February 28, 2021

Wood-Fired Coffee Roasting – Part 1, by J.P.

The following is a tale of friendship, beating the lockdowns, going head to head with the challenges, and coffee!

Introduction

If your primary interest in reading this post is to learn the intricacies of roasting coffee, then I’m confident you would do well to go online and learn from the experts. As well, exquisite coffee roasting probably doesn’t happen over an outdoor wood fire where inconsistencies abound. However, you may be intrigued to discover a host of other worthy reasons to indulge in this somewhat adventurous outdoor pursuit.

Coffee roasting emerged as an afterthought to the boredom and separation resulting from the mid-March executive orders from Anchorage’s mayor. Without knowing many details of the expanse and dangers of the CCP virus most of us cautiously complied as we didn’t want to advance the seeming high morbidity rates coming out of China, Italy, and other highly affected countries.

It wasn’t long before we began questioning the numbers, held up alongside the executive orders, and we began looking for ways to beat the isolation and come together to wrestle with the serious questions of the day.

I’m rather a novice at this coffee roasting, but don’t let that dissuade you. You may find my short journey to success more than interesting. Know from the start that my primary goal here is to get you to try wood fired coffee roasting, and in the process discover a host of reasons to continue this rich and rewarding pursuit.

My personal assumption has long been that coffee roasting is a complex process and success is not easily attained. I still think that’s partially true, if, you insist on identifying all ten stages of taking a bean from pale green – to khaki tan, lite brown, “snap”, medium brown, flying husks, dark brown, “crackle”, more husks, final “pop” – to the rich oily dark roasted black. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to master all of that. Just give me a hearty cup of dark roasted coffee.

I think the other half of that assumption is that the successful coffee roaster will end up being able to produce at least three, maybe four identifiable roasts that will keep all your unique friends, male and female, sophisticated and not so, satisfied that their tastes have been met. Personally, that’s not my goal, but I have an Alaskan back-country solution for that which I’ll come back to later in the article.

Backstory

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There is a backstory and we can thank covid for that. Yes, there are at least one or two blessings from the virus “disaster”, but credit those to innovative and determined people, not the CCP.
Somewhere around early April I tired of, no, I became totally fed up with the idea of some faceless persons ordering me to stay indoors and quarantined for my own protection (which I never complied with), and one morning I wandered back to our sizable firewood pile and began pulling off the less choice pieces. Time to cycle through this resource.

We live on the edge of Alaska’s largest city where there’s nearly unlimited wood sources from either construction site prep or regular 60 – 80 mph winds coming off Cook Inlet. Previous owners of our home were gatherers and when we arrived in our neighborhood, four years ago, they had accumulated nearly 15 cords of firewood. Time for some occasional friendly fires. Great for preppers, even better for folks determined to come together; appropriately distanced of course.

Small Talk/Hard Questions

Friendly fires meant getting back to some regular relationships, and due to weeks of restrictions I soon found a few friends who were as ready as I was to gather and wrestle with our current situation.

Okay, I’m not much of a small talker, and after a half cup of coffee I’m done with chit chat and ready to push into something meaningful. Why do I store so much wood and am I thinking Armageddon? A few of our close friends know the answer to those questions. Others were just starting to know us.

Do you gather and store firewood? Well, why not? Don’t you have a way to heat with wood? What if this lockdown thing becomes a way of life? Who’s going to pay for the economic mess? Awe, I don’t think it’ll ever get dealt with. Yah, but if it really does hit the fan. . . . And the conversation goes silent. I don’t think you can hear those questions for the first time and not squirm a bit.

About that time my wife emerged from the house carrying a tray ladened with a french press of hot coffee and bread fresh from the oven – not an exaggeration. She has the gift of hospitality and it doesn’t quit. On top of that 90% of what she bakes is from home ground flour made from grain we’ve had in storage for 20 years. Oh, I should mention the blueberry jam picked and processed at our wilderness cabin, a good part of a day’s travel to the north.

It didn’t take two weeks for our discussion fires to grow and increase in frequency. Curiosity brought neighbors, which often included kids who love hot chocolate and surprisingly enjoyed just sitting and listening to adults. With that we eventually noted a subtle lifting of the “covid haze”, most likely the result of what we know as true fellowship, the “sharing of all things in common.”

No End to the Richness

Gradual warming of the weather and thoughts and plans for gardens surfaced, friends arrived on motorcycles, more families, more food and drinks. Eventually some meals around the fire. It was great discussion, It was hospitality, “a love for strangers” on a different level, the surprising joy of spontaneous worship without a production.

By late April talk of grinding coffee broke into our circle, and nearly every gathering from then on. I wondered if we could roast over a wood fire? Where do you get raw beans? Do you stir the beans? How do they not burn? Maybe shaking them is better. How about a Whirley Pop, and would it hold up on a wood fire? We settled on cast iron.

We Survived The Covid Spring

Spending all those days outside gifted us with a two-fold phenomenon; one, our fireside meeting venue gradually transitioned from the sometimes packed snow and occasional mud of the driveway circle, to a lovely spacious grassy plot under the leafed-out canopy of our most beautiful tree in the yard. Lawn furniture increased to include more chairs, a large round picnic table, and an amazing Solo Stove wood cooker, a loan from a generous neighbor – a story for another time.

At the same time talk turned to gardening, then drifted to the critical hunt for seeds, getting plant starts going, scheming on an Alaskan vacation and of course fishing and hunting. I searched the web as well as local suppliers for raw coffee beans. Twenty pounds seemed the ideal amount for getting started.

As unpleasant as most of the effects of the covid lockdown were, there was an obvious group affinity for what was happening amongst us. Men would text or call, or just wander into the yard to express mild frustration that we hadn’t had a fire for a few days. A depth of conversation grew between us, well beyond the typical after church brief. We all sensed an imminent seriousness to life that we wouldn’t necessarily solve, but somehow, together it didn’t seem so dark.

Summer, We all Needed a Break, We needed a Plan

My wife and I spend 10 weeks of the summer at our wilderness cabin, and there I intended to learn to roast coffee – over a wood fire. When the truck and trailer were fully loaded, and headed up the highway in early June, there needed to be enough beans to last through several failures and on into enough successes to feel like we’d done it.

Developing that plan emerged as phenomenon number two of the infamous “covid spring.” Amazingly it was beginning to feel like covid was slipping into a thing of the past. Scheming on a plan for summer at the cabin brings a lot of joy for me. I love a big master plan: three totes and four coolers of fresh, canned and frozen food, tubs of clean laundry, tools, 100 lb bottles of propane, a pile of “cull” lumber from Lowe’s, fuel for our back-country vehicle, boat, and chainsaws, a hundred garden starts, a cubic yard of new soil for finishing off another raised bed, ten buckets of horse manure, a new truck battery, and as much extra firewood as we can load on. Yup, I do love it. Cabin life is returning and our hearts are full of anticipation.

Our means of transport – an older extended-cab Ford F250 with full-length box, and a 14’ single axle trailer. We try to limit our total load to approximately 2,500 lbs. Once we arrive at the old gravel pit we offload onto our 2000 Toyota Tundra, and ferry loads over 5 miles of rough trail to the cabin, two total days of enjoyable hard work. We’re set for three weeks of opening the cabins, gardening, and preparing for a summer of guests.

Close to Roasting Time – Gather The Equipment

We had confidence that once we had a quantity of raw beans on hand we’d find the necessary equipment among our fairly well-stocked goods at the lake. A friend in the lower 48, an Old Order Mennonite and a coffee roaster himself, willingly sold us 20 lbs of beans, packed them in a USPS flat rate box, and shipped them first class. They arrived in three days, a hundred dollars well spent.

Equipment List

Our equipment consisted of:

1.) A 16” flat bottom cast iron frying pan with 2” sides and D handles on opposing sides. I now roast, at our home in town, with a single handle 14” pan, but I find it a bit heavy to operate and wield two wooden spatulas all at once. But it works. 1½ pounds of beans in the 14” pan, 2 lbs in the 16” pan.

2.) Two large wooden spatulas. Two, because a single spatula mostly pushes the beans into piles, leaving some to overcook and large bare areas of the pan to overheat. While shopping this fall I found large spatulas at my favorite big box store, in the outdoor grilling department. They are actually designed for scraping the food buildup from outdoor grills. The brand, “Grill Scrubbers”. These spatulas are just under 5” wide and 19” long. As they come from the store they need a little work. They are too thick, much heavier than they need to be, and the edges need to be gradually tapered. With a belt or stationary sander at least ⅓ of the thickness can be removed. I also recommend sanding a tapered leading edge on the spatula. Measure back 1” to 1 ½” on one side, draw a line across the leading edge and sand that down to a nice angled beveled edge for stirring. You may also want to remove some material from the handle to fit your hand size.

Note: A metal spatula works, but in my book metal doesn’t cut it for aesthetics. I also tried  using plastic spatulas. They work and the black color matches the intended color of the dark roast, but they also melt. Not good! Go with customized wood paddles (not a difficult process) and you’ll love them!

3.) Hot pads, outdoor grilling gloves, or even welding gloves. With practice you will find the combination that works for you. A cast iron roasting pan gets HOT, and you don’t want to grab it bare handed. You might also find the cooking glove, and especially the welding glove to be too bulky for accurate handling of the spatulas. A reasonable compromise is a mid-weight carpenter’s glove which will give you a good feel for the spatulas and allow you to lift and move the pan, all without removing the glove.

4.) A large serving spoon.

5.) Cooling pan(s), colander, or racks. It is advised to cool the hot, roasted beans as quickly as possible. After spending a modest sum on different options we finally settled on two average sized cooking sheets. They cool the quickest and are easy to use. Here’s where you can use your metal or plastic spatulas effectively.

6.) A spray bottle of water for quickly cooling a fire that has gotten a bit out of control – too hot. As you become adept at roasting beans you will also learn how to prepare the best fire for just the right amount of roasting heat. At that point there will be less need for the water sprayer, but keep it handy.

7.) A good supply of firewood, preferably hardwood such as birch, or maple. Cut to lengths and split. Remove the bark if using birch. When my burning area is shallow (6” – 8”) I go with a shorter chunk of wood, 6” – 8”. If the fire pit is deeper then 12” – 14” works well. Split either length down to 2” – 4” in diameter.

8.) A fire pit. I strongly recommend a countertop height cooking surface for both safety and convenience. The firepit must have a solid grate sitting over the fire, on which to set your roasting pan. Here is what I call my Culvert Cooker:

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)

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