This post was originally published on my Tumblr in 2013. I have cleaned it up and rewritten significantly for republication.
Roasting coffee at home is one of those hobbies that has the reputation of being, as someone put it to me on Twitter, pretty hardcore. But if you haven’t got space in your life for that sort of hobby, what I call “casual home coffee roasting” still can make a lot of sense. Its value proposition is basically this: medium-to-high quality coffee (better than Starbucks, though not as good as, say, Intelligentsia) for less than $10 a pound and about half an hour of your time a week. If that sounds worth it to you, read on.
Most online resources about coffee roasting go down the rabbit hole into roast levels, tasting notes, processing methods, etc. etc. etc. I do find that stuff mildly interesting, but most people - including me - don’t have the time for it all. In fact if you don’t take a hardcore approach home coffee roasting is not that hard to do, and it offers the best cost/value proposition available.
With casual home coffee roasting, you can have a mid- to high-quality coffee for less than $10 a pound, and with a time expenditure of about half an hour a week, if that.
To pursue this pragmatic, cash-and-time-saving hobby, you need (1) a roaster of some kind, (2) a basic acquintance with roasting technique, (3) green coffee, and (4) time to roast every so often. I’ll go over those three items quickly to note your expected expenditure of money and time.
First, a roaster. You can roast on the stovetop or in your oven, which will cost you nothing. Or you can spend $20-30 on basic appliance for roasting: either a hot air popcorn popper or a heat gun. Depending on the method, you may need another piece of equipment like a metal bowl and a colander—I have only ever used stuff I already have. So your maximum expenditure on equipment might be something like $50.
Next, you need basic instructions in technique. Sweet Maria’s, my go-to green coffee supplier, provides a good basic overview, which also includes information on roasters. (For information on roasting with a heat gun, see my guide.) This should not cost you more than an hour or so to get the basic information. You can go as deep as you like - and many people do - but you don’t need to. These days I have two basic styles of roasting that I am accustomed to use, and I don’t vary them or even think about the particulars very much.
To acquire green coffee, try Sweet Maria’s, Happy Mug, or Phil’s. You may have an idea of what types of coffee you like already, or if you’re cost motivated just buy the cheapest things that sound good. If you want some direction I recommend Ethiopian or Guatamalan coffees if you like a lighter roast or Indonesian and Rwandan coffees if you like your coffee more roasty. You should expect to pay less than $7 a pound even for very good stuff.
Now you need time to roast. Depending on the roaster you chose, you should be able to roast anywhere from about half a cup to about a pound per week. If you’re a heavier coffee drinker, choose a method that will let you roast more coffee (heat gun or oven). Roasting a batch will take you between 15 minutes and half an hour. I try to make sure I can roast enough coffee that I can only roast about once a week. At a less hectic time of life, I was OK roasting every day or two. YMMV, as they say.
I’m not pretending that this casual roasting process gets you the best coffee. It frankly doesn’t match the level of top roasters like Intelligentsia, Sump, or Philz. To match those guys, you have to get hardcore. But it’s far, far better than Starbuck’s or your local grocery store coffee. And it’s much cheaper than both, without being a hobby that will consume all your leisure hours.
Whereas high-end fresh coffees like Intelligentsia will run you around $17-20 a pound, and terrible stale mass-market coffees like Starbuck’s will cost $11 a pound or so, casual home roasting gets you fresh coffee with little fuss for less than $7 a pound, even factoring in the minimal cost of equipment. This makes it the best cost/value proposition available for good coffee.
So, to sum up: $50 (max) of setup equipment and an hour of reading gets you the capacity to roast your own coffee. The chore of roasting takes you maybe an hour a week. And that coffee you roast casually, while not to the caliber of top-flight roasters, is nonetheless really fresh, single-origin coffee which far surpasses an $11 bag of Starbucks.
Hardcore coffee roasting is a great hobby. But if you just want a really good cup of coffee for Folger’s prices, casual home roasting is the way to go.