Big Valley's Roderiques turns beans into coffee

November 29, 2004|JOHN T. DAVIS

The store is closed and the sun is setting rapidly over Danville's Southland Shopping Center last Monday evening.

But at Big Valley Coffee Company, the fun is about to begin.

Michael Roderiques, who opened the coffee, gourmet foods and specialty cookware store two years ago with his wife, Renee, is firing up "The San Franciscan."

Looking a bit like a small steam locomotive, the machine is actually a coffee roaster; and Roderiques, the roastmaster, who turns raw beans from the around the world into tasty, aromatic coffee.

Instead of steam, "The San Franciscan" uses dry gas heat to roast the beans. It has an incinerator that burns up the "chaff," or outer skin from the beans as it pops off during the roasting process. The incinerator keeps any emissions or odor to a minimum.


Roderiques roasts 20 pounds at a time, and during 15- to 20-minute roast, he constantly checks gauges that monitor the temperature of the beans and the air in the roaster. He wears a stop watch around his neck and makes notes on a log. He adjusts the flame on the gas burners at the bottom of the roaster and checks out the beans through a peephole in the side. He removes samples from the machine with a small "tryer" and smells the beans and checks for color and other telltale signs of how far the beans are from being ready to "drop." Roderiques also listens for the "cracking" of the coffee, which sounds a little bit like popcorn popping.

Roderiques said operating the machine is not that difficult and can be taught in about 30 minutes, but whether the coffee would be any good is another question.

"In roasting coffee, you really have to understand chemistry ... thermal dynamics ... what's happening in the chemical process, the heating process ...

"There's a point where the coffee is taking over the roasting process, a time where the beans are taking over the roast," he said. "You need to know that and how to control that."

The right combination of time and temperature

That's why Roderiques pays such close attention during the roast. He looks for just the right combination of time and temperature. If he's off a little bit on the light side, he'll have raw coffee. If he roasts it too much, he'll have charcoal, particularly with the "dark roasts" that are taken to a higher temperature.

"A couple of seconds make the difference between good coffee and disaster," he said.

While the big coffee companies use computer-operated roasters, Roderiques contends that computers "will never really be able to bring out the best flavor in the coffee. It might need a few seconds longer, a few seconds shorter..."

He emphasizes the "sensory aspects" of roasting. He listens to the roaster and watches the beans.

"You hit a certain point where the sounds will change and the color of the coffee will change."

The "cooling car"

One would think that coffee straight from the roaster would be delicious, but actually it has very little taste or aroma. That's because the roasting process does not end when the coffee is "dropped" from the roaster into the "cooling car," a device with a rotating arm that keeps the coffee moving and cooling.

Coffee can take up to 72 hours to reach its best "flavor profile" and it stays there for only about seven to 10 days. To keep the coffee fresh, Roderiques roasts at least twice a week, and customers are encouraged to buy just what they need.

"I hate it when people put it in the refrigerator," Roderiques said. "That just destroys coffee.

"If you put it in the refrigerator and it gets the humidity in it, you're basically staling the coffee."

If customers have to keep coffee for a long time, he recommends that it be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.

"If you absolutely have to, you can freeze it," he said. "The best thing is to buy only what you can use in seven to 10 days."

Coffee characteristics

Roderiques roasts coffee from many of the tropical areas of the world, including Indonesia, India, Africa, Central and South America, and New Guinea. Each coffee has different characteristics. For instance, African coffees tends to be very spicy while South American varieties have a high acid content like a "dry" wine.

These characteristics of the coffee reflect differences in climate, soil conditions, altitude, how the coffee is processed on the plantation and other factors.

"In some African areas, they let coffee ripen on the tree and fall off" rather than being picked, he said.

Most of the coffees Big Valley serves are "blended," meaning they are made of more than one variety of coffee beans. Some of them are "pre-roast blended," such as their signature brand, Big Valley Blend, while others are blended after they are roasted.

"When you blend before roasting, the beans in the roasting process share moisture and flavor," he said. Another thing that affects how blends are roasted is whether the two types of coffee roast at about the same rate of speed.

"I might roast two together and another one separately if I want to accentuate a certain flavor," he said.

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