Coffee roasters, grinders and coffee makers

Coffee roasters, grinders and coffee makers help to produce a better cup of coffee.

Coffee roasters

Some people just have a bit of the chemist in them. They like to mix and stir, whir and measure. Roasters vary along this dimension. Some simple stove top models are basically just a sauce pan with a tight lid and a special handle.

The handle contains a crank that allows the roaster to stir up the beans during the process. Stirring is essential to keep the beans from burning on the bottom as well as to keep the hot air inside circulating evenly.

Even in this simple set up, be sure to look for ones that have a thermometer in the lid. Temperature control is important for proper roasting.

At the other extreme are roasters that do it all for you. Pop in a pre-determined volume of green beans from a bag, close the lid and walk away for a few minutes.

These deluxe models have inbuilt thermometers, thermostatically controlled heating mechanisms, clever air-flow control geometry and rotating canisters and a timer to automatically shut off the device at the proper time.

At the upper end of the price range, these rocket ship roasters do everything but eliminate the smoke that invariably accompanies the process.

How effectively do they heat and circulate air?

The most common type are air roasters that work more or less like a popcorn popper. Hot air is circulated throughout the mixture, while the beans are agitated. This gives a uniform roast and some models can even filter out the chaff produced as the skins burst from the expansion of the bean.

Most allow you to watch the process through a glass exterior, to judge the degree of desired roast. Frequently they have pre-set amounts on the dial ranging from light to dark.

The ability to circulate air evenly and heat uniformly is critical and designs vary in the degree to which they meet these goals. For example, a roaster with a heating source only at the bottom and constricted air flow is going to provide an uneven roast.

Drum roasters help overcome this problem, by providing a rotating drum that uses gravity to move the beans around, rather than relying solely on a stirrer at the bottom.

Beware, though. Many don't have windows for observing the roasting process - a must for those who like to experiment and fine-tune the roast. And, not surprisingly, with the greater quantity of bean comes a larger volume of smoke. Be prepared to ventilate well.

Once confined to more professional use, home devices are now readily available and have the added benefit of being able to roast larger quantities. Useful for those large dinner parties where you want the freshest possible coffee. And who doesn't want that?

Picking the perfect coffee grinder

Coffee beans, like any food product, oxidize when exposed to air. The grounds, since they have a much larger relative surface area than the bean, and no covering, suffer this effect even more. Grinding beans at home produces the least exposure to air and the freshest grounds. And you can grind only what you immediately need.

Grinders fall into three broad categories - burr, blade and crusher. The third type is some kind of mashing device, often an ancient-style mortar and pestle. These crush the beans, which is difficult and produces a very uneven sized granule. Not recommended where you have a choice.

The blade grinders don't actually grind at all, they chop. A whirling blade slices the beans into smaller and smaller sections until they approach something like a small grain. Unfortunately, the grains are invariably too large and of inconsistent size.

As a consequence the surface areas of the granules vary, releasing varying amounts of flavor oils when brewed. Another effect of slicing is often the production of excess heat, as a result of the high speed of the blades. That friction warms the grounds and partially dissipates the aroma.

The first type is the first choice. Burr grinders have a pair of motor driven plates with pyramid-shaped teeth that grind the beans to a consistent, small-but-not-too-small granule. The better models allow adjusting the size of the grain and the speed of the grinding.

Adjusting the size is important in order to 'fine tune' the grounds to allow just the desired brew. Controlling the speed keeps the warming effect to a minimum.

Even burr grinders fall into two classes - the conical burr grinder is preferred by real coffee aficionados. Though noisier, they allow the most control of grain size and speed.

Good conical burr grinders can rotate as slowly as 500rpm. By contrast other burr grinders spin at 10,000rpm or higher, blades between 20-30,000rpm. That allows very fine control and little heat. The fine grind is especially important for Turkish-style brews. Some grinders have a continuous dial, others have a series of up to 40 steps to adjust the granule size.

Beyond those broad attributes, the home barista will want to look for solid construction, ease of cleaning and low noise. A cleaning brush and removable upper burrs is essential. Different materials used can also affect how much static electricity is produced - that causes the grains to stick to the burrs and container.

A timer switch and auto-shutoff is a nice addition and being able to see the beans as well as the grounds is helpful for judging the results in the grinder. Dark plastic or glass may be aesthetically appealing but it obscures the view. Grounds can change color slightly depending on the fineness.

Coffee makers

 The original coffee brewer was the Turkish Ibrik, a copper container with a long handle and a grooved tongue. Still used in the Middle East, it produces a very strong brew since it does no filtering.

For those more interested in drinking a beverage than eating coffee grounds, a wide variety of types are available from the plain to the esoteric.

The largest percentage of coffee makers these days is, of course, the inexpensive drip model. Pour water in the top, it's heated by an electric coil, the water passes through coffee grounds and into a glass pot sitting on a heating plate.

But beyond these basics, there are a few features it's handy to have.

Controls have proliferated to the point that many makers look like a modern stereo. LCD screens display the time, the time to brew, temperature, a timer and several infobits even more esoteric.

The 'degree of brew desired' control is a minimum, but more control rather than less may be preferred. Auto-shutoff is handy for those who forget to turn it off. Most people these days are too busy to wait for the brewing process to complete, so they remove the pot before the water has finished draining. In the past, coffee would continue to drip, splashing onto the heating plate. The automatic shut-off solves this by stopping the water flow when the pot is lifted.

The illuminated displays also help on those dark mornings when you can't find the light switch and haven't yet had your coffee to get your eyes completely open.

Cleaning has been made easier, too, by the invention of coffee 'pods' - small pre-measured paper containers of coffee through which the water flows. They have the added advantage of providing good filtering for grounds. Once the brewing is complete you just pop them out - after they've cooled! - and toss them into the waste basket. Essential for the busy - and opposed to cleaning up - coffee drinker.

Several models are available with water filters, essential for the urban dweller where the city supply often tastes like the community swimming pool. The filters are pricey but a good cup of coffee is priceless.

Permanent coffee filter styles can be had, but with the pods they're much less important. Debates rage over the environmental impact and the taste effect of the paper from the pods. Vote your conscience.

Some even have integrated bean grinders, but I prefer to do that in a separate device for easier clean up. I haven't seen one, but wouldn't be surprised if there were even integrated roaster + grinder + brewers. That really is taking a good thing too far, in our opinion. Sometimes the old-fashioned ways are best. Maybe the Turks have something there. The coffee here has been tasting a little weak, lately...