Home Roasting – Which Roaster Should I Get?

So, you wanna start home roasting.  But, which roaster is the best one to get?  There’s a ton of written material on this subject, so here’s my contribution.

The Short Version

For those of you with short attention spans, get a FreshRoast SR500.  It produces excellent results, allows you to experiment some typical roaster variables (fan and heat) and won’t break the bank.  Why not the SR700?  Well, as much as I have fun with it, the computer control is really not great for a beginner.  A manual roaster will let you actually experience the roast better and you’ll learn more.

The long version

What follows is my opinion after having tried most of these things over the last 5 years.  Most people will recommend starting out with a Westbend Poppery popcorn maker from eBay.  Yes, this will work, and can produce good results.  But, to truly get the most out of it, you will need to modify it.  And, there’s an impressive set of mods you can make if you are so inclined.  But, and the end, you will basically have built an SR500.  But, hey,  if you like building things, and you have the skills, go for it.

You could even start off with a cast iron skillet, or a wok, or even your current toaster oven.  If you have a toaster oven with a convection setting, you can easily roast 1/2lb loads and do a pretty decent job.  But, you will likely outgrow these more primitive tools and methods VERY quickly.  Having a roaster that can still be of service after you upgrade is going to be a nice thing.


What about a Behmor?  The Behmor 1600+ is a great roaster – for the price it really is.  But, there’s significant quirks and short-comings that make it really aggravating for beginners (just Google for Err 7 and read about all the dumped roasts due to this “feature” – it’s an insurance this for the company.)  Also, while it will in fact roast a full pound, I find the sweet spot is 1/2lb, and with the cooling cycle, you can actually roast a full pound in 4 batches in the SR500 in almost the same amount of time.

There are of course other options.  But, for ease of use, ability to actually learn about roast mechanics, and quality of the result, if I had to do it over again, I would start with the FreshRoast SR500.  And, the bonus is that it is such a capable roaster, when/if you upgrade to something larger, you can still use the SR500 as your sample roaster (there are some commercial roasters that actually do this).

Alchemy Lounge – Huntsville, AL

My son spent a week at Space Camp, which left me for a week working remotely in Huntsville, AL. On a recommendation from a coffee group I found Alchemy Lounge. It’s not a place you would find on your own. It’s in a wacky location inside a converted old warehouse type building.

Inside, Alchemy has a cool vibe with a very modern hipster feel. The air conditioning and wifi make for a great remote work location, and the coffee is excellent.

Alchemy is a Counter Culture shop and has all the usual espresso and pour over options you would expect. Espresso is served up from a La Marzocco Linea and Nouva Simonelli Mythos grinders. Pour overs are done with Kalita drippers.

They also have small bites and beer and live music on occasion.

Bird & Branch NYC

Ever since my son was in the cast of Matilda on Broadway, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with coffee in New York.  There’s a bunch of great spots, but there’s also a ton new new places that are trying to capitalize on the coffee bandwagon and have good looking shops but make crap coffee.  My stop on this trip was Bird & Branch.

Flat White @ Bird & Branch

Every time I go back, I make it a point to try the new places and patronize the smaller shops.  Bird & Branch is on 45th near 9th (across the street from Schmackary’s).  The owner is a nice young guy who cares about what he’s doing.  My wife had visited the store 6 months before, and apparently was talking about my home roasting, and the guy recognized my son and asked if I was the home roaster!

They don’t roast their own, rather serve Saint Frank, a San Francisco based roaster.  The Espresso is 3rd wave-ish, but not overly acidic and pairs well with Milk.  They are using a “Slayer Steam” for espresso extraction, and it’s a beautiful machine.  If you’re a pour-over fan, the Guatemala is excellent with hints of milk chocolate.  The shop is small. clean and bright and I will go back.

Starbucks Blonde Espresso?

So, in a very interesting development, Starbucks has introduced what they call Starbucks Blonde Espresso. Which, supposedly is a true “light” roast. Anyone that has ever looked at the Blonde Veranda beans can see that they are clearly what the SCA defines as “medium”.

So, we’ll ignore the light roast comment and move on to something more interesting.

Andrew Linnemann, vice president of Global Coffee for Starbucks, describes the Blonde espresso blend as “bright, with sweet citrus notes and a smooth body.”. This seems to be hinting at what most early reviews are saying, that it is less bitter. An article at Fortune used the term “hard stuff” to refer to the Signature Roast Espresso.

What is ridiculous about this is that Espresso should NEVER be bitter…ever. What Andrew Linnemann called “boldly roasted” in the Fortune article is plain burnt, which is why it’s bitter. Also, Espresso is NOT a roast, it’s a brewing method.

Did Starbucks really just introduce a roast because they realize their signature roast is burnt, nasty and bitter? Is this a marketing move like “New Coke”? Time will tell, but I will still spend my money on the smaller shops that have people behind the counter that can actually tell you what 1st and 2nd crack mean.

Staresso Espresso Maker

The Staresso Espresso Maker is a very compact portable “espresso” maker.  It makes a surprisingly good shot provided you have your grind and coffee dialed.

It can use Nespresso pods, but there is no substitute for fresh roasted and ground coffee.  Here’s a video review and the device in action.

The Short Version

The Staresso is surprisingly good and easy to use for a $60 gadget.  However, I have a feeling my results have a lot to do with my accumulated knowledge of coffee and the coffee I used.  But, again, for $60, the compact size of the Staresso Espresso maker is pretty hard to beat if you are on the go and want decent coffee.

The Long Version

This is not a true espresso maker.  There’s no way that it is generating 9bar of pressure.  But, as many people are finding, you can make espresso with far less than 9bar.  So, the Staresso is going to be very sensitive to grind size.  You will need to play with your grinder quite a bit to dial this in perfectly.

The Staresso is really pretty simple to use.  The parts all come apart and re-assemble very easily.  Filling the brew head can be a little messy however because it’s small.  They recommend 7-10gr of coffee (you aren’t pulling a typical 3rd wave 18-20gr double with this device).  In my testing, I found it hard to cleanly get more than 7gr in the little cylinder.  I got up to 9gr in there by being very careful.

Once loaded, a quick “tamp” with the back of the included scoop, and you just screw everything together.  Add water and start to pump.  I have not yet experimented with this, but the pumping builds pressure in such a manner that a pre-infusion style shot is very possible…and will likely produce a very nice result.

The shot itself is as you might expect…decent, but lacking depth and body.  You can see in the video above the crema produced is substantial (aided by the valve in the brew head), but since the pressure and heat retention are lacking, the body of the shot suffers.  However, there was a surprising clarity to the shot and I was still able to taste the fruit in my blend.

The Verdict

If you are an espresso enthusiast and want to take control of your destiny while traveling, the Staresso is compact, produces a decent shot, and at $60 is hard to pass up.

loft. Kitchen & Bar – Cappuccino in T5 JKF

Finally! After over 2 years, I found a decent cappuccino in JFK T5 at loft. Kitchen & Bar. There’s a guy there who knows how to use his machine, a Synesso Hydra, and it’s apparently calibrated. And, the Mazer grinders are calibrated too!

loft. Kitchen & Bar is across from gate 25 in Terminal 5 (JetBlue) and serves a plethora of food as well as a full bar. Ordering is a little wonky because you have to use an iPad. And, the system wants to start a tab for you, so you have to remember to close it before you walk away. Also, the system defaults to an 18% tip…which is pretty ridiculous for a place that has no full waiter service.

For the coffee, let’s start with the fact that the guy cleaned the portafilter after knocking out the previous puck. Every other place in T5, the employee just knocks the puck and refills… gross. His distribution attention was minimal, but there was some effort. He locked in the portafilter and walked away to go fill the milk jug. That is something I hate, but in reality, you can’t “burn the coffee” as some people will say. But, it is still bad form. However, the result was a proper double that poured in 31sec (Synesso Hydra has a pre-infusion algorithm). It had taste-able sweetness and fruit notes through the milk. The bags of beans said Rishi (NOT Reishi…if you Google it), and I’ve not seen that brand before.

Real sticklers will find many faults with the workflow (the machine was dirty, no latte art was attempted), but the result was a drinkable cappuccino that made my wait at the gate more pleasant.

Halle-fricken-lujah!

Twin Peaks Coffee & Donuts

The moral, for those of you that want the quick version; Just because a place has green beans and a nice Diedrich machine does not mean the coffee is good.  Twin Peaks Coffee & Donuts in Tannersville, NY has such a machine, and had the lure of quality.  It failed to live up to the promise.

There’s even bags of greens out front next to the machine.  But, alas, as I see all too often, people jump on the specialty bandwagon without fully understanding what that really means.

Roasting is only part of the equation.  You can screw coffee up at every step of the way.  Even the best roasted coffee can be brewed like crap.  I can’t really speak to the roasting because the machine was not in action when I visited.  But, the barrista (once she eventually ambled over) did just about everything wrong.

First, the coffee was pre-ground.  Seriously?  You have a big roaster that you proudly show in the front of your shop, and you pre-grind your coffee?!  Secondly, the shot poured in about 12 seconds.  That is just way to fast…period.  And, third, she steamed the milk first, and then just let it sit, without any agitation while she ran the shot.

Gourmet Cup & Pastry Shop

If you happen to be driving to Hunter Mountain NY, and need coffee badly somewhere near Saugerties, DO NOT stop at Gourmet Cup & Pastry Shop.  Do not let the word “gourmet” deceive you.

Starbucks would actually be a better choice.  And, for me to say that, the coffee really has to be horrible.

The coffee in the doser of the Mazzer was clearly stale, and the girl behind the counter burned the crap out the milk…which in turn burnt the crap out of my mouth.  This was just an awful, horrible cup of coffee.  Stay away.