Bean there, done that
As Bob Weeks offers me a cup of coffee made with a stock of organic Ethiopian beans he'd roasted the day before, I can't wait to see how he's going to prepare it.
His kitchen is outfitted with choice coffee-making hardware, including a restaurant-caliber espresso machine and a Dutch Technivorm Moccamaster, which he calls the only drip pot that heats water to the correct temperature for proper extraction.
It's clear I'm in the hands of someone who has a nose for coffee the way a wine connoisseur has a nose for wine, so I'm curious.
Weeks had been home-roasting coffee for years when he left his job at a top Boston ad agency in 2006 and started Redeye Roasters. He now produces about 80 pounds a week in his Hingham home. His brand is sold in specialty stores including the Fruit Center, Whole Foods, and Foodie's Duxbury Market, for about $11 to $13 a pound.
He also sells at the Hingham Farmers Market out of his traveling cafe - a van outfitted with an array of professional equipment. His menu includes all the popular espresso drinks, iced toddies (a hard-to-find iced coffee made by cold brewing), and hand-poured drip cups. For Weeks, it's all about extracting the truest flavor inherent in each particular coffee variety.
That effort begins with the best green beans he can find. Since Redeye is too small to purchase directly from farmers, Weeks forges relationships with large, high-quality roasters willing to sell him beans from places such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Brazil. According to Weeks, it's rare to find fine beans - actually the seeds of red berries - since they are vulnerable to poor processing at many stages of their journey from the tree. To ensure quality, the fruits must be picked at the peak of ripeness and depulped, dried, husked, and stored properly.
From there, Weeks can carry them over the finish line with careful roasting.
It takes between 13 and 15 minutes to roast the 6-pound batches Weeks's drum roaster accommodates. As he works it, Weeks uses his senses of smell and hearing to adjust the heat and airflow to put the beans through the optimal stages of roasting.
"There are two phases to roasting," said Weeks. "The first crack and the second crack."
The cracks are actual sounds that the beans make as their moisture and sugars expand during heating.
"You want the first crack to happen nine to 10 minutes into the roast," said Weeks. "If it comes too early, the coffee will be underdeveloped. If it comes too late, it'll have a baked flavor. So, the heat and air flow have to be just right."
Depending on how dark a roast Weeks wants, he removes the beans from the roaster within seconds after the first crack, or waits for a second crack. The longer the beans are in, the darker the roast.
Weeks keeps a log of the roasting process as he gets to know a new bean. These are the categories on the form: time of charging (when he drops the beans in the drum); time when the beans smell like wet grass; time when the beans smell like hay; time when the beans smell like baked bread; time and temperature when the beans hit their first crack; time and temperature when the beans hit their second crack (if he's roasting them that dark).
The three aromas - grass, hay, and bread - are standards in the roasting business. This identification of aromas comes from a vast vocabulary of tastes and fragrances that coffee connoisseurs have identified, much as wine experts have with wine.
To develop his senses, Weeks has visited coffee farms in several countries, goes to coffee tastings (called cuppings), and fiddles with a kit for coffee cupping developed by Jean Lenoir, a Frenchman known for his wine-tasting kits.
"Le Nez du Café" (the nose of coffee) is a wooden box containing 36 numbered bottles. You pick one, smell it, and try to identify it. After you've guessed, you can look up what it is and read about the characteristics of the substance in a book that comes with the kit. We did three, and I couldn't identify any. Weeks got two and was close on the third. They were cucumber, pipe tobacco, and apricot.
How did he make my cup? Using a Bodum French press - the 32-ounce model - with five level scoops of coffee. He added water from a stainless steel Breville electric kettle, stirred it for a few seconds, let it brew for four minutes, then plunged.
It was fabulous, but I couldn't say how. Weeks, on the other hand, described it in universally standard coffee terms.
"It was a rich, fruit-forward cup," he said. "It had a sweet, juicy body full of chocolate and wild raspberries and a refined, clean finish."
Later, at home, I ground some of the Ethiopian beans I bought from Weeks and took a deep breath over the grind. For the first time in my long coffee-loving life, I identified an element in a coffee: blueberry muffins - clear as day. Blueberries aren't raspberries, but they're close. I'd say I'm developing a nose.