Don Francis is a true coffee aficionado. His home in Lyons is a coffee mecca, and he a scientist, working through the art of getting that perfect cup o’ joe.
Francis has experimented with around 50 coffee varieties from around 20 countries.
Upon retirement, Francis says his love for coffee could easily materialize into a more time-consuming venture. He’s already exploring future ideas to market his own coffee roasts and blends for locals and internet shoppers to enjoy.
When he gets into a coffee-making experiment, he says he becomes absorbed in the process until it’s complete. And through his passionate experiments have come a true understanding of the intricate details to get the coffee just right. Here’s a spotlight on how he does it.
Coffee as rich as gold
Francis finds coffee varieties from all over the world to try. Some are valued as high as precious gems. He recently purchased Gesha variety coffee for $28 per pound. On auction, he said the coffee sells for $500 per pound.
A Vietnamese favorite of his, Trung Nguyen, comes in a package made for a king. With golden coffee bags contained in a box within another box, Francis said, “It’s like buying jewelry. I haven’t thrown the box away because it’s so cool.”
The beginning of a coffee obsession
The grand coffee experiment started around four or five years ago. Francis read a newspaper article about people who were roasting their own coffee beans.
“That kind of intrigued me,” he said. Not long after, he joined a dinner party with his son, Casey, in Quincy, Ill. Francis met a science professor who was roasting his own coffee beans. Francis said he “took me under his wing” in showing him a website to buy his own beans and giving Francis half-pint jars of different coffees to try.
Intrigued to learn more, Francis set off on a journey to try roasting his own coffee.
Roasting the beans
Once at his home in Lyons, Francis began experimenting with his own coffee beans. He’s jimmy-rigged different devices to roast the coffee beans to just the right flavor.
One such roaster was developed from a corn popper. He slowly places the beans at the bottom of the air popper once it’s hot. Within the first minute, a chaff-like shell blows off the bean and out of the popper. An aroma reminiscent of roasted peanuts hits the air. Then comes the noise.
When the beans are hot enough, they make a popping noise. Hearing a first “pop” signifies the beans are roasted enough to use for coffee, though Francis waits until a second pop happens, allowing the beans more time to roast.
“The second pop is more like a crack, like Rice Krispies,” he said. Once that happens, it’s time to cool the beans fast. The trick is to get them roasted to just the right point and then cooled immediately so as not to ruin the flavor.
“When you go to all the trouble to get it just perfect, you want to stop it so it doesn’t go any further,” he said.
To stop the roast, Francis quickly tosses the fiery hot beans into a colander-like tray and places it directly on top of a box fan aimed for the ceiling. With the fan on high, he’s able to cool the beans down to room temperature in around 90 seconds.
Using the popcorn popper only allowed the beans to be roasted in small quantities. To move up to a larger scale production, Francis’ developed an outdoor roaster made from a propane-fueled wok. He uses a hair dryer to blow away the chaff while stirring the beans with a large wooden spoon. A laser thermometer assists him in getting split-second temperature readings so he can start cooling the beans at just the right time.
Tools of the trade
After roasting, the next step to a perfect caffeine drink is in the steep. Francis has a wide variety of filters and presses to obtain that magic cup. One such tool is his trusted French press. When using that, “you get the best flavor,” he said.
A moka pot, what Don refers to as “an upside down percolator,” works a bit like a pressure canner. Shaped like a teapot with an airtight container underneath, Francis says, “It looks like it might explode like a bomb.” He said it makes a good “poor man’s espresso.”
“Coffee snobs say you should consume your coffee within 20 minutes of brewing,” Francis said with a laugh. He did say there was some truth to that and explained that when he keeps brewed coffee in a thermos, it never tastes as good as the first cup. Now, he’s come up with a system to preserve the flavor from the first cup until the last drop: cold brewing. Using boiling water can be too hot to brew coffee with, he explained. He often uses water temperatures of 190 to 200 degrees.
“I found out by making it cooler, it helps maintain the same level (of flavor last longer),” he said.
Sharing a cup
Through an effort of labor and love, Francis makes every coffee sip a unique experience. And in his future retirement, he may be producing coffee blends for many to enjoy.
Look no farther than Lyons to have a perfect
cup of coffee. Don Francis is the official “coffee aficionado next door.”