Author's note: In early June, I attended the coffee harvest in Pedregulho, Brazil, with leading specialty coffee producer Octavio Café and Dallis Coffee, the highly respected New York coffee roaster Octavio recently acquired. Down at Octavio's Nossa Senhora Aparecida farm, I leaned how coffee goes from the plant to your French press—as millions of coffee trees are picked, sifted, seeded, dried, roasted, and brewed into the coffee that wakes you up every morning. Here's Phase 4: all about roasting. —CJ

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Dallis Coffee; roasting beans. [Photos: Dallis Coffee]

Missed Part 1, all about the farm? Check it out here »
Missed Part 2, all about the harvest? Check it out here »
Missed Part 3, all about the beans? Check it out here »

We last saw our coffee beans—picked, sifted, cleaned, seperated, shelled, dried, and sorted—back in the processing plant. But in order to turn those green beans into the black, crunchy coffee beans you think of, there's one more step: roasting.

That's where Dallis Coffee comes in.

Octavio does roast and grind a portion of its own coffee crop, for the Brazilian internal market. But whereas unroasted coffee beans remain essentially stable for six months or more, when stored properly, roasted coffee beans can decline in quality after just two weeks. So if you're drinking Octavio Coffee in New York City, chances are it's gone from green to black in Ozone Park, Queens.

Abe and Morris Dallis started Dallis Brothers Coffee in 1913, delivering beans across the boroughs in horse-drawn carriages. They later opened up their own roastery, and a few decades later, grew the business into a supplier for cafés and restaurants all over New York City.

Fast-forward to this century, and today's Dallis Coffee finds itself at a unique place in the coffee culture. Sure, it's an old-world New York supplier whose client base dates to decades before anyone started talking about single-origin espresso and Stumptown and The Slayer; but it's also a thoroughly modern roastery, as highly respected (and as willing to geek out) as any name in the business.

Which explains some of the funny sights out in Ozone Park. In the display up front, you've got micro-batches of single origin beans, roasting up in the window; in the back, their larger batches are funneled into 1950s-era cast-iron Probats, the vintage gold standard.

Roasting 101

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Roasting coffee could be its own 5-part series, but we'll just give you the basics. In any coffee roasting process, the green beans are gradually heated, while kept in constant motion; the heat changes their taste, smell, color, and feel to become what most of us recognize as "coffee beans." While the characteristics of the finished coffee depend on the beans you start with, of course, the roasting process also plays an enormous part. Generally speaking, a lighter roast lets the bean's inherent properties shine through; the essential oils start to release, resulting in coffee's distinctive aromatics. While heat releases these oils, however, the roast also imparts a flavor of its own; in a darker roast, one ends up tasting the properties of the roast itself.

After the Roast

When stored and handled well, unroasted coffee beans are stable for at least six months; once roasted, however, they deteriorate far more quickly. It's not that fresh-roasted coffee is always the best; the day out of the roaster, John Moore explained, it can taste somewhat flat, as the beans are loaded with so much carbon dioxide that it can "block the exits" through the coffee bean pores, not allowing aromatics to escape.

Generally, between two days and two weeks out of the roaster is prime coffee time. As with so much in coffee, though, it varies; beans slated for espresso may be aged longer, as espresso is so intense an extraction, it can be better to let the sharp, stark flavors mellow a bit before they're distilled so strongly.

"Treat Your Beans As You Would Your Tomatoes."

There are ways to preserve roasted coffee a bit longer than two weeks; some packages have a one-way valve so that carbon dioxide from the beans can escape, without letting oxygen and moisture, sworn bean enemies, into the bag. That said, in the words of John Moore, "Your coffee shelf is not a liquor cabinet."

Supermarkets may stock coffee beans far longer than they should, and don't want bags to display a "roasted on" date. From their perspective, since beans don't display any clear signs of decline—that is, they don't rot—they're viable for sale indefinitely. But flavors drop off long before the coffee shows any visible sign of wear. Your best bet? Buy from a coffee shop you trust, and buy in small batches. Or, as Moore says, "Treat your coffee beans the way you would your tomatoes."

Last step: drinking, of course! Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 5.

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