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Hey there, coffee bean

September 14, 2009

Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once posed a simple but difficult question: “Why can’t I describe the aroma of coffee?”

I think we’d get along, me and Ludwig. Especially over a cup or two of that undescribable liquid.

I’m enjoying a cup as I write this. It’s a nice, light roast made from fairly traded organic beans from El Salvador, to be precise. I’m drinking it black, foregoing my costly espresso machine for my quick and easy Aeropress machine (made by a frisbee company, I kid you not).

St. Albert home roaster Kim Thornton shows Journal photographer Rick MacWilliam his home-roasting technique

St. Albert home roaster Kim Thornton shows Journal photographer Rick MacWilliam his technique.

I woke up this morning to discover my final Edmonton Journal piece from this summer had finally appeared on the front of the City section. It’s a 24-inch feature on home roasting coffee beans, a hobby I started last year and decided to write about at the prodding of another reporter. I gained a bit of a reputation as a coffee geek this summer, looking scornfully at anyone who asked if I wanted a Tim Horton’s double-double. Instead, I brought the funny looking Aeropress and brewed the coffee right at my desk. Mmmm.

The idea to roast my own beans was seeded long ago, when I heard about someone who roasted his own beans using a popcorn popper. A little extreme, I thought. But the concept stayed with me for at least a year. I eventually came to the realization: I’m a bit extreme!

I began reading about home roasting on web forums like coffeegeek.com, where I discovered a whole world of finicky folk who write impassioned apologies about coffee equipment and techniques to improve your daily brew.

I learned that hot air poppers are actually similar to a type of coffee roasting technique known as “fluid bed roasting.” It uses convection (rather than conduction) to get the temperatures over 400 fahrenheit, necessary for an espresso roast. It’s only one of several techniques you might try, but I’m sticking by it until I achieve coffee nirvana. It’s easy and roasts prettily evenly.

I found descriptions of the ‘holy grail‘ of coffee roasting, The Poppery by West Bend. It’s the very hot air popcorn machine owned by my mother during my childhood. I went to the SPCA thrift shop and found one for $4! After a few electrical modifications, I was able to control the temperature of the hot air (Check out this page to see how people modify the machine). I added my own tin chimney (via creamed corn) and a candy thermometer. It’s not pretty, but it works.

Since last fall, I’ve been steadily improving my home roasting technique. My balcony is covered in coffee chaff, I might smell of burning beans, but the coffee’s never been better.

Wittgenstein would be proud.

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