November 17, 2020

I recently met Alan Nash from the Get After It with Nashy podcast and website. He and his wife Abby came to visit me at Steampunk and they told me how they had been doing a lot of fire pit cooking recently as well as brewing coffee in their Moka Pot over the fire. They were keen to take it a step further and try roasting coffee this way also. Of course this was too fun an idea for us to turn down! Here's how it went.

Roasting Coffee on a Fire Pit 

Roasting coffee over a fire is nothing new. It is in fact very old and the traditional way of roasting coffee. When Ludwika (one of our roasters) and I travelled to Ethiopia in 2019 we enjoyed watching this process as part of a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. I will share more of that below.

In fact it was not until the late 19th / early 20th century that commercial coffee roasting started to become a thing and people started switching from roasting at home to buying pre roasted coffee. Up until that time people would buy their coffee beans green and roast them on the stove in a pan or on a baking sheet in an oven. That way they could be assured of always having fresh coffee.

Roasting coffee at home continues to be a hobby that some people enjoy today. I have run a coffee roasting business for 8 years and over that time have learned so much about the complexities of getting the best out of a coffee through the roast. The investment in equipment and tech that we have made to improve the quality and consistency of our roasting has been incredible and I can safely say there is no way this could be replicated at home. Neither can the skill and knowledge that our roasting team brings to the process! It certainly can't be achieved on a campfire...

Having said that, it was a lot of fun gathering around the fire pit with Alan and Abby and trying to roast this way. I'm so grateful to them for this fun collaboration.

Here is how we did it.

The Set up

First Alan built up a very hot fire with a mixture of wood and coal. We preheated a cast iron skillet until it was really hot and a few drops of water sizzled and immediately evaporated. The two most important factors I knew going in were to make sure we started hot enough and to make sure the coffee was agitated constantly to avoid scorching and achieve as even a roast as possible. When we roast at Steampunk this is achieved with a big cast iron drum roaster that has paddles inside that constantly move the coffee during roasting. We control the heat with temperature probes connected up to software that charts the process of the roast curve. This enables us to replicate the same roast each time for the sake of consistency. A small variation can have an incredible impact on the flavour of the roasted coffee.

Once the pan seemed hot enough we poured in a small amount of green beans and started to stir...

Roasting

The drying phase

The first phase of coffee roasting is called the drying phase and it is when the moisture starts to evaporate out of the coffee. It looks like nothing much is happening for a while but I kept agitating the coffee to make sure this process affected the beans as evenly as possible. During roasting, coffee beans can lose 15-18% of their weight through the evaporation of water.

The browning phase

During this phase the coffee starts to change colour and can start to yellow quite a bit. As the beans expand they start to lose their papery skin (this is called chaff and is a bulky, fluffy and highly flammable bi-product of roasting). We could see the little bit of chaff flying off - luckily it was windy and they just blew right out of the pan.

First crack

Once the beans have gotten hot enough gasses and water vapour inside them starts to be released and the coffee starts making cracking noises (like popcorn, but softer) - this is known as 'first crack'. After the coffee has reached this stage it becomes drinkable but it is still very light and would taste quite sour. It was quite exciting seeing the coffee at this stage and watching the colour gradually change. All of this exciting stuff is usually hidden inside the barrel of our roaster. The only problem was, I was doing so much chatting i nearly missed first crack!

 

The final phase - known as the development phase

This is when the coffee continues to roast and sugars are increasingly being caramelised in the coffee. The 'true' taste of the bean is most detectable right after first crack and as the coffee continues to roast then it is the roast process itself starting to add flavour. This is when the coffee starts moving away from acidity towards bitterness. Whereas a very lightly roasted coffee will tend to taste sour, a heavily roasted coffee will become more bitter.

It is important to note though that roasting a coffee darker is a great way to camouflage poor quality coffee as the darker coffees are roasted the more they all taste the same. That is why roasters who invest heavily in the quality of their greens rarely wish to roast too dark or they will cover up all of the complexity and interesting flavours inherent in the beans.

The coffee

We used a delicious coffee from Brazil called Pinot for this experiment which we sourced from Kamba Coffee. I chose this coffee because it is sweet but a classic nutty Brazil. The beans are even in size and because the altitude is not very high the beans are not so dense, making development easier (in theory). We are roasting this coffee for our wholesale stockists at present so you can try it at one of the great cafes that serve our coffee. 

The brew

We ground our roasted coffee using a Rhinowares ceramic burr hand grinder. This is the perfect grinder for using outdoors as it is 100% human powered. We do sell it on our website and you can find out more about it HERE. We used Alan and Abby's well loved Moka Pots to brew up our freshly roasted coffee. 

NOW - I can feel all you coffee nerds out there getting ready to message me! You are right, coffee tastes much better if you rest it a bit after roasting before you brew it*. (*this warrants a whole other blog post - will put one together soon)

But we were there around the campfire, we had used up all this energy shaking a cast iron pan for 15 minutes. The pancakes were ready. We had to brew our coffee NOW!

The taste

I have to be honest here, I was really prepared for the worst...

 

I'm not a coffee roaster.

I understand how complex and skilled the roasting process is.

We had no real control over heat or heat distribution.

There was A LOT OF SMOKE!!

But... actually the coffee tasted pretty good. 

It tasted like ... coffee. There was a bit of a campfire taste to it but it had decent body and was reasonably sweet. It wasn't sour, it wasn't bitter. Pretty good for a first attempt.

Because we have no control over or way of measuring the variables, there is no way of getting the same result next time. But that certainly doesn't mean we won't try again.

We left Alan and Abby with some greens and a the grinder so they are going to keep experimenting and we look forward to collaborating again in future for another fire pit coffee roasting session.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

In Ethiopia, where coffee originated, drinking it an integral part of the culture. Unusually for a coffee producing country, Ethiopia has a very high rate of domestic consumption of around 50% of production. This is only matched in Brazil. Coffee is a part of daily culture and socialising with family, friends and neighbours. The traditional coffee ceremony sees coffee being roasted in a pan over an open fire, being crushed in a mortal and pestle before being brewed in a vessel containing boiling water on the open flame. The host then pours the coffee for all participants by moving the tilted boiling pot over a tray with small, handleless cups from a height of one foot without stop until each cup is full. The coffee is then re-brewed twice more. The third weakest brew is shared with children. This is the traditional way which we were lucky enough to experience at a ceremony performed at Adola washing station for us when we visited. We also experienced modern city coffee culture in Addis Ababa by visiting a few of the many cafes there. It was still very much a social event and we were struck by the lack of mobile phones on tables as people chatted together over coffee.   

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Lessons Learned from Fire Pit Coffee

So this is what I took away from today's experience. The process was a lot of fun. But it wasn't so much about the coffee, it was more about the people. 

Here's the thing, it actually only confirmed what I always thought. Coffee is social.

The cup of coffee we produced today together around a campfire was made up of all these things: the fun process with the fire itself; the chat while we roasted; Alan and Abby's adorable kids and fluffy dog hanging out and eating pancakes; Toby coming along to take pictures with us and join in the chat; trying something new and figuring it all out. These are all the things that made the coffee taste good.

2020 has been a year all about understanding how important social interactions are and coffee has a long tradition of fuelling these interactions. Even though we have had to move so much stuff online, we hope you are enjoying coming along for the ride, virtually at least.

Thank you Alan and Abbey for this fun collaboration - you can find them on Instagram @getafterit_nashy and @getafterit_abs. A big thank you to Toby Jeffries from Team Steam who came along and took the super pics!

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