Historically, when discussing coffee in America, we would first talk about the roast level. From there, we may theorize about what makes one roast level distinctive from the other or simply say "I'll take the dark roast." For a multitude of reasons, this is no longer the gauge by which good coffee is studied. In this blog post and a series of blog posts to come, we will explore some of the more commonly used and misused terms in the coffee lexicon.
The map of coffee in America traditionally referred to various states along a spectrum of roast levels. From light, to full city, to French Roast, the entire taxonomy of coffee was classified primarily based on an outside looking in approach. We talked about coffee based on how it looked. Over the last ten years, the paradigm has dramatically shifted in the industry and coffee now empowers an inside looking out discussion. We talk about coffee in terms of geography, varietal, process, and even family. The difference in the two methods is phenomenological vs. genealogical. Interestingly, the coffee industry has moved from a manufacturing discussion towards an ecological discussion. This change emerged because of increased access to information within the roasting industry about where the coffee originates.
What has consistently worked to make change in any field, is access to information.
The "dark roast" is a relic of the dark-ages of coffee. It should be retired from our coffee lexicon. Essentially "dark-roasting" was a tool for covering up a lack of information and the defects that came along with it. Roasters ten years ago simply didn't have reliable access to information on where coffee was coming from. The important genealogical traits of green coffee were not made as readily available as they are for roasters today. Ten years ago, roasters were covering up what they did not know.
Coffee roasting technology has also improved. Roasters today use machines designed with greater efficiency and specificity. Heat can be applied and removed with far greater control on newer roasters. Processing technology at the lands of origin have improved as well by yielding coffees with fewer defects, cleaner and sweet flavor profiles, and more consistency from season to season.
By having all of the roasted coffee taste the same (bitter, bold, heavy), companies like Starbucks during the late 90's and early years of the new millennium were able to capitalize on the easy to replicate dark roast. The dark roast's massive dissemination via Starbucks (and others) deeply influenced how we consider coffee. An entire generation of coffee drinkers expresses a belief that a dark roast equals superior quality.
In truth, a dark roast equals superior quality only when the function of the roast is to mask poor quality coffee. Thankfully, where we stand today, there is more great coffee available for roasters to work with and a great deal of information for them to appreciate and nurture.
When coffee is 'over-roasted' (see image) this is registered as a roast-defect, because it obscures the intrinsic quality of the raw bean produced by grower and processor. By 'over-roasted' we mean to say that the coffee has been roasted both too long and at temperatures that are too high. The longer you roast a coffee and the higher the roaster allows the temperature of the bean to achieve, the darker it becomes. If a roaster were to allow a coffee to continue roasting too long, the beans would be engulfed in flames. Tasting the darkest roast possible before it got to this fiery inferno is in brash terms akin to drinking out of an ashtray. The only way to palate this cup would be to add ample amounts of cream and sugar.
Interestingly, the majority of American coffee consumers operate under the belief that the darkest roast is the best tasting coffee. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Our taste buds are naturally inclined to prefer a well rounded, sweet and clean presentation of coffee rather than a bitter and ashy presentation of coffee. The question then becomes, how did we get to this point? Simply put, for many years, roasters did not have the access to information and technology they needed to do a good job of what might be poorly categorized as "light or medium" roasting. Along with the rest of the modern world, the post-industrial technological revolution of the past twenty years has empowered coffee roasters to begin to access some of coffee’s true inherent and characteristic flavor. “Terroir” if you will. A mere ten years ago it was a source of pride for specialty roasters to acknowledge that a coffee was from a particular country, now industry leaders realize that we must identify and show respect to farmer specific lots in order to truly grow the specialty coffee industry.
The dark roast is a product of the dark ages of coffee. It is used to cloak coffee that is grown and processed in such a defective manner that the only way to override the lack of quality is to over-roast the beans. The only time to roast coffee dark is when the green coffee quality is so bad that it's the only way to go. Even then, you might want to rethink what you are doing. Just remember: its not you, its coffee...things have changed between the two of you. The future is looking bright.
Our roasting department at 1000 Faces is made up of Alex Reubert, Sammi Eubanks, and Neal Warner. The three work in tandem to monitor green quality, communicate information, and develop roast profiles which maximize the coffee's intrinsic values.