Roasting coffee is a delicate process that isn’t well suited for most home kitchens. Coffees tend to smell grassy as they roast and give off a great amounts of heat and smoke that can make for an embarassing social disaster complete with screaming smoke alarms and anguished neighbors. Getting sloppy with the time and fire is a sure-fire way to start a fire in the kitchen, with dreadful consequences. Still, there is a lot to be said for fresh-roasted coffee and for those whose tastes have developed beyond the bean-in-the-bag pale, nothing else will do but to do it yourself.
San Diegan Joseph Behm spent nearly a decade designing and building a fairly foolproof home coffee roaster that’s hardly bigger than a microwave. His Behmor 1600 is a one-pound capacity, automatic roaster that uses a wire mesh drum that rotates past a heating element in a closed chamber. The machine is programmed to measure the time of roast for “hard” or “soft” beans in quarter-pound increments and a set of adjustable parameters attends every step of the roast before the machine starts operating. A miniature afterburner burns up the smoke and smell of the beans. The entire machine weighs less than twenty pounds and is a masterpiece of miniature engineering and manufacture in stainless steel.
ESPRESSO got to try a machine recently and spent several days roasting Nicaragua and Sumatran coffees with it. Once we got the hang of how it worked, we very charmed by the Behmor. We should reiterate from the beginning that according to Joe Behm’s manual, the 1600 is not a machine to be treated like a common toaster—one tends the Behmor at all times, if for no other reason than to listen for the first and second crack of the coffee beans which lets the operator know when the roast is reaching its time limits—whether or not they agree with the programmable time settings. The Behmor 1600 is not a machine to roast dark with either; this is because the longer the roast, the hotter it gets and in a tiny chamber, the hotter it gets the more “interesting” things can become. This isn’t to say that the machine is dangerous—one has to have a good sense of timing when cooking anything on the stove and get food off the burner at exactly the right time if it’s not to be ruined—and coffee roasting has to be stopped at exactly the right moment for a given roast profile—which was right around 10 seconds after second crack with the Nicaraguan beans. The Behmor is better at yielding full-city or Viennese roasts with greater finesse than Italian or Turkish ones.
After a visual inspection to make sure that there were no cracks, grit in the afterburner or chaff in the heating element, we loaded the beans into the drum and fitted the drum into the roaster. The U-shaped stainless chaff collector follows the drum in and is sealed against it, and the door is closed firmly. A flurry of programming then occurs; to define the coffee by the hardness of bean, set the roast time and power setting adjusts the roast profile. Push the button and the drum begins to turn and the element heats up rapidly to several hundred degrees. The process is slightly hypnotic as the beans rhythmically rise and fall in the drum, the machine hums and the scent of heat fills the room. Our Nicaraguan beans were unusually soft, meaning they had a great deal of retained moisture; sure enough, this gives the grassy smell so common in coffee roasting. While it didn’t seem bothersome to us, our smoke detector located a few feet away from the roaster, over the kitchen door, suddenly went off and we cancelled the roast to switch off the alarm. The “soft” Nicaraguan beans gave off a pungent aroma as they roasted in a small pan on our stove, too; much more so than the Sumatran “hard” beans we tested.
Back at it again, we cleaned the machine gently and thoroughly per the manual’s instructions, and then programed it for a “self-clean” effort to take care of anything we missed. We also covered the alarm, opened a nearby window and tried it again. This time, the roast went off flawlessly! The full pound of green Nicaraguan nets us .83 pounds of fresh full-city roast. The only bit of excitement this time came from the all too short period between first and second crack. The flurry of rice crispy-like popping noises told us it was all over and the machine’s roast time was shortened by ten seconds with one of the button controls on its front panel. Immediately, the roast stopped and a cool-down period began as a fan drew air through the machine, beans and afterburner. When the timer indicates it’s all over, we carefully open the door and test the chaff collector. It’s barely warm to the touch and we can lift it and the drum out with bare hands. The beans are free of chaff and the roast is extremely uniform in color. What chaff is present is mostly in the collector and this is carefully swept out with the small brush provided with the machine. The beans are jugged with the exception of a few used to make a french press pot so we can taste the fruit of our labors.
In our judgement, the Behmor 1600 is a winner. It does what what Joe Behm says it will do, consistently and repeatedly. It is an exacting machine—no power cords to be used with it; it requires exact free space on all sides of it; most definitely not a “set it and forget it” machine during the roast process; but it works well once you understand it. Its complexities are well-explained in the manual and the data is backed up clearly on the Behmor website. We think it’s just the thing for the confirmed coffee connoisseur or anyone who needs to sample roast a batch of beans. The Behmor 1600 retails for around $300 and is backed by a warranty. Check out www.behmor.com for more information.