster in California and New Orleans, hated the coffee in Columbus. "I thought, The coffee here is horrible--I'm just going to roast my own," he says. "But I couldn't find any green coffee." He finally found a New York company, Dallas Brothers, that would sell him raw beans, but only in larger amounts than he needed. "I thought, Oh my god, I have to sell some of this," he says. "There's too much." He didn't know anyone he could sell to ("I don't have any friends, especially not in Ohio"), so he put a notice on the Web and sold the beans out of his basement. He opened a retail shop in Columbus in 1998, and over the years the business has grown enough that he's had to move to bigger quarters, in various parts of the country, twice. The company now employs seven full-timers, including Troy, who quit her curating gig a few years ago to run the Sweet Maria's office.

But why would anyone bother roasting their own coffee when Starbucks beans can be bought at most grocery chains? For one thing, there's the price. Green coffee costs about half of what you pay for roasted beans. While high-end suppliers like Intelligentsia charge about six bucks a pound for their green coffee, other places, like Coffeemaria in Addison (coffeemaria.com), sell it for as little as $3.50. The main benefit cited by home roasters, though, is freshness. The flavor of roasted coffee starts to change after two or three days, no matter how well packaged it may be. "After that you see a drop-off in the aroma," says Owen. "But it's impractical for any commercial roaster to keep every coffee in their store fresh."

Home roasting is not without drawbacks, chief among them time and smoke. It can take anywhere from five minutes to half an hour to roast the beans, then they should rest for 12 to 24 hours while the carbon dioxide created during roasting escapes and the coffee's full flavor develops. You'll have to disable your smoke detector while the beans are cooking, and if your stove isn't fitted with a hood and an exhaust fan, prepare for your kitchen--and your clothes--to smell like ash for a few hours.

I love coffee and drink it every day, though I'm hardly an aficionado. But when Intelligentsia started offering raw beans I decided to give home roasting a try. After some online research I decided that stove-top roasting--which typically uses a hand-cranked popcorn popper--would produce too much smoke for my ventilation-free kitchen. So I purchased a $140 Zach & Dani's roasting machine with a catalytic converter that eliminates most of the smoke.

With a machine like that, you just dump some green coffee into the glass chamber, push a button, and wait 20 to 30 minutes. Watching the beans that came with my roaster turn a rich, dark brown before my eyes was thrilling, and I couldn't wait to taste the results the following morning. But I knew something was amiss when I poured the transparent liquid into my cup, and it was confirmed after I'd added a spot of milk: it was weak. I'd used the same amount of beans as I usually do with Whole Foods coffee, but this stuff wasn't even close--no body, no bite, and little sweetness.

Over the next few weeks I experimented with different roasting times and types of bean; I also upped the amount of roasted coffee I put into my drip machine, which strengthened the coffee without improving the flavor. I'd figured roasting the coffee till it was really dark would add body to the finished product, but a phone call to Troy set me straight: I was turning the beans into ash. "You're basically drinking little briquettes," she said. She also explained that the Zach & Dani machine takes longer to roast the beans than other machines, in order to cut down on smoke--but that also makes it tough to do darker roasts without releasing too much oil from the beans. Once released, the oil oxidizes and quickly goes rancid.

So I went to Target and bought a $15 Toastmaster hot air popcorn popper. These frail machines can accommodate only half a cup of beans at a time--and by using one to roast coffee you're voiding the warranty. My first batch took a while to get going, and for a minute it sounded like the machine might conk out on me, but soon the beans started spinning around, then jumping like popcorn. In five minutes I had dark brown, gorgeous-looking coffee beans. (I also had a kitchen full of smoke.) I dumped the beans into a metal colander, shook them around, and let them cool for a few minutes.

The next morning my coffee was delightfully full-bodied and rich, with a nice acid bite. Still, I'm not sure I have the time to be a DIY roaster. The popper makes such small batches that I'd need to roast beans nearly every day, unless I did several batches at a time, which would probably kill the motor. And getting really good at it takes dedication.

"Ever since Tom started the business, people have said, 'This is going to be the next big thing,'" says Troy. "But we hope not, because it's not for everyone. Home roasting appeals to people who are really into doing things themselves, and to people who cannot find what they like in a store: a lot of different flavors, a lot of variety, a lot more freshness."

"We have a huge range of customers," says Owen. "We have people who are like, 'This is not a hobby; this is how I make my coffee,' then we have a lot of totally insane engineers who have created computer-controlled popcorn poppers with a PC attached. They hit 'roast' on their PC and they're roasting at a level that is way above any commercial roaster. We have a lot of scientists that are really into this, and I think part of the appeal for them is that it's such a challenging subject. The real kicker is that it ends up being something that has to do with the human ability to sense and enjoy."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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