A Lifetime

My wife and I have spent a fair amount of time back in our hometown of Bloomington lately. I elected to have a surgeon there perform my operation. Between tests and the procedure itself, we hung out at the hospital more than we would have liked. The day before surgery a friend we ran into pointed that my old coffee roasting logo was still hanging above the hospital coffee kiosk. I have to admit that I found that rather cool.

The B-town Delivery Bike

When people find out I know a little bit about roasting coffee there is one question they almost always ask: “How long does it take to roast coffee?” You didn’t ask, but I’m going to answer that question here today.

I work in the training center of a large manufacturing company. Although I don’t really do that much classroom training I have always enjoyed sharing what little bit I know about a few random subjects with those who are interested. And sometimes I share with those who are not. I guess it is one of the reasons I always enjoyed preaching…the audience was too polite to walk out!

I’ve been playing around with coffee for nearly 17 years or so. I’ve roasted on everything from popcorn poppers to gas grills to powerful commercial gas roasters. A year ago I still had a small commercial roaster sitting in my garage. Regretfully, I sold it out of concern that if I started it up and raised my garage door to allow the fire-breathing beast to belch out its thick, blue smoke, my neighbors would call 911 and I’d have some explaining to do. “No, I swear, I am not running a meth lab! No, I don’t know anyone by the name of Heisenberg!” (If you never watched Breaking Bad that last one went over your head…your loss).

I’ve had little air roasters that could turn those hard, green seeds into coffee in 6 minutes or less. One home roaster took nearly 20 minutes to get the deed done. Usually I just tell people it takes between 11 and 15 minutes on average to roast a batch of coffee. But that’s a serious oversimplification of the process. Coffee roasting is actually a very intriguing and challenging skill to master, if in fact anyone ever really masters it.

To be clear, I could show you how to run any one of the machines I have roasted coffee on in 30 minutes or less. Some of them a lot less. But coffee roasting is not about turning something on, setting a timer and turning it back off. You can do it that way if you want. But to take roasting coffee to another level, I mean to create something that, once ground and exposed to your taste buds by careful preparation, causes you to sip, then pause, sit your cup down and feel the pleasure of the flavors as they introduce themselves to your mouth…that takes more than 15 minutes. That takes a lifetime.

I’m still nothing more than an amateur hack. In fact I was roasting some coffee for myself a couple weeks ago when a friend dropped by. I continued to roast as we talked. Once I was done he commented on how good the aroma was. So I sent some home with him. It was a Kenya I had roasted the week before as well and knew it was a good crop. I had really enjoyed what I roasted the previous week. But this batch…flat as a pancake. I blew it completely.

In the scheme of things, I know nothing. Roasting coffee is new each time you fire up the machine. No, it’s new each time you charge the roaster with a fresh batch of greens. It takes a careful eye, a listening ear and a nose for change, subtle change. There is a fine line between a good cup of coffee and a great one; I’ve only rarely crossed that line.

And that is what I love about it. “Always learning, never coming to a knowledge of the truth.” Always seeking, rarely finding. If it were not that way it would just be a boring chore better left to a factory setting. Yet it is anything but boring; just the aroma gets my attention. I look forward to a lifetime of battling with the elements of fire and steel, trying to coax a temporary masterpiece out of a seed born from the Earth. Every once in a while, when the stars align and you hold your mouth just right, you win the battle and are rewarded with that fleeting taste of satisfaction.

I like to roast to music…loud music…until the time is right, then silence. Thought I’d leave you with a little roasting music…”it’s a cup of black coffee that a working man needs to see.”

Later,

Shep

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