Do you sip or slurp your coffee in the morning? Can you detect the earthy taste of a good Sumatra? or the chocolaty aftertones of an Ethiopian? There is much more that goes into a good cup of coffee than just beans and water.
There’s an unassuming little building on Vista Heights in Ashcroft that looks much like a garden shed with a chimney. The smoke rising from it smells more like burnt grass than burning firewood.
Where there’s smoke, there is David Durksen roasting coffee.
After seven years of roasting and studying coffee, Durksen has it down to a fine art. But the creation of art isn’t a smooth process. The day that I visit him in his roasting shack, he is dividing his time between his laptop computer and his Ambex batch roaster.
“The coffee bean is a chemistry test tube,” he says, “and you’re creating a chemical reaction inside the bean. You’re converting cellulose into sugar and bringing out the flavours the bean has pulled up from the ground.”
Durksen roasts 15 types of coffee, identified by their country of origin. He wants to change the chemical composition inside the bean by raising and lowering the temperature, speeding up the process and then slowing it down. His laptop contains roasting profiles for all of his beans, and if he doesn’t pay attention as the seconds tick by, he could over roast and waste two pounds of perfectly good beans. It takes him about six hours to roast 30 pounds.
Today he is roasting a blend of Ethiopian and Sumatra for The Packing House in Spences Bridge. It’s a little trickier than normal because he has adjust his timing to account for the drought in Ethiopia that left the beans with less moisture than normal and the monsoons in Sumatra that had the opposite effect. It takes precision timing, but he manages it.
Durksen takes the beans up to the first crack and lowers the temperature. He doesn’t want to bring the oil out because it makes the bean go rancid quickly when it hits the air.
“My real love is doing a sample roast when I get a new batch of beans and deciding how to bring the flavours out,” Durksen says.
The small specialty roasters favour the lighter roasts that bring out the unique flavours of the bean. “Most people are used to dark roast,” he says. “In the specialty coffee industry, we call that ‘Starburnt’.”
He picks out the lighter coloured beans from a batch of their freshly roasted brethren in the cooling tray – they’re called Quakers because they resist the roasting process for whatever reason. He says a study by expert tasters showed they devalued the price of a pound of roasted coffee by 15 per cent.
While growing, the bean is contained inside a fleshy fruit called the cherry. There are different methods of processing the bean once it’s been picked. Ethiopian beans go through a semi-wet process where the cherry is soaked and fermented, after which the skin and pulp is removed. Sumatran beans use a dry process – everything is dried first and then put through a machine to remove the dried skin and pulp.
Too much chaff is a problem when roasting because it catches fire inside the roaster and burns the beans. High quality beans minimizes the chaff.
He roasts four varieties of decaffeinated. Decaf is made by soaking beans in water that caffeine has been added to, and then running an electrical current through the water to draw out the caffeine. He says he roasts his decaf first while the roaster is still heating up. After soaking, the decaf beans are redried which makes them more fragile. They need a lower roasting temperature or else they turn to dust.
Barometric pressure is another factor that affects the roast. He says he asked another roaster about it, and they said they’d purchased their own weather station to track the pressure.
“I roast any time,” he says. “I just adjust the roast profiles by spring/fall, summer and winter.”
The more expensive home roasters come with computerized adjustments for things like that, he says. They come with a lot of different features and can roast from three ounces to one pound at a time. Durksen’s Ambex can roast three and a half pounds, or two kilos, at once. The roaster came with the business that he bought from Ed van Thienen in 2008.
“Roasting coffee had been a bit of a passion of mine for decades,” said van Thienen. “I built my first coffee roaster out of a scrap bread maker.”
After that he considered going to an open fire, “but it was too dangerous for Ashcroft.” He researched articles on the internet and bought a hot air popcorn popper.
“It held only two ounces at a time,” he said. “It was too small. I like things big!” The bread maker roasted two pounds at a time.
“I get into these things and go really fast,” he laughs. “People tell me I go overboard on everything I do. Then there was the chicken rotisserie – was a really good one because it looked like a real coffee roaster!”
He said he built a drum around the spit to hold the coffee beans and could watch them going around.
From there moved on to the family barbecue. He could roast five pounds at a time. “The quality was outstanding but hard to control for consistent batches.” And the weather could be cold and unpleasant. Once he tried moving the barbecue into the house, but he says that didn’t turn out so well.
He purchased the Ambex and used it for two and a half years before selling it to Durksen.
“I’m just grateful that someone with David’s passion came along and said ‘I want it’,” he said. “I’m ecstatic that a non-coffee drinker not only took on the business, but became a master roaster!”
Durksen offers local tastings from time to time, also known as “cuppings,” and can talk enthusiastically and intimately about the farms where his beans come from. He’s even visited a few of them. The next tasting will be at the Fall Fair on Sept. 13 and he’ll have several of his coffees available.
Every country has a signature taste, he says. In Sumatra you will have an earthier taste, dark and sugary; Ethiopian usually has flowery notes and chocolaty aftertones; Costa Rican usually has a fruity, berry flavour. It all depends on how the sugars form in the bean.
He says he always has cream and sugar at his tastings because some people won’t drink their coffee any other way, but you will only taste these subtle flavours if you’re drinking it black.
The other key to bringing out the taste in coffee is having the right ratio of coffee to water, with the water at the proper temperature. These will always give you a great cup of coffee, he says. How great will depend on the roast.
“It’s like wine,” he says. “If you get a good wine, it’s really, really good.”