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Why light roasts truly are better
By Clint Latham – Get Free updates of new posts here
You roll into your local Green Mermaid coffee chain and amongst the sea of darker coffees you see the loan wolf, the black sheep, the odd ball…. the blonde roast. Starbucks performed a taste test some years ago where they roasted one of their coffees in a manner of different degrees. The results; 42% of their customers liked the lighter roast.
A question came in the other day as to why coffees in “Specialty Coffee” shops are roasted so much lighter than traditional coffees?
History of Coffee
To understand the dark roast we need to understand the history of coffee in general. Throughout the 60’s and up til the late 80’s coffee was going through a huge boom and resulted in the commoditization of coffee. For roasters sourcing coffee was not an easy task and producers were getting paid on weight not quality. Thus roasters were left with a hodge podge mix of coffee from ripe with un-ripe cherries combined with mold, mildew and bug defects. Whats the best way to even the flavor profile of such a wild lot? Roasting darker.
In 1974 Erna Knusten coined the term “Specialty Coffee”. Knutsen used this term to describe beans of the best flavor which are produced in a special microclimate. Now coffee professionals are seeing that coffees from different regions and microclimates can produce wildly different cups. Even today there is a huge trend in roasters looking for more specific varietals from certain microclimates like bourbon, gesha, typica etc. However, coffee drinkers were used to a dark ashy roasted flavor that we were so used to with commodity coffees. Enter the Green Mermaid.
We have to give the Mermaid credit, she really saw an importance in quality over quantity in her earlier years. As such she swam down to Central America and started developing partnerships with producers to start producing higher quality coffees and we entered the age of direct trade.
The mermaid started roasting coffees in a manner that combined the characteristics of a certain microclimate to that of a roast profile or roasted flavor. Now you are starting to see some nuances in the coffee but it still retains that predominate roasty flavor. Then we enter the new wave of coffee that we are seeing today, the 3rd wave. Where roasters are working directly with producers to find the best varietal for the combination of soils and climate of the producers farm.
Why lighter truly is better
With producers around the world working to create better and better coffees. Roasters are finding that roasting to a lighter degree enhances the complexity and natural sweetness of the coffee. We also see that to a large degree that we can now taste the vast differences in coffees from different regions of the world.
Jeremy of Four Barrel coffee states; “When it is dark, you taste charcoal, the same charcoal that’s on a piece of toast. We’re trying to show you the reasons why you bought the coffee; by light roasting and letting subtle flavors emerge”
After the internal bean temperature reaches 465 degrees this is when the characteristics of the roast overrule the characteristics of the microclimate and origin. Roasters spend a lot of time sourcing to find the best coffees to feature in their cafe’s and a lot of them take great pride in the coffees they offer. Thus they will keep the roast to a degree less than this 465 degree mark.
I feel that once a consumer tries a lighter roasted high quality coffee it will change their minds on coffee forever. One of my favorite things about working in the coffee industry was when a new person to speciality coffee says to you; “Wow that’s the first time in my life I could drink this black.” In my direct experience lighter roasts have given the average consumer a cup of coffee that’s perceived as “bitter free”. (I know all about the great bitterness debate so we wont get into that now). This is not to say that some consumers prefer coffees that predominately taste roasty. In my personal retail experience that preference was about a 1 out of every 10 consumers preferring traditional dark roasts.
There are a lot of acids within coffee and those acids help to create the coffee’s complexity and sweetness. Yes sweetness. You have malic acids, that give you notes of pear and apple. You have citric acids, that gives you notes of orange and citrus. Tartaric acids, that give you notes of grape or wine. And thats just to name a few.
What we do know is that prolonged exposure to heat breaks down these acids and reduces their presence in the cup. As such certain acids are developed in higher concentrations in certain microclimates helping to create the distinct notes in single origin coffees. By roasting the coffee lighter you enhance these acids rather than degrading them. Now combine that acidity with the natural occurring sugars in coffee and you get a coffee that has strong notes of apple, orange or stone fruit.
We also know that coffee’s chemical composition is very similar to wood. Therefor as the roast reaches a degree of acid degradation, full caramelization of the sugars and the carbonization of the bean you start to get bitter ashy notes in the cup. Or that woody burnt flavor.
Whats the best way to cook a steak? A majority of the best chefs in the world will tell you medium-rare. But not everyone loves medium rare. The same goes for coffee. In my humble opinion lighter roasts are like medium rare. It allows the quality ingredient speak for itself. However there are those that just love a well done steak regardless of the steak’s quality. As such I think there will always be a place for darker roasts.
I also feel coffee is in the stage wine was hundreds of years ago. Wine makers used to ferment grape juice just to create alcohol. Much like coffee was just a way for us to get our morning caffeine fix. Now wine makers take great pride in their vines, the soils, the yeasts and storage processes to produce some of the worlds most sought after wines. Coffee producers and roasters are now cresting that wave. Working to refine every stage of coffee production and lighter roasting is just another refinement and advancement in coffee.
Tell me what do you prefer? Lighter roasts or darker roasts? Leave a comment below.