Popping for coffee: Unconventional roasting with retiree, Stanley Sher

Friday, 3 November, 2023

Words by Ayanda Dlamini

In a world where coffee roasting has become a high-tech affair, there was a certain charm in discovering a master of the craft who has found a unique and humble tool for his passion. Meet Stanley Sher, a youthful 74 year old gentleman, who artfully uses a popcorn maker as a coffee beans roaster.

I had the privilege of entering the enchanting world of Stanley Sher, a retired art teacher whose home is nothing short of a masterpiece. I found his house to be a testament to his lifelong love for all things creative. Surrounded by lush greenery and an array of blooming flowers, his home was a serene oasis, as if nature itself had taken residence in his living room.

In an age when coffee connoisseurs are investing in specialised roasting equipment and sophisticated technology, Stanley’s choice of a simple popcorn maker as his roasting instrument, to me, is a reflection of his ingenuity and love for simplicity. His journey into coffee roasting is a beautiful demonstration of the idea that true craftsmanship transcends the boundaries of convention.

What inspired you to start roasting coffee beans in a popcorn maker? Can you take us through the initial idea and your journey to where you are now?

“Where it all really began, I was looking for a decaf bean which wasn't too darkly roasted. Which is surprisingly hard to find. So when I came across my son in law, who had experimented with roasting coffee in a popcorn maker. When I saw that, I thought this is what I’m after. It basically gave me control of how dark a decaf roast can be. So it was originally my way of creating a decaf roast that wasn’t that dark, because I didn’t like that. But of course, it’s now turned into more than that, where I roast more than just decaf. The other thing for me is being able to always have freshly roasted beans, I can put about 80 grams of greens at a time so it lasts a couple of days until I need to roast again.”

Can you walk me through your method ?

“Well my most regular thing to do would be to weigh 80 grams of green beans. With either a decaf coffee or what I’m most experienced with are Ethiopian green beans. Now it’s kind of evolved, my method now is experimental. Mixing beans and mixing decaf with caffeinated beans, grinding them together to have in a Moka pot, giving us the balance of both beans and their flavours. I find that the two seem to talk to each other. I quite like having a mix of decaf and caffeinated beans.”

Could you describe your process of roasting coffee in a popcorn maker, what do you keep consistent and what changes with every roast ?

“Basically when I have roasted into second crack I find that I’ve been disappointed in the result, the beans have gone too far. And when I under roast it, it hasn’t had enough umph. So I might have ended up with subtle lemony qualities but what I’m personally aiming for is more of a lemony- chocolate. I’ve learnt that, too brief won’t give me that chocolate flavour, and too long of a roast and I’ll lose that lemony and acidic quality. So generally I’m finding the sweet spot to be towards the end of the first crack, that’s kind of where I’m headed at the moment. But everyday really is different, it can also depend on the voltage I’m getting that day, first crack could take a minute or sometimes longer, it all really depends.

Especially in the coffee space, where methods/ techniques can be quite pedantic. How would you navigate a conversation with a potential skeptic of your method of roasting, or feelings of inferiority in comparison to industrial roasting ?

“I have no pretensions of coming up with a sophisticated roast. As I’ve suggested it can very much be a hit or miss method. For me there’s always been something special about rituals and processes, which in itself is an artistic thing. Doing things yourself, I find there’s a certain pleasure in creating things of your own. I mean, I make my own yoghurt, I have my own method of making yogurt, I roast my own coffee beans. Yeah it’s inherent, I enjoy making things myself. It’s not perfection that I’m striving for. One of the things student artists would say is “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it badly”. I think it’s really the willingness to make mistakes that turns into the most freeing and growing thing for people in the arts and crafts. And so I apply this into my roasting and coffee practice, which makes it okay for me to make mistakes.”

Stanley is one of those people you feel very glad to have met. His story reminds me of the enduring power of craftsmanship. Stanley’s delight in his coffee roasting ritual was infectious. With each batch, and with every story he shared with me, he seems to capture not just the essence of the coffee beans but the very spirit of the creative soul. It is a metaphor for his life – taking the ordinary, like a popcorn maker, and infusing it with artistry, creating something exceptional.

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