From Farm to Cup:
The Sandhill Coffee Roasting Process
- Erica Zazo -
Quality coffee depends on a quality roast. That’s why the Sandhill Coffee team takes great pride in our knowledge, experience and enjoyment of roasting beans in a way we know will make a lasting impression on our community of coffee lovers.
Sandhill Coffee owner Phil Wingo started roasting coffee in 2017 after a shift in jobs inspired him to start his own company. A lightbulb moment to launch his own coffee company and learn how to roast beans has now snowballed into a community-rooted coffee company that roasts beans sourced directly from farmers around the world and keeps sustainability top of mind.
Flash forward to today – you can find Phil heading to Brewpoint Cafe, a cafe and roastery in Elmuhrst, Illinois, to roast upwards of 250 pounds of coffee each and every week. On average Sandhill offers between five to nine types of coffees for sale online and at its mobile cafe – with medium, dark, and espresso roasts always on hand. Sandhill roasts nearly 5,000 pounds of coffee per year.
“It’s true when we say we always have the freshest coffee at our mobile cafe since we roast almost every week of the year,” says Phil as he swiftly poured a 5-gallon bucket of beans into the roaster.
“I love seeing the whole process – from sourcing the bean to roasting the coffee to delivering, hopefully, the best cup of coffee someone can have – all the way through. Coffee from different countries around the world can be very different. And each requires a unique approach to make it sing by bringing the flavors out in a way that best suits each coffee we roast.”
Our 4-Step Coffee Roasting Process
On late-Summer morning at Brewpoint Cafe, we joined Phil for a hands-on lesson on how he roasts Sandhill’s coffee beans. He walked us through the four-step process for roasting Sandhill’s light, medium and dark roast coffees – covering the pre-roast, roasting, cooling, and packaging stages from start to finish.
Step 1: Pre-Roast
Source the Beans – Before roasting, Sandhill Coffee sources beans from local farmers around the world, including Guatemala, Papua New Guinea, and Honduras – to name a few. Sandhill works with farmers who keep sustainability top-of-mind, who treat their workers fairly, and who produce the highest-quality beans possible.
Add Beans to Hopper – Upon arrival at the roasting facility, Phil adds the green beans in 15-pound increments (or a 5 gallon bucket full of beans) to the hopper. The beans sit in the hopper until the roasting machine has time to heat up.
Heat the Roasting Machine – Sandhill first heats the machine to 445 degrees Fahrenheit before adding the beans into the roasting drum. The temperature of the drum drops significantly once you add the beans, so it’s important to bring the roaster up to this high temperature to successfully roast the beans.
Step 2: Roast
Drop the Beans into the Roaster – After the roaster reaches the optimal temperature, we add the beans to the roaster – and start the process to roast them to their proper roast.
Roast the Beans – A nearly endless list of combinations of levels of roasts (light, medium, and dark) and variety of coffee (where in the world the bean is grown or sourced) are possible when roasting. And each style of Sandhill Coffee requires a different temperature of roast and length of time for roasting. The roasting process typically takes 10-15 minutes depending on the weight of the beans and the style of roast (i.e. light, medium, or dark).
Once the roast has started, we’ll continue to adjust the temperature of the roaster – turning down the strength of the roaster as needed – to avoid burning the bean.
Phil says, “Similar to steak, you don’t want to sear the outside with high heat. Instead, you want the whole bean to cook through at first, as to not roast (or possibly burn) the outside of the bean.”
More dense beans, like Sandhill’s Kula Peaberry, for example, sits in the roaster with no heat to “warm up the bean” before bringing it up to full roasting temp. Darker roasts, like Dark Side of the Loon espresso blend, roasts longer and at higher temperatures. Lighter to medium roasts, like San Miguel, roast for a shorter time and end at lower temperatures.
Listen for the “First Crack” – You will start to hear a sound of a crack around the 10 minute mark (on average). This is the “first crack” and it signals that coffee is ready and has reached its lightest stage of roast. During the roasting process, the coffee beans will start to expand as the natural sugars inside the coffee beans expand and help “unlock” the flavor profile of the beans. The pop you hear is the bean popping, which sounds like popcorn popping.
Continue to Roast as Needed – After the “first crack,” the beans continue to roast into the “development” stage. During this stage of roast, beans will reach medium roast levels and eventually reach the “second crack.” The sound of a second crack which happens, on average, around the 15 minute mark, signals the beans are at the dark roast level.
Throughout the roasting process, it’s important that the roaster checks the sample roast tray. This is a small tube that sticks into the roasting drum and pulls out a small sample of beans so that the roaster can see the roasting profile (color, smell, and temperature) of the bean throughout the process. This helps the roaster determine if and when the beans are ready to come out of the roaster – or if they need to adjust the temperature of the roaster accordingly.
Turn on the Fan – It’s time to turn on a fan at the base of the roaster once the beans are roasted to their desired level. This fan helps pull air down through the cooling tray to help efficiently drop the temperature of the beans.
Drop Beans into Cooling Tray – A small door on the front of the roaster opens up to drop the beans into the cooling tray. A blade spins the beans periodically to add aeration and aide the cooling process. The cooling process takes about five minutes, and once the beans are cool to the touch, the process is complete.
Step 4: Packaging and Sales
Bag the Beans – The standard 15 pounds of coffee (per 5 gallon bucket) that Sandhill roasts for each batch of coffee yields around 20 12oz coffee bags. The beans are brought to the Sandhill Mobile Cafe for packaging and labeling.
Selling the Coffee – Sandhill sells upwards of five to nine types of coffee year-round online, at the mobile cafe, and at local retail stores around the Chicagoland area. Beans are shipped off for online orders weekly or brought to various farmers markets, events, and local shopping districts for the community to buy in person.
Storage – After purchase, Sandhill Coffee recommends storing your beans in a bag or jar at room temperature (out of the sunlight). You do not need to freeze your beans unless you’re not going to be using them for months at a time.