I had my first cup of coffee when I was 5.
We were getting ready to go to Disneyland – at night. My mom wanted to make sure I stayed awake, so she poured me some coffee in a small cup and sweetened it with a little sugar.
In spite of my early exposure, it wasn’t until I was in college that I became a coffee drinker, thanks to a rather eccentric editor I worked with at the Los Angeles Times. He kept a small coffeemaker at his desk, and bugged me to try some until I finally did – just to get him to leave me alone.
But it wasn’t until I got a job, years later, with a local coffee roaster in Laguna Beach, that I became truly passionate about coffee. I learned that, like wine, there are different varieties of beans with their own distinctive properties, determined in part by region, soil conditions, and climate. And that, how you roast each variety greatly affects the flavor.
This was during the early ‘90s, when the trend toward darker roasts began. As I was learning how to roast small batches in a modest café on Pacific Coast Highway, a Starbucks opened up just a few blocks down the road, offering its trademark dark-roasted coffees.
I discovered that I preferred medium roasted coffees, and I could enjoy them anytime at my local roaster. But after we moved to the Bay Area, it became increasingly difficult to find businesses that offered lighter roasts.
Dark-roasted coffee had become the standard.
Frustrated with our lack of choices, and eager to save some money on our coffee habit, my husband Brian and I began home roasting.
That’s when we discovered Sweet Maria’s.
Brian researched home roasting online, and found a small company in Oakland dedicated to helping home coffee roasters. Sweet Maria’s, owned by Tom Owen and Maria Troy, is an online green coffee supplier with a very informative website that is like an encyclopedia of coffee.
They offer every kind of home coffee roaster and accessory, and lots of support – not to mention a huge selection of green coffee beans from all over the world that Tom buys directly from the growers and individual farmers; many of which are organic and fair trade.
“A lot of people don’t know that you can home roast, or they think it’s really complicated,” Maria explains. “But it’s really simple.”
So simple, in fact, that we discovered all we needed to home roast was a skillet, something to stir the beans with, and a way to cool them down quickly.
Tom and Maria started their business in 1997 out of their home in Columbus, Ohio, when Tom could not find a source of green beans for home roasting. A local coffee roaster wanted to charge full price for green beans – the same as roasted beans (about twice what green coffee should cost).
Tom decided, what the heck, he was going to do it himself: He started buying large bags of green beans and selling them to home roasters.
“Home roasting is pretty cool,” Maria says. “And you don’t have to become a fanatic about it.”
She and Tom relocated Sweet Maria’s to the Bay Area in 2002. Their current location is a warehouse in West Oakland. They do most of their business online, but they also take orders for will-call pick up Tuesday through Thursday.
Although there are many different ways to roast – some people even use air or stovetop popcorn poppers – we roast the old-fashioned way, using an iron skillet that belonged to Brian’s great grandmother. We stir the beans with a whisk while shaking the pan (you have to keep them moving or they’ll scorch), pour them into a metal steamer basket once they’re ready, and stir them over a big fan to cool them down. The whole process takes about 10 to 15 minutes.
The result? The freshest, best-tasting coffee ever.
It’s such a soothing ritual. It keeps my hands busy and quiets my mind. The steps are simple, and the outcome is immensely satisfying. We spend half the money we used to spend when we bought our beans already roasted.
Best of all, I can enjoy a medium roast anytime, just the way I like it.