Wood-Fired Coffee Roasting – Part 2, by J.P.

Preparation for Roasting

Besides gathering all your equipment together, two skills need to be developed:

1.) Maintaining just the right amount of fire and

2.) “Nurturing” the beans with masterful strokes of the paddles.

First, the fire. If you are blessed to be a master of the wood fire then this part will come easy. Most effective wood cooking fires are long on a good bed of coals and short on actual flame. Flame delivers short-lived heat and then it dies. You don’t want to be rebuilding your fire in the middle of a roast.

Now let’s talk about what I refer to as “nurturing” the beans – stirring. I’m convinced proper stirring is the secret to a magnificent wood-fired coffee roast.

Remember, we’re not looking for speed. If your fire is right then slow and steady is very productive. Too much speed and you will be pushing and flipping the beans out of the pan. If a smoking hot pan is tempting you to stir faster what you really need to do is reduce the heat under the pan.

I’ve found two paddle strokes that work well. One, the “sweep stroke” which is used to move beans away from the edge of the pan. And, the second stroke, which I call the “over and under,” is a double paddle stroke that starts with the paddles on opposite sides of the pan, draw the paddles toward each other while pushing beans toward the center, and before the paddles collide one stays on the pan and the other rises, pushing beans up and over the top of the other paddle.

You’re off and running, and you’ll soon develop your own personal style. Simply keep in mind that your goal is to keep the beans moving, never leaving a bean on the hot, cast-iron surface, more than 10-15 seconds so the roast is slow and even. Now you’re beginning to understand “nurturing” beans!”

Time to Roast

What I intend to do is share our first roasting experience, followed by some improvements in subsequent roasts.

After breakfast on roasting day, I grabbed one of the sets of roasting instructions I’d pulled off the Internet, quickly reread them, and hoped I’d be able to maneuver the beans through the ten stages of roasting and somehow bring them right up to the fine line of a dark roast, black but not burned. I got the beans, picked out a cast iron frying pan, pulled a few spatulas and a large serving spoon from the kitchen and headed for the backyard of our cabin.

Several years ago I’d built what we call our culvert cooker. It is a 3’ long heavy corrugated piece of culvert, 3’ in diameter, and stood it on end. Filled nearly to the top with gravel, it has served as our go-to outdoor cooking facility. On it we regularly grill meat and fish, do open fire roasting, and prepare slow-cooked dutch oven meals. Today we intend to roast coffee beans for the first time. I’ve got a good pile of short split chunks of birch ready to go and in a half hour the fire is mostly a bed of hot coals with a reasonable amount of low flame. Additional wood is ready if I need it. It’s obvious I’m going to need a cooking glove and a squirt bottle of water so I put the fry pan on the grill and make a quick trip into the cabin, grab the glove and water, and ask my wife if she’d bring out the colander we brought for cooling the roasted coffee beans.

Here We Go: First Roast

A quick touch of the pan tells me it’s hot but not so much that it would scorch the beans.
I poured in two pounds of beans. I’m wondering if it would have been better to start the beans in a cool pan, or maybe a hotter pan. How would I know? With a 2½” wooden spatula and a plastic egg flipper I begin to stir.

My coffee roasting friend tells me the roasting process should take between 15 and 20 minutes. Ten minutes into my roast I note a few beans are a light tan in color. Something’s working right, yet it is seemingly slow.

I think my fire is too cool. I add a half dozen short chunks of wood. A minute later I have flame, small flakes of husk are lifting out of the pan, I hear a few snapping noises, and there they are, a growing number of medium brown beans. I stir as completely as I can. I fear burning the beans. The fire seems too hot so I grab the spray bottle and strategically cool the bigger flames. More stirring.
The pan appears to be smoking, then I know it’s too hot. We’re at about 18 minutes. I continue stirring, bending over to discern if I’m smelling burnt coffee or is it wood smoke. I work hard to stir with a steady motion. The plastic spatula is melting so my wife hands me the metal spatula. Constantly stirring I watch the beans turn in color, many now medium brown, considerable more crackling, a few beans showing some black. Ooh, seems the fire has rekindled itself and I’m moving the pan to a cooler area on the grill, spin it 90 degrees, more black beans, stirring, stirring.

How close am I to achieving a dark roast? Lots of beans getting quite dark and showing an oily sheen. Closing in on 45 minutes. I don’t see enough consistency in color to call it any level of roast yet. I’m stirring more consistently. More lite popping, more black husks in the air. I’m grateful for a breeze to blow most of the husks away.

We have a nice mix of medium-dark brown and black beans. 50 minutes in and we decide to scoop half the beans from the pan, partially to save some beans in case we burn the rest (damage control), we’ll call it medium-dark roast. My wife works the cooling colander, trying to toss the hot beans in the air, cooling them as they fall, stirring doesn’t work very well. Finally, she dumps them on the cookie sheet and announces they’re cooling better.

I want to take the remainder of the beans as close to black as I can get them (dark roast), but the directions warn against burning them which is just a minute line beyond dark. At 55 minutes I grab the pan and declare “they’re done”, dumping them on the second cookie sheet to cool. I am tired! Whew.

Catching our breath we both bend over, smelling the beans. I toss a bean in my mouth, chew it up. Nothing tastes or smells burned. Just a deep coffee aroma.
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It’s the following morning till I can brew up my normal four-cup French Press and taste the results of the previous day’s adventure. Let it sit overnight – the rules, you know.

That morning I grind and brew. I pour a fourth of a cup and slowly sip it, black. Hmm, It’s a rich, smooth, coffee taste. Nothing bitter. I’m puzzled because I can’t find anything wrong with it, and it’s not supposed to be that way. How is it that it beats our regular morning coffee, and we have no previous roasting experience?

Late Summer Roast

This is probably our fifth go-round at roasting and the results have all been positive. I don’t get it! I would have expected to be reporting that the results have gotten better with each roast, but they haven’t. Does that mean we nailed it every time, right from the beginning? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Or is it that the difficulty of roasting coffee has been overstated? Maybe. Maybe it’s the wood? I don’t know.

I’m suspecting our success is due in part to the wood heat and hint of smoke. I also give some credit to the constant stirring, rarely allowing the beans to get anywhere near too hot. Keep in mind I have no other experience with roasting coffee. I am A NOVICE.  At any rate, the continuing response from folks who appreciate a good cup of coffee is: no matter how bold or dark we make it, it has NO BITTER TASTE. I’ll take it.

However, some things have changed in our roasting, and I believe it’s important we note these. I list them here, with little commentary:
1. With every roast I am careful to give considerable detailed attention to having all utensils and equipment on-site and strategically placed for convenience. This allows me to relax and enjoy the process.
2. In spite of the fact I have 50 years of experience as a fire builder I am learning more of the nuances of the roasting fire, in conjunction with our culvert cooker. That alone allows me to relax and enjoy the process of nurturing the coffee beans.
3. I actually believe my stirring strokes and the continued steady pace have improved the quality of our roasted beans, if not the taste. With the relaxed nature of the roasting event has grown the opportunity to let others step in to share the stirring. We’re all enjoying the process.
All in all our roasting process has become a delightful event.

First Fall Roast, Back in Town

Although we return to Anchorage for a few days, every two to three weeks, it wasn’t till we shuttered our cabin complex, after the close of hunting season in late September, that I went hunting for larger wooden spatulas. Many thrift stores, hardware stores, and appliance stores later I found myself walking down the aisle of my favorite big box store, and there, staring me in the face, in the grilling aisle, was a rack of large wooden tools the manufacturer calls “Grill Scrapers”. Exactly what I was looking for, except they were a bit heavy and clubby. I can take care of that.

So my first fall roast featured two major changes in equipment; my wood-fired cooking platform was now a Solo Cooker instead of my culvert cooker at the lake, and my hand tools were a much more appropriately sized Stirring Paddles.

1. I like the Solo Stove although it brings with it two handicaps – both solvable:
Its cooking surface is much shorter than countertop height and we solved that with a truck tire rim that set perfectly under the stove. A two-minute welding project would add a second rim thickness, thus bringing the stove right up to countertop height. The Solo Stove is designed as a very efficient burner of the wood and all gasses. Therefore experience is needed to limit the size of the fire so you don’t scorch the beans. I came close on my first go-round and adjusted quickly by setting the pan directly on the cool grass while I adjusted the fire with my squirt bottle. On the subsequent roast I built a three stick fire, let it burn a while, and made no adjustments through the entire roasting process. With practice the Solo is a very predictable cooker.

2. Two stirring paddles – did I mention these are my favorite pieces of roasting equipment? At about $6 apiece I don’t think there is a better way to improve your roasting efficiency. Their size alone will cut your number of stirring strokes in half, and I have no doubt they enable us to do a more favorable job of keeping the beans moving, lifted, and at optimum temperature. Nurture those beans!

Surprise! With no extra effort our most recent roasting time – 21 minutes! And, you guessed it, the same rich, dark coffee with no bitter taste. Give it a try and experience the joys of outdoor, wood-fired coffee roasting. Invite some friends!

Looking Forward

On to a rhetorical Covid question: Did we return from a blessed, peaceful summer at the lake to discover the problems of the world had almost disappeared? First, the answer to that question demands some, very deep breaths.

Folks from our spring fire gatherings have come together and the consensus is no mystery. Has a strong desire emerged to deal with the hard questions? I don’t think so. Fun to consider? Absolutely not. But, aren’t they exactly what we need to deal with?

We recently made a list of a dozen gut-wrenching issues that if not reversed soon, will literally tear our world apart. Here are four of them:

  • Rampant Political Turmoil
  • Instability and the free-fall of Public Education
  • Covid Lockdowns
  • Lack of Respect and Adherence to the Rule of Law and the Constitution

None of these will be turned around without a will to change and rebuild our society. Where there is no will, there is NO WAY. Period.
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Here’s a tough subject that our fire circle has yet to deal with. For my entire life, my heart has been bonded with the Church. Now, with some literal heartache, I have to qualify my allegiance – to the Church of the Scriptures, with its roots in the first five books of the Bible. “In the beginning God (YHVH Elohim) created . . . .) Without that we have nothing common on which to build; we’ll be all over the map.

Sadly, much of the contemporary church is holding out against repression as a spectator church, a big production church. This simply will not cut it in the times to come. Around the world, under the most repressive regimes, the surviving, even thriving church is marked by its humility, its hospitality, its generosity, its love, and its courage.
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Men, slide your chairs closer to the fire. This question relates to protecting one’s family, friends, and neighbors. Does Scripture differentiate between random barbarous acts and religious persecution? We may need to answer that question sooner than we think.
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Serious question: Do our older children “understand the times”, and do they know how to listen to God when life gets really tough? Or, are we doing them a disservice by allowing them to go on with their love affair with the world?
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Are we developing trusted inner circles of folks with which to do life? Is our life circle quietly connected to a network of trusted folks? These won’t just happen when the need is suddenly there. We must wrestle with the hard, tough issues before that option is taken from us.
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Covid got us down? (Deep breath.) We must defy the beast, seriously consider the tough issues. Go before the Lord with our questions. Take courageous steps, and, okay, gather a friend or two and appreciate a cup of really good coffee together.

God is Good, and we need not live in fear.

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