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How-To

Oak-Roasting Coffee in the Italian Tradition

Fine Cooking Issue 22
Photos: Karl Petzke
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“Oak enhances the flavor of coffee beans in a way that no other fuel can,” says Carlo DiRuocco of Mr. Espresso in Oakland, California. DiRuocco first learned the craft of roasting coffee and the importance of oak fuel when he was a young apprentice to a master roaster in Salerno, Italy.

Today, DiRuocco’s devotion to oak-roasted beans means a labor-intensive roasting process, but the result is coffee that’s rich and smooth without a trace of harsh acidity.

At Mr. Espresso, beans are roasted slowly, for as long as 24 minutes over a low oak fire. (Roasters typically heat their beans for a much shorter time—as little as eight minutes—at a much higher temperature.) The result is a medium-roast bean with more complexity and aroma and none of the harsh bitterness or burnt flavor of the fashionable dark roasts.

Carlo DiRuocco learned his trade as an apprentice to a master roaster in Salerno, Italy. Today, his oak-roasted coffee is some of the most sought-after in America.
“When you drink coffee, you should be able to hear all the beans talking to you,” says DiRuocco. He uses mostly low-acid Arabica beans from Central America and Africa. Each variety of the raw green beans is roasted separately to bring out its best characteristics.
Coffee’s flavor is born in fire. Before roasting, the raw beans have no identifiable coffee taste. Oak’s moist heat penetrates the beans slowly and evenly, enhancing their flavor in a way that heat from no other fuel can.
Hot beans fresh from the roaster whirl in the cooling tray and fill the room with an irresistible aroma. Many roasters use water to quicken the cooling process, but DiRuocco insists on air-cooling his beans. Although it takes more time, air-cooling allows the beans to develop their peak flavor.

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