As some of you may know, I’m not usually a fan of complex electronic appliances. Living where I do in the land of sudden electrical power spikes and outages, I have to be careful what’s plugged into that electrical outlet. Even then, the long-term survival odds for today’s generation of home appliances do not inspire me with confidence.
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There must always be an exception to the rule, however, and I made one in the case of this appliance, the Behmor 1600 Home Coffee Roaster. It is an electrically-powered, electronically-controlled home drum coffee roaster capable of being used indoors to roast coffee beans to most (but not all) user preferences.
I initially began home roasting out of sheer self-defense. For reasons of personal health I had begun drinking decaffeinated coffee, though not exclusively. One reason for this was that the commercial decaf coffee I could find locally was abominable – I couldn’t stand it. After awhile, I noticed a drop in quality even in regular caffeinated commercial blends. I wasn’t the only one – my parents, my friends, anyone who drank coffee regularly complained that today’s large-scale makers weren’t making a very good product.
My next option was to purchase the so-called ‘gourmet’ roasted whole-bean blends that were available locally. I bought a burr grinder and went to work. Most weren't too good. A few were all right, but they were all quite expensive, and the decaf versions were few and far between. Whole bean roasted coffee available through boutique internet retailers was considerably better in taste, but finding coffee I could order was still problematic. It seemed they always had the ‘green’ or unroasted decaf varieties, but they didn’t always have ready-roasted quantities on hand to sell. And they were still very expensive.
So I decided to buy good quality estate green or decaf unroasted whole bean coffees, and roast them myself to save money. Initially, this amounted to a full 50% savings on each pound. At one point, I was drinking small production, estate-grown Costa Rican and Columbian whole bean coffee for the price my mom was paying to drink Folger’s “Columbian” blend! And the quality of the home-roasted decaf was superb - using a good Costa Rican bean, I manage to deceive two coffee connoisseurs who had loudly announced they could always tell the inferior taste of a decaffeinated coffee. They couldn't.
Like many home roasters I went through a series of home-made roasters, including a heat gun and two air popcorn poppers (extensively re-wired). The results were acceptable, but I wanted to be able to roast larger quantities, as well as have more control over my roasts. The heat gun eventually died and the last of the popcorn poppers burned out its heating element. Newer air poppers are more anemic, all have relatively small capacity, and I decided that buying yet another older - and increasingly, rarer - used air popper was a path of diminishing returns. Using a roasting drum on a propane grill rotisserie was another option, but these large roasters are mostly overkill for my needs. Besides that, I didn’t own a propane grill with a rotisserie feature.
The Behmor 1600 is the first home electric drum roaster of reasonable cost capable of safely roasting up to a full pound of beans indoors (the Behmor requires no add-on ventilation pipes or turned-on kitchen exhaust fans). To me, this was a major selling point; not too big, not too little, but just right. When the Behmor first came out in 2007, MSRP was a full $399, but the sagging economy and economics of scale have helped – I paid $299, and the retailer threw in free shipping, five pounds of quality coffee beans (estate-grown), and an extra stainless roasting drum with fine mesh for roasting small beans such as Costa Rican peaberry. Some people have done even better by searching out refurbished models.
The Behmor is an imposing appliance. It’s a full 17.5” wide by 10” high and 14 inches deep, and must weigh 20 pounds or more. The finish consists of a black metal housing with a stainless steel fascia, digital display, and gray touchpad. The access door has a glass window for observing the tumbling beans and heating elements.
The overall size and styling reminds me of a 1980s-era microwave, or perhaps an old Ronco rotisserie oven. You probably won't get a lot of admiring comments from visitors when they see this behemoth parked on your granite countertop. The Ronco resemblance is not a great surprise, as its inventor, Joe Behm, reportedly prototyped his first model of what would become the Behmor 1600 by extensively modifying an old Ronco rotisserie.
As to manufacturing quality, my example appears to be well made and finished. Yes, it is made in China. I console myself with the fact that its inventor retains control over distribution of his machine, and appears to have committed himself to a ‘hands-on’ approach regarding customer service. The company has established a budding reputation for answering customer emails regarding troubleshooting and operational problems. I haven't used that assistance yet, but hopefully it will make the difference if the product ever stops working properly.
The ‘1600’ in the name comes from the wattage: the Behmor consumes a hefty 1630 watts at 13.6 amps. For those not familiar with electric coffee roasting, be advised that good results take a good deal of power. You will want to plug this machine into a 20-amp circuit if available (usually found in the kitchen or perhaps a garage outlet) and keep other appliances off the circuit when roasting.
Needless to say, you must never employ an extension cord with this powerful watt-hungry roaster. If you do, you may find yourself tripping circuit breakers or getting lighter-than-specified bean roasts due to a reduction in available power. As a precaution, I usually roast my coffee beans either late at night or early in the morning on days when I expect collective electrical demand to be low.
Using the Behmor 1600
To begin, the Behmor must be freed of all its interior packing tape and cardboard shipping padding used to keep it from being damaged. You must place the roaster on a well ventilated solid surface. If using a countertop, the unit's exhaust outlets (located on the top rear of the machine) must have at least 18 inches of space above and around for adequate ventilation.
Next, the interior is wiped down with a damp cloth to remove dust, and a tiny dab of vegetable oil placed on the left (non-powered) axle pivot of the stainless mesh roasting drum (this prevents squeaking). The other end of the roasting drum contains a square drive. This fits into a female receptacle on the right side of the roaster. Then the stainless chaff (debris) tray is slipped into place. The roaster is plugged in and operated empty (‘burn-in’) using the ½ pound control to eliminate fumes and dust, and season the door gasket. Cool down is automatic and part of the control profile. With this accomplished, the Behmor is ready to accept its first coffee beans.
The Behmor 1600 has several pre-programmed roasting profiles varying heat and time based on the type and quantity of beans used. Once the beans are loaded, the drum installed and the chaff shield is in place, close the door. The appropriate program is selected and you can now press 'Start'. It’s quite a mesmerizing show, with the beans gently revolving, merging, and separating under the warm orange glow of the heating elements. The machine is relatively quiet, particularly in regards to its nearest competitors, and does not emit smoke or strong odors when used as directed. I also did not find it necessary to turn on the kitchen hood exhaust fan, let alone install special ducting, though the machine will definitely add some heat to the kitchen while in roasting mode. Buttons marked "+" and "-" enable you to add or subtract time to the counter display at any time during the roasting cycle.
Once the beans are sufficiently roasted, the machine automatically enters a cool-down phase using powerful variable speed motors to cool the beans and equally importantly, the heating elements (without proper cooling, the machine’s service life would be drastically reduced). In the event you guess wrong, and the beans have finished roasting before the time expires under the programmed roasting profile, you can also manually stop heating and start cool-down mode.
Like most of these devices, you aren’t going to become an expert coffee roaster overnight, and it may take some experimentation and keeping a record of roasting times for certain bean types until you get things nailed down. The instruction manual, the Behmor website (http://www.behmor.com), and several Behmor distributor web pages give helpful advice on learning the ropes with this roaster. The manufacturer also stresses the need to develop a good ear to listen for the audible first and second ‘crack’ of the roasting beans as an aid to determining their progress in the roaster. Because you can’t just open the door and dump the beans, but must wait until the machine has finished its full cool-down period, you need to think ahead. Start the cool-down process a bit ahead of time to take into account the additional roasting that will occur for the first few minutes after the heating elements are turned off.
One situation not covered in my instruction manual was how to roast decaffeinated coffee beans. These beans produce less chaff than green beans, and usually need shorter roasting profile times. If you are roasting decaf, you might want to start off with times on the short end of the scale until you achieve the desired roast and color. I also was reminded of the need to adjust roasting profile times for beans of the same general origin, but different estates or crops. With one type of bean, I found I could start with 1/2 pound using the 1/2 pound setting, and still had time left on the display when I pushed the manual override to start the cooldown process. Other lots required more time.
Once you are done – UNPLUG THE MACHINE. It’s specified in the manual, probably to avoid damage from inadvertent use by youngsters, but other situations could conceivably arise - a power spike could kill the motherboard (if you don’t have surge protection), or the roaster could get doused with water if it happened to be sited too close to the kitchen sink.
Behmor stresses that the 1600 is designed to roast green coffee beans up to second ‘crack’ in order to achieve a maximum medium-dark (in the trade, known as Full City Plus) roast profile. Full City Plus is somewhere in between Full City and a French roast, often used by commercial roasters and large chains to hide impurities and faults in lesser grade green coffee beans. Since the vast majority of home roasters use quality coffees and desire lighter roasts to bring out all the flavors of the better beans, this limitation should not be an issue.
In some cases you may have to roast ½ pound at the full 1 lb. setting in order to achieve darker roasts. The Behmor 1600 is not intended or meant to roast coffee to extremely dark roasts such as Vienna, French, and Italian. In part this is inherent in the restrictions imposed by indoor roasting. If you ignore this warning and continue to roast much past the second ‘crack’, the beans will commence smoking, and the roaster will not be able to contain the volume of smoke produced. At this point smoke will begin to emerge through the front door of the roaster, and your spouse or significant other will also magically appear to discuss your new hobby with you in more (heated) detail. I will simply repeat that if your tastes lean to roasts darker than Full City Plus, you’re on your own, and you're going to need to roast outdoors or in the garage.
I freely admit that, although I don’t drink the darkest roasts, I inadvertently achieved them without difficulty while learning the ropes with the first two test batches! I've since gotten the hang of it, and have been very pleased with the roasted coffee produced by the Behmor.
Durability and Required Maintenance
UPDATE (3/1/10): Having owned the Behmor 1600 for eight months now, it's performed reliably for me so far, with no breakdowns or broken parts. The stainless drum and other internals are encouraging, and have held up flawlessly. The manufacturer specifies a cleaning regimen of brushing out the roaster with the (included) small bristle brush after each roast, and running a self-cleaning profile every five roasts in order to maintain the warranty and avoid premature failure. Periodically the interior of the machine should be wiped down (carefully, don’t slop liquid) with a bit of water-and-Simple Green solution to remove coffee varnish. I will keep using the roaster on a regular basis. At some point, probably within 2-3 years of use, I hope to pay for the machine’s cost via money saved on roasting (approximately $6/lb. for green estate coffees vs. $11/lb. for the roasted equivalent).
UPDATE (1/3/11): The Behmor is still going strong, no problems encountered, and I'm still enjoying home-roasting.
While by no means inexpensive, the Behmor 1600 offers a reasonable-cost alternative to those in need of a good quality home coffee roaster that can be safely used indoors if desired. For those who can't stomach low-quality commercial blends, and/or would like a wider variety of choices in quality coffee beans, it is an excellent solution, and has the potential to pay for itself in cost savings over time. My limited period of ownership (eight months) leads me to give it a qualified recommendation to others.
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