Just a few years ago, for a variety of reasons, we were avid and regular home coffee roasters. Today we still occasionally roast our own coffee at home, but we find far fewer reasons to do so — and we find ourselves doing it much less often. The reasons for this change are partly personal. But they mostly reflect significant shifts over the past few years behind the motivations for home coffee roasting.

A little home roasting history…

Home roasting remains something of an oddity in the world of quality coffee, akin to the high school chess club even among coffee geeks. For example, there are several online communities for home roasters — most have been around for years — and yet rarely do they interact with the many other online communities devoted to baristas, consumer coffee, and the coffee trade (and vice versa). We’ve found meatspace communities to operate much the same way.

Why? We can only guess that many home roasters tend to dwell in the odd margins of prosumers: too esoteric for most layman consumers, and yet not commercial enough for the professionals to take notice. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, in many countries home coffee roasting was the norm up until World War II. In America, the convenience of coffee pre-roasted outside the home didn’t even catch on until the late 1800s.

Our old, dependable, no-tech warhorse, the Fresh Roast Plus: a $70 glorified hot air popcorn popper Samples of green coffee beans for pre- or post-roast blending

When we started home roasting around the turn of the millennium, we did so because it uniquely solved a big problem with home espresso. With espresso being particularly sensitive to the age of the roast, we needed a small-but-steady supply of fresh-roasted coffee beans that were less than a week old.

Because we consumed most of our espresso shots outside the home at the time, our home coffee turnover ran as low as a pound every 2-3 weeks — making small-batch (micro-batch?) lots rather attractive. The few roasters with relatively fresh supplies often sold by the pound. As for the decent roasters that allowed you to purchase smaller supplies in bulk? They typically stored their roasts in open bins that visually looked good in retail locations but fully exposed their coffee to days of rapid oxidation (and hence rapid staleness).

Like many other home roasters, we took the plunge for freshness, variety, and small batch sizes. And since you can typically buy green coffee beans at about half the price of their roasted versions, other home roasters pursued it as a way to save money. Or do you?

The cost savings myth

Given these economic times where industry trade mags read like a dirge for the café and quality coffee, some of the apocalyptic retail coffee prophesies out there include suggestions of a mass movement towards home roasting (e.g., Coffee Talk‘s “State of the Industry” editorial [7.8Mb pdf, pg. 10] published this month).

Of course, we’ve recently ruffled quite a few feathers among the personal finance malpractice industry — calling the bluff of a bevy of personal finance lemmings posters who regurgitated the home espresso machine savings myth. (Save that myth for the Starbucks marketing gurus hawking home espresso equipment on their cafés’ expensive retail shelf space. Someone has clearly done the math, and our money is on Starbucks determining their customer lifetime value long before any wannabe wonk thought about the economics of home espresso machines.)

Just as with the home espresso machine savings myth, the fly in home roasting’s economic ointment is labor: home roasting takes a bit of work and energy. This time investment is readily dismissed by those who love the craft, but then there’s a reason most of us don’t feel the loving zen of changing our own motor oil. Regularly flossing your teeth may seem like a small time commitment, but millions of people would gladly cough up a few bucks every month if there was a way to make the need simply go away.

As always, your mileage may vary. We started with a detailed database of each test roast (a system prototype for CoffeeRatings.com no less), adjusted various controls for time and temperature, etc. But these days, we’re more than a bit slapdash; we’re lucky to avoid getting distracted and burning the house down.

A roast progression... mostly green still Unevenly heading into a Light roast at first...

Next stop: second crack Still a bit uneven at a Full City roast

As for freshness, variety, and small batches…

Over the past few years, the financial incentives of home roasting haven’t changed. However, the freshness and variety of roasted coffees available to consumers have changed dramatically.

We had a good conversation about this with Christian of Man Seeking Coffee fame — during our joint review of Dynamo Donuts. Before the advent of Blue Bottle Coffee, almost no one dared date stamp their roasts. So the only way consumers could be sure they were getting coffee roasted less than a week old was to roast it themselves.

Today, the practice of date-stamping coffee roasts is expected among the better roasters. A week ago we walked into the Bi-Rite grocer, and we could pick up a half-pound bag of Guatemalan or Ethiopian beans from Ritual Coffee Roasters — roasted just a few days prior. A small neighborhood café such as Cafe Bello offers a daily special of a same-day roast for a mere $8 per pound.

Healdsburg’s Flying Goat Coffee, for example, will take your order online, roast it to order, and ship it to you within a couple of days. Vancouver, Canada’s 49th Parallel Roasters will FedEx roasted-to-order coffee virtually overnight to most anywhere in North America. And some roasters, such as Ritual and Blue Bottle, even offer roasted coffee subscriptions, delivered to your door.

With roasted-to-order Cup of Excellence coffees now available with the click of a mouse, what upside is left to the art of home roasting?

Uh oh, good thing we have a hood: save for Starbucks! Did we discover a third crack?! The built-in chaff collector that rests on top mostly does its job

When home roasting still matters

Today the motivations for home roasting are far less compelling than they were just a few years ago — at least for most consumers. Still, there are still solid reasons why home roasting still makes sense:

  • Pre-roasted blends and experimentation
  • Some coffee lovers want to experiment with different blends. And many coffee varietals contribute better to blends at different roast levels. This despite the current industry fad to roast most everything at a medium roast level, regardless of the type and origin of the bean involved. (If we hear one more roaster utter the brain-dead proclamation, “We only roast our coffee to medium roast, because that’s best,” we’re going to scream.)

  • Access to hard-to-find beans
  • This is one of the biggest motivators. Despite the greater variety of coffees available from quality roasters, their selection simply pales in comparison to the inventory at a Sweet Maria’s, for example. Some bean stocks, let alone roast styles, are clearly out of vogue among retail roasters. For example, today there’s a huge emphasis on single origin beans — leaving a major market gap for a variety of interesting blends to be used for espresso or other brewing methods.

    One of our favorite varietals for home roasting is Maui Moka for its intense, unrivaled chocolaty flavor. This living dinosaur of a varietal may cost $23 a pound green, but it’s worth the extra cost and roasting effort on occasion, because it’s pretty hard to find — fresh-roasted or not.

  • Convenient access to fresh-roasted coffee
  • Although fresh roasts are more widely available, you might not always want to rely on the postal service to get them. Furthermore, if your home coffee turnover rate is rather low, the expense of regularly shipping micro lots of the stuff suddenly makes the financial savings argument of home roasting much more compelling.

  • Got some spare time?
  • If you’re out of work or school and are interested in the process, home roasting becomes more appealing. When considering the labor costs, in some situations your time might be worth the investment — especially when you compare it with the costs of having a coffee subscription delivered regularly. Even so, the margins are still too thin on inexpensive green coffee beans to justify home roasting purely for financial reasons. Hence we suggest that if you’re going to bother with home roasting at all, deal only with higher quality green beans.

  • Like making your own wine or beer?
  • These days consumers have never had so much interest in quality food and yet felt so distant from its production. If you’re the type that likes to get their hands dirty to learn something new once in a while, home roasting is worth a shot. At least as a short-term strategy until you move on to your next hands-on project.

Some chaff still mixed in with the roasted beans The uneven coloration reflects blending this batch pre-roast plus uneven bean churn in the roast chamber, but it should be tasty

UPDATE: Feb. 9, 2011
Despite the fact that home coffee roasting has gone from an active Internet community on newsgroups and online forums to a trickle today of what it used to be, the mainstream media seems to have just “discovered” home roasting and continue to proclaim that it’s some growing DIY fad: The Ultimate DIY: Roasting Your Own Coffee – San Jose Mercury News.

A decade ago, many home consumers of quality coffee had no choice but to roast their own for freshly roasted coffee. Today, with so many quality options now stamped with roasting dates, the need has greatly diminished. This has lead to a long decline in the home roasting community, which is now dominated by a few new DIY curiosity seekers and a more limited handful of die-hards. Neither of which spells sustained growth for this community.