Home roasted coffee to end the night

Parr Traill recommends New Jersey Tea, Labrador Tea, Hemlock Tea (no, not that kind) and Dandelion Coffee as readily available herbal substitutes for tea and coffee. The root of the dandelion, washed, dried, roasted, ground, and then prepared like coffee, she claims, makes a drink "very little inferior to good coffee." (136) Not having a supply of dandelion roots on hand, I instead attempted to prepare regular coffee, according to Parr Traill's brief discussion.

In the 21st century, coffee roasting is a very precise art, with small-scale roasters operating somewhat as a science and somewhat as an art producing uniform carefully roasted beans, single-sourced from individually identified plantations from Africa, South America, or Southest Asia. Beans may be roasted to varying degrees of darkness, from a cinnamon coloured roast (my preferred) all the way up to the very dark and oily French roast. Coffeegeek.com can tell you more than you will ever want to know about coffee.  On coffee, Parr Traill has this to say:

The best coffee, or what is here called so, sells at 1s. 3d. per lb, in the country stores ; but a better article may be got at Is. per lb, in  any of the larger towns, and at lOd., unroasted. 

"The reason," says an agricultural journal now before me, "that coffee is seldom well made, is, first, the berries are too hastily roasted, or roasted too much : a light cinnamon is their proper colour. Secondly, the coffee is ground too fine ; and thirdly, it is often boiled too much; by which the bitter principle is extracted, and the finer flavour flies off ; and fourthly not enough coffee is allowed in the pot."

The owner of "my" coffee shop - or, rather, the place where most of my dissertation will be written - Thom Bargen Coffee <www.thombargen.com> in Winnipeg - agreed with Parr Traill's assessment of coffee as correct also in the 21st century.  Unfortunately for Parr Traill, the espresso machine wouldn't be invented until the 1880s, although a wide variety of methods for brewing coffee, some quite complex mechanically, were under active development.

Green, unroasted, coffee beans, are somewhat difficult to find, with local roasters refusing to sell theirs. Eventually, I located some unroasted Ethiopian (Yirgacheffe) beans.  Unroasted beans, according to Parr Traill, sold for about ten pence per pound of coffee, approximately 16 cents per pound of coffee in 1854 dollar equivalents,  which would be the equivalent of between $15-$30 in 2013 dollars. (Inflation calculatations from the 19th century to today are highly variable, with different methods giving very different results. See MeasuringWorth.com for an indepth discussion of inflation calculations for the pound.) Compared to the price Parr Traill had to pay, the $7 per pound I paid seems like a good deal!

For my first attempt at roasting coffee beans, I used a cast iron pan and stirred continuously. The pan was very much too hot, and I reached the first crack stage of roasting in well under a minute - Parr Traill would lament that my coffee was "too hastily'' roasted. After the beans reach the appropriate level of roast, they must be quickly cooled down, preferably by moving them into a metal colander. The metal colander allows rapid cooling due to the conductivity of the metal, and also the little holes chafe against the beans and remove the charred outer layer of the green beans, the chaff. Roasting coffee gives off enough smoke and floating bits of chaff to set off a smoke detector - although presumably Parr Traill didn't have one!

My second attempt, after the actual dinner itself, was in Carolynn's oh-so-nice enameled cast iron pan. It has similar properties with respect to heat conductivity, but is much better looking and easier to take care of than my cast iron pan. This time, I proceeded with a much lower heat, and took five or six minutes to roast to the requisite level.

In both cases, the roast is far more uneven than professionally roasted coffee, with its uniform coloration. As you can see in the photograph, there is signficant variation in the roast level, from cinnamon coloured city roast, to a much darker first crack roast. 

The dinner party guests were quite excited about the prospect of after-dinner coffee in an 1854 dinner, if perhaps the actual product was a bit dissapointing. The ground coffee was much lighter in colour than the ground coffee we are used to, a sort of dark brown with a cinnamon hue. The coffee (anachronistically made in Carolynn's coffee machine) was, charitably, a bit weak. The colour was a bit lighter than optimal, but, like the fresh beans, smelled quite good.

(post by Daniel Simeone)