Once Upon a Time: Roasting coffee in the kitchen was a part of the daily life of many people through the 1930s. Europeans who could not afford to buy their coffee pre-roasted, and Amercian rural folks who cherished the taste of coffee, roasted out on their porches, over their fireplaces, or atop their cast iron stoves. A neighborhood coffee roasting shop was an urban luxury. Settlers appreciated the fact that coffee in the form of raw green beans could be stored indefinitely, or at least until their next trip to the general store. The Sears Roebuck catalog circa 1900 actually sold two kinds of green coffee, one a Guatemala Antigua!
The beans weren't the best, the grind was terrible, and their brewing methods resulted in a cup of swill. But I am sure that the smell of warm, fresh-roasted beans in an old hand-cranked grinder made up for some of that.
What happened to those clever roasting devices that were fired up twice a week and happily puffed out pleasant roasting smoke? And what happened to the thousands of neighborhood roasting shops that supplied the community with fresh whole bean coffee?
As interstate commerce grew and the mass packaging of goods became possible, some roasting companies grew to mammoth proportions. Fewer and fewer raw materials entered American homes, as the focus turned to time and labor-saving packaged goods. Civilized people ate food from cans. A poll of your neighbors in the early 1960's might show that coffee was a brown powder, not a bean.
The reappearance of the neighborhood shop roaster in the late 60s and 70s was a part of the "back to basics" movement. I worked for a man who started roasting in the 1960s, after finding an old coffee roaster-turned-peanut-roaster down in Mexico. The pioneers of today's specialty coffee industry resuscitated a profession that had been dead for 50 years.
Now the proliferation of coffeehouses has reached such extremes that there are neighborhoods that have imposed a 2 year ban: No New Cafes! And not all of the 1980s "gourmet" coffee craze helped to improve the brown drink we hold so dear.
Everyone in the specialty coffee industry knows that freshness counts. Everyone knows that only your neighborhood coffee roaster, who sells a limited variety of beans roasted in small batches daily, can truly claim to offer fresh coffee. All that whole bean, vacuum-packed stuff at the supermarket is the result of large centralized roasting companies attempting to cut into the sales of the neighborhood roaster. On the whole, coffee is better roasted and better packaged due to their efforts. But it is not fresh.
Coffee is best 4 to 24 hours after roasting. During this time, coffee emits enough C02 to keep the oxygen (that will eventually make it stale) at bay. The essential flavor oils are delicate, and fade or become tainted quickly despite all our interventions. Stored as whole beans in an airtight glass jar in a dark place, coffee can stay "fresh" for roughly 5 days. For those without a good neighborhood roaster, we invite you to discover the simple pleasure of roasting your own coffee.
Coffee is the second most traded commodity on the world market after crude oil. With 7 billion dollars exchanged in coffee every year, some people will say and do anything to promote their product. The issue isn't only a narcissistic concern for the quality of our morning coffee, it is the way this hot commodity undermines sound ecological practice worldwide. The demand for lower quality coffees has resulted in massive coffee agribusiness, clearing huge parcels of biodiverse forest to plant coffee. The small fincas, co-ops, estates and traditional "shade-grown" coffees that we sell must compete against the ultra-productive coffee farms and their machine-picked, disease-resistant hybrid coffee products.
And as far as your pocketbook goes, why buy 2+ week-old coffee for $10/pound when you can roast your own for much less? It's as easy as making popcorn, and the green coffee from Sweet Maria's costs half the price of roasted beans. If you use the air popcorn popper method, you can usually find the appropriate type in thrift stores for $2. That's all you need to start roasting coffee at home!