Postcard from Arizona- 17

Benson, AZ
21 July 2019

Learning more the hard way. A bit of a ramble about me learning the hard way about roasting coffee and a tiny bit about coffee beans.

I discovered that our current summer weather makes the roaster respond differently. I had imagined that, since I pre-heat the drum to 428°F before adding  green beans, there would be little difference in the roast profile if the outside temp was only 85°F (before 8:30 AM) instead of 65°F. Wrong! It changed everything about the roast profile. I found it difficult to follow earlier roast profiles as the fan and power control just don’t respond the same when controlling temps in the roaster.

So what’s a roast profile? Here’s a chart from a recent roast…


The chart shows measurements of bean temperature as measured by

  • an infrared temperature sensor (smooth blue line) aimed at the beans inside the drum, as well as…
  • a thermocouple (smooth red line) that lies in the path of the tumbling beans.

The wiggly red line, called the Rate of Rise (RoR), measures the change in the red line sampled every few parts of a second and tells the operator how fast the bean temp is rising or falling. RoR is roughly equivalent to the 1st derivative of the bean temp thermocouple.

The horizontal lines at the bottom depict the control settings like power setting (Pn), the fan speed (Fn), and the drum speed (Dn). These are the only controls the operator has.

Ideally you would like to have first crack (FC; the 2nd vertical marker on the smooth red line) occur about 8:00 to 9:00 minutes into the roast (it was about 6:44 minutes in this sample) and the RoR trend generally toward about 10F° (right scale) till first crack ends (FCE; 3rd vertical marker on the smooth red line). Notice how the RoR (wiggly red line) sort of flattened out? That was me asleep at the switch in a scenario something like “Hmm… Is that just a wiggle? or is that a trend starting? Uh-oh… it’s a trend! [drop the power; adjust the fan] Damn! Missed it again.”

To add to the complications I started re-reading Scot Rao’s book (The Coffee Roaster’s Companion) about coffee roasting for the big kids. The more I read the less I know. Everything has to be scaled down from roasting 45 kg of coffee (~100 lbs) to about 0.3 kg (a little more than 1/2 lb after water loss). The differences between a commercial roasting machine and my Aillio Bullet are huge even though the changes which occur inside the green beans must be exactly the same over the exact same time interval for the roasted coffee to taste right. Weeding thru those differences is the challenge.

I keep trying to improve what I’m doing and am always adjusting the profile. Tossing a roast because I got it wrong is not a huge big deal since I have a lot of green beans… a lot of green beans! As I was typing this I decided to see what I have in stock and discovered I currently have on hand about 270 lbs of green beans. That’s potentially about 225 lbs of roasted coffee after water loss. Is it any wonder I keep trying to find willing coffee tasters so I can find a home for this stuff? Roasting is fun, but what’s the point if no one even tries it? Besides, I’ve found some of these beans just don’t taste that good to me. My parents matured during the depression in the 1930s, so I was raised with the don’t-throw-anything-out mentality.

So why did I accumulate so many green coffee beans? When we were in Santa Fe and I was really getting into roasting, I found a couple varieties of beans that worked incredibly well with the profile I used. My roasting setup had very little flexibility, at least to my inexperienced mind. That meant I had to get beans that were just right for essentially one way of roasting because adjusting the temperature profile just wasn’t going to happen. I found a couple of bean varieties that worked extremely well. When I went back for more I found the well was dry… all gone! It was a huge disappointment.

So now I buy too many beans for a sample batch. If I don’t like how they taste I end up with some beans that will likely never be used.

Btw, coffee beans are properly called seeds (though I doubt I’ll ever convert!). The bean/seed grows inside the fruit of the coffee bush/shrub (too small to be a tree); that fruit is called a cherry. The photos which follow are from Sweet Maria’s.

These are the cherries that contain the bean/seed.

Screenshot_2019-07-20 Sweet Maria's Home Coffee Roasting

To get to a green bean, the cherries are first harvested by hand (again, photo from Sweet Maria’s) at a farm (kind of destroys the image of Yuban’s ‘Juan Valdez’ selectively picking one cherry at a time doesn’t it?!)…

Screenshot_2019-07-20 Sweet Maria's Home Coffee Roasting-2

… sorted to get rid of bad ones, the pulp is removed, then the seeds/beans are dried in the sun…

Screenshot_2019-07-20 Brazil Sweet Maria's Coffee Library-3

At this point they are called green beans…

Screenshot (11)

… and can be bagged and shipped. Notice each bean/seed is 1/2 of a pair. That’s generally how they grow inside the coffee cherry (unless they are ‘peaberries’ which are a single seed/bean from the coffee cherry). The loose skin (silver skin) you see above ends up as chaff after the green beans have been roasted and collects in a filter of sorts within the roaster.

The process is more complicated than what I have here. If you are interested, go to Sweet Maria’s where you can learn more than you ever wanted to know about coffee from the coffee buying/home roasting master himself, Thompson Owen (as I learned on my first trip to Sweet Maria’s in 2003, it’s Thompson, Thom or Tom, but *never* Tommy!).

Posted in Coffee, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Postcard from Arizona- 16

We’re roasting in Benson

18 July 2019
Benson, AZ

The weather here in the San Pedro Valley of AZ has treated us kindly this year. As Merle Haggard said, “things are exactly as I choose to recall…“, and as I recall 2018, we’d been in and out of the 100°’s a few times before the end of April; snowbirds were gone by the first week of May.

Not so this year. We saw the last of the winter visitors head out about the end of June. We saw our first 100°F day about 13 June… probably 15:00 to 16:00 in the afternoon. Looks like there will be more than coffee roasting for the next few months as summer weather settles in.

Back in June I was hoping luck would be on our side and that monsoons would start by the first week of July (the traditional start). Not so as the clouds struggled to get properly formed and were generally a disappointment. We saw rain in the distance, but the rain never reached the ground. When they finally came, the first 2 T-storms produced all of about 0.01″ of rain each according to our Davis weather station. On about 15 July we finally got a decent bit of thunder, lightning & rain that gave 0.16″ of rain… that’s about 0.19” so far for all of July. Big whoop.

Even with monsoons we still see frequent days of 100°F-115°F before a brief T-storm hits in the afternoon. For us, monsoon rains mean 1 to 15 minutes of hard rain accompanied by strong wind and lightning. Cools off maybe 20-30 minutes ahead of the rain and for maybe 30 minutes after, then the heat is back along with over 60% humidity instead of the usual 5%-10%.

Fortunately our casita has a portal to allow setting up the coffee roaster & computer in the shade. That plus the fixed awning attached to the trailer offers sun protection all day, though outside temps are still so high only a fool would try to work in that heat. Once a T-storm hits, things get pretty wet under the portal & awning thanks to the accompanying wind. In general, anything we need to do outside should be done before 9:30 unless it’s under the portal where I can maybe stretch it to about noon.

Not perfect, but it works.

Btw, the usual population of diehard summer residents is about 85 sites. There are 1 to 2 people per site, so I’m not sure how many souls are actually here dealing wtih the heat… I’ll guess it’s about 125-130. Mmmm… plus the rats, snakes, rabbits and coyotes.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Postcard from Arizona- 15

Indulging old habits

1 April 2019
Benson, AZ

For about a year now I have been indulging an old passion- I’ve gotten back into roasting coffee.

We like a morning cup of coffee, probably stronger than most people would care to drink. We had been buying Starbucks unground coffee beans. Benson has very little to offer beyond a WalMart and Mi Casa Restaurant, but surprisingly they have a Starbucks inside the local Safeway supermarket.

Unfortunately the Starbucks beans don’t turn over very fast at Safeway, even during snowbird season. We whined a bit about the morning cup but didn’t do anything about it. Prior to going on the road (in late 2003 I think) I started roasting our coffee first on a tiny hot air roaster (FreshRoast?), then a few months later I bought a drum made by a guy in Charleston, SC. and used a cheap CharBroil BBQ grill to heat the drum. I had the drum mounted on a spit driven by a 60 rpm 1/4 HP motor. We had a lot of great coffee from that setup, but it all went away when the house was sold. And so too did the beloved Giotto espresso machine and the Mazzer-Mini coffee grinder.


The HotTop KN-8828B-2K+ programmable coffee roaster.

So when the Admiral asked if I ever thought about roasting coffee again the answer was a quick yes. I bought a small electric drum roaster called a HotTop which handled just 250 gm of green beans per batch.

This small but sophisticated roaster did a great job. Artisan Software, a free program that could display data in a graph and even control the roast, did an adequate job. But I got a little frustrated on those days when I had to do multiple roasts- I spent twice the time waiting for it to first cool then creep back up to temperature than I did roasting. I knew that Aillio makes a larger roaster with an induction heated drum, but they were updating the design and taking forever to get back into production.

Then suddenly last January 2019 a shipment was announced. I hung out on the Sweet Maria’s site on the magic day and managed to grab one before all 120 roasters were gone.


Aillio Bullet R1. A reasonably sophisticated electric roaster that was designed in Denmark and manufactured in Taiwan.

The Aillio Bullet R1 uses about the same amount of power as the HotTop, but instead of a resistive heating element adjacent to the drum, they use an induction coil to heat the drum. Induction heating has been used for industrial applications since the 1940’s but it wasn’t used in kitchens until recently, first in Europe and now in the US. The reason induction heating appeals for roasting coffee is that it provides rapid changes in temperature instead of the very slow response of indirect radiated heat from a resistive heating element. And the Bullet can handle up to 1 kg of green beans (about 2.2 pounds) vs. 250 gm (just over 0.5 pounds) of the HotTop.


The “Miss Silvie” from Rancillio. These were originally designed as sales awards for top-performing distributors but they were so interesting that Rancillio went into production in the late 1990’s for the consumer market.

Of course if we’re going to have brewed coffee during breakfast, the Admiral also wanted to have a cafe con leche in the late morning. That takes an espresso machine, but an espresso machine is big and uses a lot of electrical power… which there’s not much of on a trailer. But there is a small espresso machine from Italy called a Rancilio Silvie that would fill the bill nicely. I found a used recent model and ordered a PID for it. A PID is a bit of electronics that controls temperature. The kit I ordered was designed and built by Auber Instruments (there are dozens of sources) which replaced temperature sensors and introduced pre-infusion into the brew process (it wets the coffee before it starts pumping water for the shot).

I checked to see what a Mazzer-Mini coffee grinder would cost. I bought ours in 2003 for $365, but by spring of 2018 that cost had risen to $1,150. Yikes!

Initially I tried using our old $65 Capresso, but that couldn’t grind fine enough for espresso. So I did some digging and found a Eureka Mignon that sounded great. Only problem was the grinder design doesn’t handle static electricity very well and the grind comes out in clumps. I was accustomed to turning out really good shots but with this grinder I was turning out crap. I finally accepted the issue was that I wasn’t using the right amount of coffee from one shot to the next and that it was because of the clumping.


The Baratza Sette 270Wi. Choose the amount of coffee in grams and it nails it!

More research. I found a new grinder design that measures the weight of the coffee being ground directly into the portafilter. Sounded slick. The Baratza Sette 270Wi would resolve the uncertainty of how much coffee was being used for each shot for less than 1/2 the cost of a replacement Mazer-Mini.

There were a few negative reviews by owners about the grinder failing, so as a precaution I bought a 3-year warranty from Amazon just in case (something I would normally never do!).

The grinder performance was amazing. Just set the desired quantity of coffee – I use 16 gm for an espresso shot – and within 4 attempts it’s on the money. If it’s off, the error is on the order of 0.1 gm.

After 3 months of really good espresso shots the motor became first intermittent then quit completely. I whined to Baratza customer support and after jumping thru a few hoops to confirm what the problem was they replaced the grinder with a new one. Yay! Back to great espresso shots. But I’m still glad I got the 3-year warranty because having been bitten once I’m still uneasy about long term durability.

So that’s what’s been happening here in Southeast Arizona. That and way too many green coffee beans have come to live with us!

A sidebar…

When I mentioned Safeway above it jogged my memory that I have a bit of a connection to that supermarket chain from 2 generations back. I understand Safeway is now owned by Kroger’s, but back in the days before WW-II my paternal grandfather managed a Safeway store when they were an independent corporation. They were a big presence in the San Joaquin Valley of California. In fact ‘JO’ retired from Safeway and received a small pension. In those days there was no Starbucks and there was certainly no coffee from a grocery store that didn’t come pre-ground and in a can: think Folgers.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Postcard from Arizona- 14

18 September 2018
Benson, AZ

This is the entry I’ve been dreading. Today we lost Annie to a combination of cancer and kidney disease. She made it to 11 years 9 months, dieing just 50 days after her sister Kelly. According to the AKC, berners live an average of about 6 years 10 months, so she did good for a berner. But not nearly long enough for a really good dog.

Our two Bernese Mtn. Dogs Kelly (l) and Annie.

They’ll be sorely missed. And it leaves the name of the blog, a dog house on wheels, with a hollow ring. Well, I guess it’s still their dog house, so we’ll carry it on.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Postcard from Arizona- 13

2 August 2018
Benson, AZ

Now an update that’s actually up to date… both of us eventually got over what I now presume was the flu. The Admiral got some cough medicine that allowed her to sleep and to get some relief from the constant hard coughing, but not before she broke her back.

Apparently all the coughing stressed the T-12 vertebrae to the point it cracked. Or maybe she twisted wrong. Or… ???

Her health insurer (United Healthcare) wouldn’t approve her going to an orthopedist till she had at least 2 weeks of physical therapy (huh? for a broken back?!) which she did. The 2 weeks stretched into 2 months during which time she was told the repair is an easy procedure involving injecting a cement into the crack. After the 2 months the Admiral felt like she was learning enough to protect her back. A follow-up X-ray showed the crack was either healing or had healed. So off she went to see an orthopedist.

His response was “Why are you coming to me now? You should have been here months ago!” He also told her “…you’ve survived a broken back. It’s a miracle you aren’t paralyzed!” Later, one of his support staff (another MD) said the repair process using the cement hardens the repaired vertebrae to the point it can damage the softer adjoining vertebrae above and below the repaired vertebrae. Sounds like a slow motion chain reaction. Apparently their office has discontinued the procedure.

The root cause is osteoporosis. The Admiral will be seeing an endocrinologist to manage the bone loss.

So it appears that, even though I think the delay was nuts, it did keep her from doing further damage. But if this ever comes up again I believe I’ll try to convince her to head immediately to the ER.

Sadly our dogs are no longer doing well. Bernese Mtn. Dogs have an average life span of 82 months… slightly less than 7 years. They’re now 11 years old and we’ve speculating they may make it to 12 or 13 like their mom Missy. But Kelly started stumbling occasionally, then it started happening more frequently. The local vet gave us some Meloxicam to try (an NSAID). I thought it might have helped a tiny bit, but it wasn’t the miracle cure it had been for Annie’s arthritis.

Things kept degenerating and we thought we’d try another vet for a second opinion about Annie and it worked out well to have Kelly seen at the same time. We found a vet an hour away in Bisbee, about the same as the drive to Tucson. The new vet, Dr. Tyler, immediately stopped the Meloxicam which is a no-no drug for dogs with kidney problems. Kidney problem? What kidney problem? In the 3 or 4 weeks since she had last had blood work, Kelly’s kidneys had started showing signs of not working properly.

Doc Tyler immediately sent us to a canine neurologist in Tucson who did a CT scan. No apparent problem with the spine, no obvious sign of tumors on the spinal cord (only detected indirectly in an X-ray). Kelly’s symptoms were those of degenerative spinal cord disease (kind of a canine version of ALS), but he thought it was progressing faster than he’d seen before. And the kidneys were a bad complication. On the chance there was a tumor he couldn’t see he prescribed some prednisone which might offer a little relief if there was a tumor somewhere. 10 days later her kidneys were degenerating to the point she wouldn’t eat and it was clear it was time to say goodbye to our lovable pain in the ass who never failed to make us smile or laugh. Trust me- it’s hard to live with a dog that is sometimes smarter than you! So yesterday, 1 August, we lost Kelly.

The primary reason we wanted a new pair of eyes was because of Annie. She was exhibiting signs of anemia except supporting symptoms weren’t there. The test for Addison’s came back negative, so we were sent down the road for anemia. We’d given her 6 weekly injections of vitamin B12 (that was a story in itself!), added Lixotinic supplement and went thru de-worming her in case she had whip worm which can produce similar anemic symptoms. The first thing Doc Tyler found was a huge lymph node. She wanted to scope her (endoscopy) to see if there was a large tumor in the gut but she doesn’t have that device.

So she sent us to a vet in Tucson who had been working with Kelly’s cardiologist. Dr. Bachman was someone we already knew and had confidence in. She didn’t do an endoscopy but instead did a sonogram. Not good news. It appears Annie has tumors in several locations including the spleen and against the outside of the lung explaining perhaps the enlarged lymph node. She did a needle biopsy on 2 locations which came back positive for a very fast growing type of sarcoma.

The prognosis isn’t good. Surgery is out because it’s so widespread and, in light of that, we decided we weren’t going to give her chemo in order to extend her life a week or so. That leaves us waiting for Annie to start showing signs that things are going bad for her… probably as much as a 2 or 3 weeks, maybe less, maybe more.

On top of that Annie still has her arthritis to deal with. Since she can’t have the Meloxicam any longer, our new vet suggested trying something called cannabidiol (CBD). It’s derived from cannabis but lacks the THC (the psychoactive component marijuana is famous for). So now I’m rubbing 3 drops of CBD on Annie’s gums twice daily. It’s too soon to tell but so far I don’t see it as a direct replacement for Meloxicam. I will say that Annie’s appetite (which has always been good) is now similar to a shark in a feeding frenzy. It’s pretty scarey to watch. Yikes!

I can’t believe how fast our world turned upside down with the dogs. A Bernese Mtn. Dog owner should expect joint problems and/or cancer. And that’s where we are with Annie. In a short while we’ll be without either of our best friends.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment