Current Works in Progress

Monday, September 26, 2011

Roasting Coffee

In Canada, where no coffee has ever been grown, I can buy 1kg of coffee for between $10 and $15. In China, which grows coffee in two different regions, that same kilo of brown gold will cost me between $30 and $40. This amuses me in a bitter, “it figures” sort of way. 

Now, to be sure, the $30 coffee is of a much higher quality than the $10 daily-use coffee you buy in the supermarket. If you can even find non-instant coffee in China (and outside of the three or four biggest cities that is going to depend on the presence of a Starbucks) it is almost certainly a single-origin, Arabica bean (meaning high-quality and expensive). Coffee in China is still pretty much only for us foreigners or for pretentious rich people who want to exude the air of a sophisticated world traveller, but no matter who it’s for, $30 a kilo is still entirely too much to pay for coffee. 

Now, I have to admit that since coming to China I’ve become a bit of a coffee snob. When living in Canada I was always more of a quantity over quality guy. I’d even drink the swill at Tim Horton’s. I don’t think I could drink it any more. Now that I roast my own coffee, I’ve been spoiled.

Here’s the thing: I drink a lot of coffee. I go through about a kilogram of beans a week. At $30-$40 per kilo that adds up pretty fast. In addition to the sheer cost, there is also the hassle of having to go and buy the stuff. When I lived in Hangzhou (a mid-sized city of about 10 million people) I could buy coffee in a few places, but most of them involved 2-3 hours of round trip driving through some of the nastiest traffic in the world.
Then my friend Sean turned me on to an elegant solution. “Why not,” he said, “buy a huge @$$-load of raw beans, and we can roast them ourselves?” To this day I have no idea where he got the idea, but it was a fantastic one. Green (unroasted) coffee beans will keep almost forever in a cool, dry (airtight container) place, and by roasting yourself you can always be drinking the freshest coffee possible. 

The thing about pre-roasted coffee is that it takes a few weeks to a few months to hit the shelves of your local supermarket or cafĂ©. Coffee starts to lose its flavor mere days after roasting. You, my friend, have been drinking stale, flavourless coffee. I started roasting my own coffee as a way to save money, but ended up with the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had. I don’t think I could ever go back. I currently buy 5kg bags of raw Yunnan beans from a wholesaler in Guangzhou for about $7 per kilo, and roast twice a week.
If you google “home roasting” or “how to roast coffee” you’ll be inundated with instructions and advice (much of it conflicting) on the proper methods for roasting and preparing a “good” cup of coffee. At its most basic, all you really need for roasting is a frying pan, heat, and coffee beans. A cooling pan is a nice idea too, to avoid over roasting, but that’s all you need. That’s all I use:

Many home roasters use hot-air corn poppers to roast their coffee. Others buy specialty coffee roasters online. I can’t speak to either of these methods, not having tried them, but from what I’ve read they work well. I like the physical involvement (and the cheap, not-having-to-buy-a-bunch-of-equipment-yness) of pan roasting, although I don’t recommend doing it later in the day. There is quite a bit of caffeine released in the smoke, and you can’t help but breathe it in. I spent one or two sleepless nights before I figured out not to roast before bed.

If you are going to try your hand at this, here are a few tips that might help:
  • Make sure your pan is clean and dry before putting the beans in. I let it heat up until any moisture from washing it is gone, then pour in the beans.
  • Don’t stop stirring
  • Pull the beans out when they are a bit lighter than you want them to be. They will continue to cook and darken after you remove the heat
  • Ventilation, ventilation, ventilation (outdoors would be best, if possible)
  • Whatever you use for stirring will likely be ruined for anything else.
  • Don’t stop stirring
  • Don't roast coffee right before bed
  • Don't stop stirring
There are two things affected by the darkness of your roast: flavour, and caffeine content. The roasting process removes some of the caffeine from the beans, so a darker roast will have less caffeine than a lighter roast. In terms of flavour, some beans (such as the Yunnan beans I buy) are too bitter for anything but a dark roast, while others like a nice Blue Mountain have a full, pleasant flavor with a much lighter roast. The general advice is that the lighter the roast the more you taste the bean, and the darker the roast the more you taste the roast. Feel free to experiment with different beans and different roasts, you'll be hard pressed to roast an undrinkable batch and experimenting is fun.

Now go and turn this...

Into this

Friday, September 23, 2011

Introductions Are In Order

It's odd, isn't it?

This is the my first post on my shiny, new blog, I have no readers at the time of this writing, and yet still I feel the need to introduce myself. The process is further complicated by the fact that I really don't have any clear idea to whom I am making the introduction. I have some ideas about the purpose and direction of my little corner of the internet, but nothing firm, and certainly nothing set in stone. So, I really have no idea who you are, future reader.

As you might have seen in the brief bio I've included in my profile information, I have numerous hobbies, and have had several very different career paths over the years. As often as possible, the two areas overlap. I've been teaching English in mainland China since 2004, I've appeared in several Chinese television shows (some of which even aired), my wife and I ran our own (delivery-only) bakery/restaurant for a year and change, and we have just recently opened our own English training school. I expect I'll be using this blog to write about some of those experiences from time to time.

In addition to starting the new school, I am also trying my hand at becoming a professional writer of fiction. I'm elbows deep in the creation of one novel and a collection of short stories at the moment, and hope to self-publish both of them as e-books before the end of the year. I will likely be using this blog (and as many other channels as I can find) as a promotional tool for my writing, and as a way of (hopefully) building a fan base. I would love nothing more than to be able to make a living by writing novels.

Finally, I will be using this space to talk about some of my hobbies, and some of the things I've learned to do in order to make life in China livable. In the past seven years I've had to learn how to make a lot of things from scratch, simply because they aren't available here (or are very hard to come by). I'll likely be sharing some of that know-how for those who are interested.

I've titled this blog My Lived-in Life, because that is what I strive to have, and what I plan to share with you - a life that, like the old family homestead, has been thoroughly lived-in.