It’ll never happen to you, right?

Annabell Ramirez said it all started with a small fire in a coffee-bean roaster. She said she tried to put it out, but the glass shattered and the fire spread quickly.

“Before I knew it, flames were coming out of the window…”

Whether you’ve got the latest in commercially-available coffee roasters, or your own, custom-built rig, it’s important to remember that when you’re roasting coffee, you’re playing with fire. Every professional roaster I know has a story to tell about either a full-on roaster fire, or a damn close call. Every. Single. One. It’s only a matter of time.

Here’s my top five tips for home-roasting fire safety.

  • 1) Get a fire extinguisher. Even if you never roasted coffee, a fire extinguisher is the best insurance you can buy for less than 20 bucks. If you’re a coffee roaster, it may just be your best friend. Choose a fire extinguisher intended for kitchen or garage use… more specifically, a dry chemical model that’s rated for oil, electrical and wood fires.
  • 2) Mount that extinguisher near your roaster. Note that I don’t say *above* your roaster, but *near* it. You’ll want to be able to grab that extinguisher without having to reach over a burning roaster. Better still, get two, and place one near, and one on the other side of the room. (While I’m not exactly paranoid, I have three extinguishers strategically located in my garage where I do most of my roasting.)
  • 3) Never leave your coffee roasting unattended. Never — ever! — walk away with a roast in progress. I’ll admit it… I used to have a laissez faire attitude toward roasting. I’d start a roast and wander off to do other things for 10 or 15 minutes while the roast progressed. I got an attitude adjustment one day when roasting a batch of Yemen coffee — a batch that had some odd-sized and curiously-shaped beans — some of which wedged between the seams and completely jammed up the drum in my roaster. I was lucky. I was just the other side of the garage when I heard the jam occur. If I hadn’t been on the scene it may have been only a matter of moments before those beans — no longer happily tumbling — burst into flame.
  • 4) A clean roaster is a happy roaster. Not only does a clean coffee roaster do it’s job more efficiently, it’s also far, far safer. No matter what kind of roaster you have, regularly clean-up the chaff — the papery skin that’s released by roasting coffee beans. I clean chaff from my roaster between each and every roast. Bonus tip: Don’t vacuum chaff out of a hot roaster! Smoldering bits of chaff that would probably be of no consequence at all left in your roaster until it cools could ignite in dramatic fashion should you fuel them with a lot of wind. While your roaster can probably take the heat, chances are your shop-vac won’t.
  • 5) Don’t disable your home smoke-alarm just because your coffee roasting sets it off. Get better ventilation, roast outdoors, or just learn to enjoy the occasional test of your smoke alarm. That way you can rest assured it’ll be there if you need it.

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