Jun 4, 2011

I Finally Found a Use for the Burner on the Side of the Grill

clip_image002Programming and caffeine have gone together for a long time, and that's all the justification I needed for today's column. Do you have one of those burners on the side of your grill? I do, but I also have four other ones I can use from inside the comfort of my home.  I've owned two nice grills over the past 16 years and never used the burner on either one until recently, when I decided to take an old fashioned approach to roasting some coffee beans.  In case you don't know roasting your own has a couple of advantages. It's one of the cheapest ways to get your coffee fix.  Roasted coffee peaks at about 3 days after roasting, so doing it yourself provides you with constant fresh roasted beans. And finally, you can always have coffee on hand, the unroasted beans stay good for a long, long time so you can always have a couple of unroasted pounds hiding out in the cupboard.

Now they do make some special "uni-taskers",  as Alton Brown would say, for roasting coffee and I've owned two of those. They're sort of glorified (read expensive) hot-air popcorn poppers with mechanisms to catch the coffee chaff. One broke, and I can't currently find all the parts to the second one (I think my wife hid it).  I could however, find a cast iron pan and that burner next to my grill. This is one pan-frying-job you don't really want to do in the house. The only other tools you'll want are a mitt, a stirring implement, a colander and a hair dryer (or just a windy day works too.)

clip_image002[5]I fired up the grill on high to pre-heat the already well-seasoned cast-iron pan, about three minutes and the pan was literally smoking hot. I turned the heat down to medium and threw in a couple of handfuls of raw coffee beans. I left enough room so that when the beans expanded I would still only have a single layer of beans in the pan. You can probably do more but I'm the only one in the house that drinks coffee and between one batch of caffeinated and one of decaffeinated, I'll have a several day supply. It should stay at peak freshness in the espresso hopper that long.

I start stirring and shaking (ala Jiffy Pop) immediately, stopping only long enough to take a picture. At this point the pan handle isn't too hot to touch but it soon will be so I quickly donned the mitt. During the process I probably never let the beans sit still in the pan for more than about 20 seconds. They can burn fast. The first time I tried just shaking the pan but it didn't provide enough movement, so I added the wooden stirring paddle. 

clip_image002[12]clip_image002[8]About 5 minutes in you'll reach first crack. Nothing sounds quite so nice as hearing roasting coffee beans go snap, crackle and pop. Quite a bit louder than other breakfast items that might do the same.

The picture at left was taken around the start of first crack. This would make for an extremely light roast, and I'm roasting an espresso blend so I'm going for somewhere past second crack. The picture at the right is representative of the color at the end of first crack. Still looks a little light even for a morning coffee blend.

clip_image002[14]It's hard to see but there's quite a bit of chaff in the pan after first crack. Some of it has blown off from the wind, so it's either time to start huffing and puffing or switch on the blow dryer for about fifteen seconds.  

In the photo at the left you can see little naked streaking chaffs go flying out of the pan. You can also turn the hair dryer on high and get a lot of bean movement. Be careful, if you get too close you can easily blow the beans right out of the pan. Conceivably you could use this instead of stirring and shaking. I was a little concerned that the air was cooling down the beans too much to try this.  

clip_image002[16]About 18 minutes after starting we're into second crack, I'm going to go a few extra minutes to try for a nice hearty espresso roast without bringing too much oil to the surface and without burning the crap out of the beans. This batch is a blend of different beans so I don't have a goal of trying to get all the beans the same color. One of the advantages of roasting your own is if you want all the beans the same color you can buy individually and mix them after roasting. I like the variety of roasting the blended raw beans and having some medium and some dark beans in my espresso. The beans roast a little bit after removing them from the pan, but I tend to turn off the heat and do the last few minutes in the cooling pan. Then I caress them into the colander and stir them around a bit to cool them off.
Here's the final product. A little charring and a few lighter beans, but not too bad. All in all given the cost and durability of this roasting method (not to mention that I could find a pan and I finally got to use the grill burner), I'm pretty happy with the results. The home coffee roasters get a more even color and are more automated so I don't think the cast iron pan is going to put anyone out of business, but if you just want to try roasting your own, and you own a grill with a burner and a cast iron pan, go for it.
Take a trip to www.sweetmarias.com, and get ready to spend about $9.00/lb including shipping, for your raw beans. Now clip_image002[20]don't think you're going to get expensive island beans for that price, but a lot of the beans are in the $6-$7/lb range and you have to buy a minimum of $15 worth, the shipping for me works out to about $9 on 3 lbs. Having three pounds around is no problem since the beans will last a long time. Also remember that unroasted coffee beans have more moisture content than roasted beans, so the price is a little bit higher than it seems. The picture at the left shows  the two blends I tried today. Their donkey decaf blend is great and I've had it before, this is my first time trying the New Classic Espresso Blend. I won't know how good it is until tomorrow when the roasted beans reach their peak flavor threshold.

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Tod Gentille (@todgentille) is now a Curriculum Director for Pluralsight. He's been programming professionally since well before you were born and was a software consultant for most of his career. He's also a father, husband, drummer, and windsurfer. He wants to be a guitar player but he just hasn't got the chops for it.