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Barista in the Wild, Part 2: Roasting to Perfection

Note: Serious Eats contributor Allison Hemler is an NYC-based barista who recently traveled to Seattle to check out the internal coffee college at Starbucks HQ. This week, she'll be educating us on tidbits she picked up in class, continuing today with the roasting of beans.

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When I want coffee made with love, I immediately think of Small World Coffee in Princeton, New Jersey--the location of my first-ever barista position. We had our own roasting plant five miles down the road in a huge warehouse. You'd walk in for a staff meeting after slaving away at the espresso machine all day and the intense aroma would conjure up images of swimming in coffee beans alongside toasting marshmallows for s'mores, stirring a pot of baked beans on the stove, and chopping up a huge bar of fresh dark chocolate and letting it slowly melt in a double boiler.

The smell of freshly roasted coffee makes me think of home cooking and late nights by a bonfire. Mmmm. Delicious, positive thoughts.

Roasting brings out the best flavors in coffee beans. To roast a coffee bean to perfection is the aim of any roaster with half a brain--and a heart. Starbucks is heavily criticized for "burning" their beans. At Starbucks HQ, I never once saw a charred bean. They do, however, tend to roast beans in their house coffee much darker than some of us are used to. There's still a good number of consumers out there who drink strong, bold, and dark coffee--"whatever packs the biggest punch" as I consistently hear people say.

Starbucks even sells an entire line of coffees that don't necessarily taste like burnt toast. In fact, within the first five minutes of at the Seattle headquarters, I witnessed a roasting demo for employees led by a tall red-headed guy geeking out on Brazil Ipanema Conquista (not currently available to consumers, but similar to the Ipanema Bourbon).

Excited to see coffee roasted before my eyes, I took a small bag of it home to try. This was one of the mildest coffees I've ever had--balanced, nutty, chocolatey. Perfect with a drop of soy milk. Contrast this with a Kenya, a bright coffee with hints of grapefruit and roasted tomatoes. As a barista in an independent coffee shop, I can appreciate the diversity in their take-home coffees--most people will be surprised when trying one of their featured coffees or happen to be in a location with a Clover, where you can try a number of limited edition, small batch coffees.

While roasting beans is done to a specific time and temperature to have the greatest impact in flavor, no roaster with passion for coffee is going to roast a Guatemalan, Kenyan, or espresso blend without consideration for its origin. If you took a Kenya to an Italian roast (which, in my opinion, tastes like carbon-flavored coffee), you'd lose all of its unique characteristics. If you took a Sumatra too light, it would taste like cheap black tea. A chef who truly understands his ingredients relates to this idea when salting a dish in-process. A chef uses salt like the roaster uses heat: to create a masterpiece where flavors are enhanced, not covered up.

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One coffee (in this example, Sumatra) at different roasting levels

A Brief Summary of the Sample Roasting Process

Five pounds of beans are dumped in a small machine reminiscent of the turn of the century. The roaster applies heat and listens for milestones for the next few minutes.

The sound of the first pop is reminiscent of microwave popcorn. Within the next few minutes, flavor development begins. Before this point, if you took some beans and made a cup of coffee, it wouldn't taste anything like you'd want coffee to be. The second pop--when oils make their way from the beans--is reminiscent of Rice Krispies in milk.

Master roasters will have specific times they look for these pops, and can smell when the coffee is ready, but always use a timer for consistency. Watching this craft in person convinced me that it cannot be taught, but only learned through experience. Whether at Starbucks Quality Control or a smaller company like Intelligentsia, roasters show there is a fine art to the luscious mouth-watering aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans.

Final Tip on Roasting

Please don't keep beans in the refrigerator or freezer. Buy enough to last you for the next ten days. A good, loving barista will even sell you a quarter pound of whole bean coffee to ensure you make the best cup at home.

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