Archive for September, 2009


Coffee roasting at home

September 28, 2009

The instigation

Frugal reader Mel wrote to us the other day about home coffee roasting. As it happens, this something I am totally into. I only buy commercially roasted coffee when the weather has prevented me from roasting on the weekend (it’s an outdoor activity using my technique) and the occasional bag to calibrate my taste and see what’s out there.

The maths

The economics are compelling. Green coffee beans of the highest quality can be had for about $14 a kilo, and acceptable ones for less. Compare this with roasted coffee which is usually at least $30 a kilo and often more than $40.

Green beans lose 10-20% of their weight when you roast them, but you’re still well ahead of roasted coffee for price, and better than a lot of commercial roasted coffee on quality. I’m afraid I have quite a bad coffee habit, more than 250g a week, so both the expense and the subsequent savings of home roasting definitely mount up over the year.

The results

I wouldn’t want to say that you can achieve the same consistent, refined results as a commercial blender without a lot of practice and some investment in kit. But you can definitely get something better than stale beans from the bulk bin at the supermarket or over-roasted grounds in a vacuum brick. If you do it every week, like I do, you can pretty soon achieve something that you like reliably. And that’s good enough, isn’t it?

(There’s also a lot of pottering fun to be had, but I realise this isn’t for everyone.)

My technique

I have blogged extensively about home roasting on my personal blog a while ago, before Frugal Me. Here’s how I do it.

I have a heat gun which I bought for $20 from Mitre 10. It is mounted on a drillpress ($12 from Trademe) with duct tape ($2 from $2 shop). The heat gun is aimed directly over one corner of the breadmachine mixing bowl. Conveniently, the bread machine lid is removable. Roasting coffee comprises a few simple steps:

  1. Set rig up on back step so that chaff and smoke will be blown away by the wind.
  2. Tip several hundred grams of green beans into bread maker pan.
  3. Put bread maker on “knead” cycle.
  4. Turn on heat gun.
  5. When beans reach desired roast level, turn off appliances.
  6. Remove pan, tip out beans, and cool (I put them in a metal pan in the freezer for 5 mins).

I drilled a hole in the bread machine pan and mounted a temperature probe ($15 from Trademe including digital multimeter readout) and I use this to gauge the progress of the roast.

So, for a total of $50 I have rigged up something that produces similar results to a much more expensive appliance, with far more possibilities for tweaking.

The whole thing takes about 20 minutes from the whim taking me to having beans cooling.

Other people use different methods: air popcorn poppers, an oven tray with the odd stir from a wooden spoon, or even a cast iron pan on the stove top.

The important thing is that you understand the coffee roasting process:

  1. Beans should be heated evenly somehow.
  2. Beans should be heated so that they get hotter and hotter.
  3. The beans will get darker and darker, until they start making sharp cracking noises and giving off a little smoke. This is called “First Crack”, and happens at somewhere between 180 and 200 degrees. Don’t stop here unless you like very acid coffee. The papery coating or chaff will start coming off the beans too. It makes a mess. Blow it off before you store the beans.
  4. The beans get darker yet. The sharp cracks stop, but after a few minutes a second, more gentle crackling starts — “Second Crack”. This happens somewhere after 220 degrees. Somewhere between this point and first crack is good for plunger and filter methods, somewhere close after this point they are ideal for espresso.
  5. French Roast or Starbucks level — almost black, not much of the bean variety’s characteristic flavour is left.
  6. Your beans are on fire.
  7. If you rescued your beans before stage 6, cool them with a fan or on a perforated metal sheet or however your ingenuity suggests. They will improve in the days after roasting, until a week or so, after which they get worse.

There are numerous online retailers for green beans these days. You can also try your luck at your local roastery — in Wellington, People’s Coffee and Havana have both been quite happy to sell me green beans at a reasonable price.

There’s a ton of information out there if you search for “roasting coffee at home”. However, I’ve found that some of it is pretty US-centric, and the Aussie Coffee Snobs site is a more reliable source for us.


If you live in one of the larger NZ cities with good local roasters, the claims of marvellous quality that you read on the internet aren’t really true. Those people claiming home roasted is vastly better are usually Americans who live a deprived life, coffee-wise. On the other hand, if you live in the more rural parts of NZ, roasting your own from green is almost certainly better.

If you use a popcorn maker, or one of the other faster techniques, you end up with a brighter, more acid result that is usually too acid for espresso but delightful in plunger. Espresso roasts take longer, and need something like the breadmaker-based roaster.

Different brewing techniques suit different kinds of beans. Espresso in particular is often better with a blend, or at least a more “all-round” variety. For example, Ethiopian beans are aromatic and bright and acid and make for a potentially unpleasantly sharp shot on their own, but are nice mixed with Indonesian Mandheling beans. On the upside, you can make your own custom blend easily once you’ve experimented, which is an enjoyable process too.

You can burn yourself or electrocute yourself or set your house on fire once you start fooling round with roasters. Use your common sense.


Easing back in with linky post

September 21, 2009

I’m taking some time off with the offspring for the next couple of weeks, so perhaps I’ll get my frugality blogging mojo back.

I expect I’ll also be bleating about the house-buying process soon too — we got pre-approval for a mortgage last week, so the search has begun.

Our housing choices presented as a Venn diagram

Our housing choices presented as a Venn diagram

In the meanwhile, frugal reader Heather sends us this link to some sound if US-centric advice on saving money on food.  I think my biggest beef with this analysis is the assumption that organic food is necessarily better for you, which is a contentious assertion in my book, but I’m right behind the idea that you can eat better and more cheaply by making stuff instead of buying prepared food.


A year of Frugal Me

September 11, 2009

Sorry things have been a bit quiet in the last couple of weeks. I have a big show to rehearse for so my evenings have been chewed up by practising instead of blogging. And Che has a baby. (That gets him out of everything).

In lieu of a proper new post, how about a one year retrospective?

Last year I was noticing that a lot of the posts on my personal blog about food and money were getting many comments (by the pathetic standards of low traffic personal blogs) and I wondered:

I feel that in these anxious times there might be scope for a specialist blog aimed at the frugal bourgeois, perhaps even a Wellington one that points out local deals. What do you reckon?

And then Che set up and the rest is history.

Since then, we’ve published 120 posts, sparked 779 comments, been featured in the Dominion Post and made a lot of yoghurt and bread.

Here are some favourites (many have better comments than the main post):

We look at clothes and mention Vimes’ boots for the first (but not the last) time

Che does the maths on chickpeas.


Cheap weddings.

Cheap books.

The start of the yoghurt mania.

The start of cycling mania.

The marvellous pram.

Musing on the dollar-to-jollies ratio.

Plans for the next 12 months? I dunno. We’ll keep blogging. We invite our readers to compose posts themselves which we will happily run. There may or may not be some sort of crowdsourced grocery pricing database — I need to think about how that would really work before I commit to bodging up the infrastructure.

Anyway thank you all for your comments and feedback, which have proved that the main goal of Frugal Me as far as I’m concerned is to provoke people into telling me useful things. Cheers.