November 19, 2006

Review: I-Roast 2 Home Coffee Roaster Review

"This thing is awesome."
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The Hearthware I-Roast 2 is a great little home roaster that allows you to not only take control of what you coffee tastes like, but also gives you access to the freshest coffee you can get. Over the last few weeks, I have roasted up a lot of batches of coffee learning more and more about the process and my own tastes in coffee and espresso. So you might ask “How do I roast coffee at home?” let me tell you it’s pretty easy. Of course there is the question of green coffee, and with so many offerings on the internet, it’s easy to get what you need. I have to say that I loved using the I-Roast 2 to roast coffee, and will say that it should be great for anyone who is interested in delving into their coffee passion even more. While it will take forever to become a master roaster, you can be fluent and comfortable very quickly so that you can be turning out high quality freshly roasted coffee in very short order. This is not hard to do.

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The iRoast 2 home coffee roaster is a fluidized bed air roaster. In layman’s terms, hot air is forced up through the green coffee to float them up in the air like a fluid. The coffee is also circulated up and out towards the edge of the roasting chamber where it is then fed back into the middle to keep the entire batch consistent and evenly roasted. The base of the unit features the hot air blower with a control panel, while the top of the unit is a fairly complex set of interlocking pieces to make it all work together well. The glass chamber holds the coffee beans, and a top is locked onto that. Into the top of the chamber, a chaff screen is inserted and then a finer mesh screen is then locked into place. The chaff screen collects the dried husk that separates from the coffee bean during roasting. This is collected and then thrown away after the roast is done. The whole glass chamber assembly locks onto the top of the base unit with a twist, much like a food processor snaps together.

Programing the iRoast 2
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The I-Roast 2 comes with two pre-set roasting profiles, that makes it easy to get going right out of the box. The unit also has the ability to take in custom profiles that you can program and then save in up to ten memory slots. Overall, programming the unit isn’t hard, but it did remind me of programming an old VCR, with some cryptic LCD messages and a couple of odd button combinations. This isn’t a big deal once you get going. The unit can take up to 5 different stages (time and temperature combinations) in the roasting process and will roast up to 15 minutes in total. This is a fairly long time, and offers you a lot of flexibility to play and customize the roast profiles. This also means that you can play to your heart’s content as you continue to develop expertise in roasting.

Green Coffee
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I went to Sweet Maria’s to get my green coffee and ordered up a few different coffees to roast: A Guatemalan, Costa Rican, Kenyan AA, and their Espresso Blend and Decaf Espresso blend. Their site is wealth of knowledge, and the quality of the coffee is kept front and center in my mind. They also offer a good education on how to roast and the different stages of roasting. I thought that the coffee that I got was in excellent condition, fresh and without defects. I would not hesitate to order from them on a consistent basis. I have already put in a couple of orders with them.

Coffee Roasting Basics - Coffee Roasting 101
Coffee beans are the seeds of the coffee cherry. In source countries, the coffee cherry is picked, de-seeded, and the bean is dried. Once classified and packaged it is bought up by places like Sweet Maria’s and shipped to you. This is overly simplified, as there is a nice growing trend of estate grown and auctioned green coffee that is pushing the quality of green coffee higher and higher. The beauty of a place like Sweet Maria’s is that you can get access to some of the best coffees in the world for a very reasonable price.

When you start to roast coffee, you drive off water and start to caramelize some of the sugars in the bean. As the bean dries the water is given off, sometimes violently and the coffee actually starts to pop, not unlike a bowl of Rice Krispies, and this is called the first crack. This happens at what is a fairly light roast color. You can stop roasting anytime after this point, but things were a little light for me here. The roast can continue as you march up through the roasts, City Roast, then Full City, Full City+, Vienna and finally French Roast. As you start into the Full City + roast profile, you actually get a second crack that is slightly more subdued. At this point oils will start to migrate to the surface of the bean and unfortunately a lot of the chemicals in the coffee that give you top notes and lighter more delicate character in brewing are being lost rapidly. The darkness of the roast is going to be the governing flavor profile beyond this point. As you go through Vienna roast to French roast, a lot of good stuff is lost, even for the espresso blends. When you are up here, you are killing the bean and smoke is pouring off the unit….

Home Roasting
I started out with a roast profile that Sweet Maria’s recommended for Latin American coffees to roast up my non-espresso coffees. (See their Tip Sheet for the I-Roast 2 (PDF)) I know from experience that I really like these coffees and when blended together they make an ideal pot of regular coffee for me. Roasting coffee is actually a lot like home brewing beer in many ways. When I started brewing a long time ago, I remember someone telling me not to try to make Bass Ale, because they do it better than you can. You can buy Bass pretty easily, so brew something that is different and exciting. I happen to think that Gimme Coffee’s Leftist blend when freshly ground is one of the best espresso blends that I have ever had, and I’ll leave it up to them to make it. So, I started out with two goals in mind: 1) Make an excellent blend of coffee for my regular coffee consumption, and 2) Make a great espresso blend for use in the Jura Capresso Impressa E8 that I am using (see my Review of the Jura Capresso Impressa E8).

I started out earlier in the Fall when the temperatures were warmer outside, so I could keep the smoke and the smell out of the house. The unit puts off a lot of heat and a fair amount of smoke in the later stages so I would advise either using it outside or using the chimney attachment to a clothes drier hose to vent the unit out a window (more on this later).

I poured in 2 scoops of green coffee and programmed in the profile recommended by Sweet Maria’s for the City+ roasting on their Tip Sheet for the iRoast Home Roaster. I did extend the time a bit in the last stage. When the roaster kicks on, it is about as loud as a hair dryer, and almost immediately you see a change in the coffee. chaff.jpgThe coffee starts to turn yellow, giving off these wonderful vanilla and baking aromas that are just fantastic. As the roaster starts to ratchet up the temperature and the beans start to brown, some visible smoke starts to come out of the roaster. You need to watch and listen to the coffee go through its cracking to figure out when to stop the roast. When you stop the roast, by hitting the cool button, you kick into a 4-minute cool-down mode that brings the beans quickly back down to room temperature. I labeled my batches and set them aside for a day before brewing. When you are done, you need to clean the chaff screen before the next batch (see photo right).

After some iteration, I have landed on the following profile that backs the final temperature off of Sweet Maria’s initial recommendations. I did this because at the higher temperatures, the end of the roast was changing so quickly that in seconds I could over-roast and burn the batch.

Stage 1: 350F, time = 2:00
Stage 2: 400F, time = 3:00 minutes
Stage 3: 435F, time = 2:00 minutes to 4:30 minutes

I give the last stage as a range because I tend to watch the batch closely and hit the “cool” button to stop the roast and cool it (4 minute cooling cycle) when I feel the roast has reached “done”. This varies with a lot of factors that affect the heating of the beans (moisture content, outside air temp, starting temp of the roaster if you didn’t let it cool all the way, etc). You can simply pay attention to the cracking noise, the color of the beans and finally when oils start to show on the outside of the bean.

I roasted up all of my coffee in unblended batches, and then blended after roasting. I like the idea of blending after roasting because it gives me better control of what the outcome is. I found that I liked to roast the Guatemalan darker than the Costa Rican and Kenyan AA for a more complex experience in the cup for my regular coffee blend. In the case of the Sweet Maria’s espresso blend, I roasted it fairly dark, in fact way too dark in my first attempt. The body was gone, and the flavor thin and burnt. The second time I roasted the espresso blend I roasted it just up to the second crack and stopped for a nicely dark, but still flavorful cup of espresso. I did find that I wanted a bit more body to the blend, so I added in some darker roasted Guatemalan into the mix; about 20-25%, and thought that it added a lot of appeal for me. Generally, you should let the coffee sit for a day or so before brewing to let the flavor fill in and develop. During this time, the coffee starts to off-gas carbon dioxide, bringing out a wonderful aroma.

So my final recipes using the iRoast 2 and Sweet Maria’s Green Coffee were

Drip Coffee
1/3 each of the following
Costa Rican Tarrazu to Full City roast
Kenyan AA Lot 434 roasted to Full City roast
Guatemalan Huehuetenango roasted to a Full City + roast (almost to second crack)

Espresso
3/4 Sweet Maria’s Classic Italian Blend roasted to Full City + roast (almost to second crack)
1/4 Guatemalan Huehuetenango roasted to a Full City + roast (almost to second crack)

The Payoff – the aroma
With rare exception, you can’t get the coffee experience that roasting your own coffee provides in that the aroma off the beans when you grind them and the experience in the cup is amazing. The nutty, sweet toasted aromas are to die for. Because the coffee is so fresh, the aroma that is released when you grind it is so much stronger and so much better than even most coffee shops that I come across. I used to have a local shop that roasted their own, and I used to visit after roasting to take home a similarly fresh batch of coffee with the same effects. We’ve moved and it’s hard to find local shops that roast everywhere.

The I-Roast 2 allows you to roast about 150 grams of coffee at a time, which will give you about 15 shots of espresso or about 3-4 pots of drip coffee. The I-Roast 2 is intended for home use and has some warnings on it not to roast too many batches in any one week, and also instructs you to cool the roaster off for at least 30 minutes between roasts. If you don’t wait, I found that the unit stays hot and thus roasts the next batch faster than the first. I was able to let the roaster sit for a while to cool reasonably, give it a little rest and fire it up for another batch in fairly short order. I was able to get into a routine fairly easily, and was able to finish a batch, walk away to do something else, and then come back and fire up another batch. All in all, it was easy to run through several batches in a few hours, setting yourself up for great coffee and espresso for the coming week.

Moving Indoors
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With the weather turning cold, you really need to bring the roaster indoors. See the unit can’t quite heat up air from freezing to roasting temperatures, so I brought it into my kitchen. The unit comes with a chimney adapter that sits on the top of the machine and hooks onto a 4-inch clothes drier hose so you can vent it out a window. This worked out fairly well, but I had to play a bit to get the chimney to stay seated properly on the roaster, and stay there. Once I did, I was off and running, with more consistent performance day to day as a result of the constant temperatures of the indoor air.

Keeping Records
I would advise you to keep good roasting records of what you did batch by batch, what the temperature profiles were, and what the ambient temperature was. If you want even more control, I would advise you to get e digital scale to weigh the batches, as the performance of the machine depends on the mass of the coffee not the volume. I also kept records of what the cup flavors were of the specific roasts and blends were. This will give you some insight into how changes effected your in cup flavor. If you are even remotely scientific or data based in nature, you’ll find this easy. Once you find something you like, it’s easy to do over and over again. If you don’t like something, it will be easier to figure out why and change. With the help of your records and as a result of a lot of reading at sites like Sweet Maria’s, you’ll be able to see how changes in your roast profiles and blends change the character of the coffee in the cup. I was constantly putting new blends into the Impressa E-8 and tapping out a regular espresso at a 1.5-ounce pull to test what I had made. The consistency of the Impressa helped me understand that when the espresso was made exactly the same, how changes in the coffee roasting affected the in-cup flavors of my espresso.

Review Summary – I-Roast 2
The I-Roast 2 home roaster is an addictive product that makes you crave coffee even more (Yes, it’s possible). The aroma of your own freshly roasted coffee is so intoxicating when you brew it, you’ll wonder why you hadn’t done this sooner. You may never find an exact replica of your favorite coffee blend, but why bother, go buy it, and roast up some incredible blend or experiment of your own. I found that by keeping good records and varying the roast profiles, I was able to come up with some pretty incredible cups of coffee and espresso. It was so much fun to explore different country origins and different roasts that home roasting with the I-Roast 2 makes possible. The process also teaches you a lot about what you like and a lot about what you don’t like. It only took me a couple of batches to figure out how not to ruin a batch of coffee, and with the help of a site like Sweet Maria’s you get a quick education in coffee and in home roasting too. I have had some people exclaim that the home roasted coffee was the best cup of coffee that they have had in a long, long time, which has to make you feel good. This thing is awesome.

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Posted by Scott Martin at November 19, 2006 8:34 AM
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