FRCN Espresso "HOW TO" Pages
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2001 - All rights reserved

Your First Roast

WARNING and DISCLAIMER - Roasting coffee can be dangerous. The beans, when properly roasted, will reach temperatures of well over 400-450 degrees f. Bits of hot beans can be expelled from the roaster which can burn you, parts of the roaster can get hot enough to easily cause second degree burns, and if left unattended a roaster can bring beans to the point of ignition, they can catch fire, and you can burn your house down. Read all instructions that came with your roaster carefully and never leave a coffee roaster that is running unattended. To a lesser degree of 'danger,' a roaster will emit quite a bit of smoke, particularly at darker roasts. It may not be visible as the roast progresses because of the fan-driven exhaust, but one roast will permeate an entire home with the roasting smell. I offer this information for entertainment purposes only, documenting some of the things I have learned roasting coffee, and by reading any further you accept all responsibility for the use or application of this information.

      When you begin roasting coffee there are some things that you need to be aware of that have to do with your senses, The first, and very possibly the most important, is your hearing. Listening for the "cracks" when coffee roasts is critical. The various cracking sounds accurately let you know what stage your roast has achieved.

      Even after a couple-of-dozen Grateful Dead concerts (as well as The Police, The Cars, and many others), and a couple of years in my youth working in an auto repair center changing tires (lots of air-gun noise without hearing protection) I can easily hear the cracks when I roast coffee beans, even from across the room. If you hearing even approaches "normal" or "average" then you should be able to hear them as well. With most home coffee roasting appliances it is a matter of tuning out the ambient noise that the roaster itself makes and listening only for what you want to hear.

      Before I even begin to get into any details here it is important to note that there are a lot of variables that can affect some of the information I am about to share concerning the whats, whens, and how often while you are listening for the cracks. Factors such as ambient air temperature, whether the roaster is warmed up or started cold, the brand and model of roaster, the individual roaster itself, how often and thoroughly it is cleaned, the age of the beans, the moisture level in the beans, the blend, and more all affect how beans roast. For example, decafe beans and blends crack a lot less than regular beans, so these are not the best to learn on. A popcorn popper can roast in about five minutes, the HWP in ten and the Alpenrost in fifteen, all roasting the same beans to about the same roast. All the cracking is easily heard in the HWP but second crack is difficult to hear in the Alpenrost due to its enclosed design.

      Before you even start with your first roast, have a notebook handy that will be dedicated to your roasting notes alone. How important is keeping good notes and how valuable are they? At my local commercial roaster, the roastmaster keeps his notes locked in a safe at all times! In my roasting notes I keep track of the blend (or bean) I am roasting, the date of the roast, when the cracks begin, when they become active, and when they end (or at least, when 1st ends as I don't roast through second normally). I also add what the beans look like at critical stages with details about color, oil appearance, and such. Later I add the taste notes to the roast notes so I can keep track of what a particular roast at a particular blend tasted like. All of this aimed at the ability to duplicate what works and to avoid what doesn't.

      A lot of folks are a bit nervous about their first roast. Don't be. Be brave! They are only coffee beans and if you are vigilant the worst thing that can happen is that you will burn the beans. That even happens to experienced, professional roasters once in a while. If you burn the first batch of beans then you will have progressed through all the roasting stages from green through Spanish and will have learned a lot about the roasting process. If you take careful notes along the way then the knowledge you gain can be applied to subsequent roasts as well and will help you "learn" your roaster. It is good to throw out the first batch of beans anyway as they can absorb some nasty smells from the roaster the first time it is used.

      If you have some sort of automatic control on your roaster, for your first batch I recommend that you turn your roaster all the way up and plan on stopping in manually. Do not mentally depend on some artificial roast point to which the device can be adjusted. Depend on your own senses! This is the way I roast all the time on my HWP. I set the dial full clockwise and stop the roaster when the beans get to the roast I like. ( NOTE- Be sure to read the instructions that came with your roaster before attempting this.)

      I will once again remind you that the times at which the sounds appear vary radically between different types of roaster. If you are using the HWP the following times should give you an idea of about when to listen and what to listen for:

     FIRST CRACK - sounds like breaking toothpicks. Most likely there won't be a lot of them- maybe as few as five and probably not many more than ten or fifteen total. These are loud enough to be easily heard in most roasters. First crack begins at around 4:30 and ends at 6:30. The variables are considerable. For example, you may only hear four first cracks and they may all occur between 4:00 and 5:00 in the roast. There is no specific rule.

     SECOND CRACK - Sounds like the crackle of Rice Crispies in the bowl. These are not as loud as first crack, more difficult to hear, but they happen a lot more frequently and in greater numbers than first cracks. Second crack takes place over a longer period of time as well. They start slow and then build to a point where there may be one or two a second for a bit and then decrease in frequency. Where these cracks are happening a the highest frequency is referred to as "active second crack." In some blends active second can happen two or more times during a roast. Generally, second crack begins at 8:30 and is active at 9:10. I will remind you that particularly with second crack, the time, rate, and duration can vary dramatically based on the variables I mentioned earlier.

      Second crack is very important. Many home roasters use this as THE indicator when roasting. Some folks will tell you to roast a specific bean, "twelve cracks into second crack," or something like that. For most people's tastes, roasting to somewhere around the beginning or at active second crack makes a good espresso roast.

     It may take the first two or three roasts, but eventually you will be able to easily hear the cracks. If you can't hear the cracks after the first few roasts try sitting back a bit from the roaster and roast in an area where there are no additional noises (like TV, radio, children, pets, other running electrical devices, etc.). Get together with someone who can point them out for you. Down the line you may even want to have your hearing checked (and I am not trying to be insulting or a wise guy here). If you have done a lot of motorcycling, shooting, operating heavy equipment or power tools, or other activity with a high noise level then you may have a hearing deficiency.

      Of course, as you might have guessed, I use the stopwatch function on my digital watch for every roast. It gives me a good idea of about where the roast is at. But if I had to choose between listening for the cracks and using the watch, I would throw the watch away. The cracks are the best indicator.

Other Important Roasting Clues
      Along with the sound of the cracks there are some visual clues that you can use to identify the level of roast. One that I personally find quite useful is the appearance of oil on the beans. When this takes place and to what extent is affected by many of the same factors that I mentioned earlier, but is still a valuable tool. I do enjoy a dark roast once in a while and have found that if I watch the beans carefully, at about the level of roast I enjoy, the beans take on an overall sheen to them. They aren't dripping or wet-looking at all- just shiny. The instant that happens I stop the roast.*1 Of course, it depends on what I am roasting. Sumatran Mandheling seems to like the dark roast but I roasted some Colombian to the same level and it was overpowering. *2

      At a slightly lighter level of roast you will see oil spots appear on some of the beans. This is another good indicator that the observant roaster can use to identify the level of roast.

      Next there is color. Color is a very important indicator of the level of roast but one which a lot of folks have difficulty identifying. This is mainly due to the fact that they have little to which to compare the beans as they roast. You could spend the hundreds of dollars to get the color chips from the SCCA, but even these are designed to be used to compare the color of ground and packed coffee and not the beans themselves.

      When you begin your first roast pay attention to color and keep notes as to what you see in relation to the cracks as well as the time of roast. If you have some of the same beans or blend that are roasted to the degree you like then you can compare to those. Use a strong light to do so. I have found that a "Maglite" type of flashlight is excellent for such a purpose.

*1 To stop the roast manually with my HWP, I hit the cool-down button then immediately take the roasting chamber off the roaster, take off the chamber's top, and pour the beans into a stainless steel colander. The roasting chamber is re-assembled and placed back on the still-running roaster on it's cool-down cycle. I then pour the beans back and forth using two stainless steel colanders. The beans cool very quickly this way and you will feel the heat they radiate.

*2 I create my own espresso blends. I like to roast some of the beans (mainly the base beans) to a darker roast. The varietals- the beans added for their specific taste nuances- are roasted to a lighter degree, then the various roasts are blended together afterwards. If you are buying blends of green beans you will have to experiment to find the level of roast that suits the individual blend.