2. Know Your Roast

Get him alone with his 1986 Probat roaster, and Ristretto’s Din Johnson will tell you that coffee roasting is an art. “You’re trying to bring the coffee right to the point where it shows its best characteristics,” he says. (For the record, that is almost never a French roast; what you’re tasting is actually the burn, not the bean.) To achieve this flavor ideal, roasters consider the bean’s origins, the length of the roast, the temperature and even the type of roaster used—and remain ever vigilant throughout the process. We asked Jim Kelso, a roaster with Stumptown, to give us a demo with the SE Division St café’s 1959 Probat. Our test subjects? Coffee from the Brazilian co-op Fazenda Sertão ($13.25/lb). The beans’ flavor, says Kelso, is slightly nutty, like a lightly roasted cashew, with bright accents of a sweet lime.

 

0 MINUTES: RAW

Dull, green and mottled, the raw coffee bean enters the roasting drum at roughly 450 degrees. The coffee’s flavorful oils and sugars are yet undeveloped; if you extracted a brew from the bean now, it would taste like wood.

 

8 MINUTES: JUST BEFORE CRACK

The bean begins to turn brown and expand as its sugars and oils heat up. In the audible pop that roasters call the first crack, trapped moisture is released as steam. At this point, our Brazilian bean’s aroma is closer to olive oil than to the rich, chocolate scent of coffee.

14 MINUTES, 30 SECONDS: PERFECTION

At second crack, the last of the water inside the bean escapes with a loud crackle, and its cellular structures begin to break down. To lock the flavorful oils inside until grinding, Kelso removes the beans just before this point.

14 MINUTES, 45 SECONDS: MEDIUM ROAST

Only a few seconds after second crack, the beans’ sugars and oils begin to caramelize (i.e., burn). While some coffees’ flavor profile calls for a slightly darker roast, it’s not ideal for our Sertão, which would smell (and taste) somewhat smoky and lose some of its complexity.

16 MINUTES: FRENCH ROAST

Roasting beans beyond second crack drives the oils out onto the surface of the bean (which is why French roasts are so shiny), where they begin to degrade as soon as they come into contact with the air. Enjoying the strong, smoky flavor of a French roast isn’t a sin, but what you’re tasting isn’t so much the coffee itself as the charred part of the bean.