You roast too dark

There it is. One of the most often thought, but least often spoken things in coffee.  It is unsaid because it is a phenomenally self righteous thing to say, because it assumes a correct roasting degree.  Roasting too dark is roasting badly.  “Darker than what?” you may well ask, and this is something that has been on my mind for a while now.

We’ve all at some point cupped a coffee and wondered why on earth the roaster has taken to such a high end temperature – surely, when they cup it, they taste that the flavour is utterly dominated by roast notes. “Why”, you think “would they do that?!”

Usually we can dismiss the very dark roasted stuff under the idea of “They are just trying to cover up the flaws in their low quality coffee by roasting so dark that any negative flavour/defect is turned into charcoal.”  More recently though I’ve come to think that given a certain period of time you pretty much stop noticing a group of flavours, resultant from roast rather than being an intrinsic flavour to the bean.  These flavours may be the result of very light roasting, through to very dark roasting.

I remember reading a comment online from someone who worked at a roastery in the US remarking that they roasted in a way that resulted in absolutely no bitterness.  I can see their point – I often taste coffees where I don’t really perceive bitterness unless I think about it.  Yet all coffee is to some extent bitter – caffeine is a bitter tasting compound, as are many other resulting from maillard reactions etc.  The coffee simply fell below the level of bitterness that was habitual and therefore was ignored.  If you’re reading this then you’ve probably recently had coffee where you didn’t notice any bitterness at all.

We talk about how complex coffee is – from an aromatic and chemical point of view.  These 800-1000 near mythical flavours that have been idenitified (across the entire range of coffee I should add, rather than in a single cup) are brought out as a statistic to brag to the wine people about.

Chances are that we can’t possible perceive everything there is to perceive, so we look for what is interesting – we look for what is new.  My thought is that if you roast to a certain depth/degree/temperature regularly then there will often be a very similar group of flavours.  This will come to be ignored.  What I am thinking is that that group of flavours is very much learned, and continues to be malleable – depending on what you regularly drink and cup.

For me there are bags of coffee that we taste over the course of a year that have noticeable roast notes to me, and there are also many that have a certain grassiness to me. 1

With the super light roasts I think that some flavours become habitual, just like with darker roasts. I am not sure at what point one flips. I don’t know where “the consumer” has its preference, if indeed it does at all.

I should probably add a couple of links here. Peter Giuliano’s comment from an earlier post 2 and a blog post that Chris Tacy posted earlier covering similar ground in a much more concise fashion.

  1. For want of a better word!  I should probably state now that the whole development in roasting thing is something for another blog post, probably one where I ask a lot of questions….  ↩︎
  2. every time I link to a comment of Peter’s – and it is pretty often – I think he really ought to have a blog….  ↩︎

24 Comments

  1. This is why I believe you have to experience what others are doing in order to improve your own.

    I like the new theme!

  2. Funnily, I’ve been planning of writing a post about the same subject but you did it first and – most likely – better.

    So you conclude or think that every roaster has his/her characteristic way of roasting (and I think everyone has) that appears in (nearly) all coffees because of unconsciously ignoring certain flavour group(s)?

    For example, let’s say one roasts always until second crack, fairly dark that is. At this stage there would certainly be some roast notes and usually noticeable bitterness present in coffee but these would be ignored in search of something new. That’s a very interesting thought indeed and might explain some things I’ve been wondering.

  3. I worked for Starbucks for several years, ending several years ago. During this time I of course drank a lot of their coffee. New employees were to maintain a “coffee passport” with tasting notes of every coffee they tried (generally brewed in a press). I remember being able to pick out many distinct flavours at the time. After I quite Starbucks I went on to work somewhere that tended to roast their coffees to a far lighter level. Once or twice in a fix I picked up a bag of Starbucks coffee, and was always greatly disappointed with it. I realized that, when drinking dark roasts frequently I learned to taste and pick up flavours beyond the roast, but once I stopped drinking darks, I pretty quickly lost that ability. And of course now when I drink a dark all I can taste is carbon and ash.

    Likewise I know people who put cream or sweetener in their coffee who can taste many more aspects of the flavour than I could if I prepared my coffee likewise.

    At my last job, a customer returned a bag of Aricha because it “didn’t taste like coffee”, he just couldn’t get used to what to him were very odd flavours, and when I talked to him he revealed that he typically bought dark roast blends. He was convinced that something was “wrong” with the coffee. We tried some of his bag later to make sure that it was in fact okay, and it was.

    You mention that we get desensitized to certain flavours imparted by certain roast profiles, but it’s also interesting to see how quickly we know when they are lacking. Especially among those who likely don’t even give much thought to the flavours.

    In my area, this is a big deal for customers, cafes, and roasters. Most people here have had their palates “calibrated” if you will, by Starbucks and numerous copycats, to the extent that they associate roast flavours with quality. If those flavours aren’t present they are seriously put off, whether it be a drip coffee or an espresso. Often if you have a chance to really talk to many of them about roast levels, and about the flavours thatare present or destroyed because of the roast, they are quite receptive to trying something new.

  4. Dear sir,
    I remember from a workshop I did with David Schomer in London at caffe culture he spoke about light and darker roasts. His (vivace) roast is fairly light he call’s it a “Noble” roast. And so retaining more of the flavour profile. The debate ended with the conclusion that darker roast are more forgiving on the Barista I.E. Easyer to grind, tamp, extract…
    the lighter roast are more delicate and thus require more “Barista” experience I.E. Training(costs) more sensitive to altitude, moist, water quality and temperature….

    Keep up the good work!
    Greeting from the Netherlands
    @frisoVDMei

  5. Agreed with Mike. It absolutely must be part of your QC regiment to be tasting other’s coffees as much as possible. All the companies I know of that have this built into their schedule are stronger for it…

  6. I agree with the idea of habituation to some extent but I beleive we all have preferences as well.

    I am an avid consumer of coffee from a multitude of different roasters and I definitely have my preferences. These preferences have been formed over time. I wonder if I have developed an overall baseline by which I judge a coffee to be “too dark” or “too light”? I don’t know. I do know I have preferences and I think that I have tasted coffees that I believe rest on either end of the spectrum and that I think I know where on that spectrum my preferences lie. Having said that, having never has coffee from any other roaster besides [dark roasting practitioner who will remain nameless] for some time, getting coffee from those that roasted in a lighter style was a revelation. Afterwards, after having coffee from a roaster who roasted in that lighter style for some time, I had coffee from another roaster who roasted even lighter and, booom, another revelation.

    I guess my point is that much of what we say is good or bad is certainly relative but I believe there are limits, that there are high and low points at the ends of the spectrum that, once crossed, most would agree that one has gone too far (Starbucks and the recent news that they are going to creating drinks based on ground green coffee, for instance).

    Maybe memory plays its part here as well.

    I hope that all made sense.

  7. Just one more thing.

    I have, for some time, been convinced that it was basically the roaster’s job to not ruin a coffee, that there were flavor compounds in each bean that it was the roaster’s job to bring out and not to mess up. Light, dark, medium. Isn’t this all moot if what roasters are actually supposed to do is to make sure that each bean meets its potential in the cup?

  8. This is a discussion that truly requires a longer post. Looking forward to it.

  9. Regarding what the consumer prefers, I’d say the consumer prefers what it perceives as best. Those in the most ignorant of communities perceive a good percolated cup of Folgers to be the best there is. For another group, a Starbucks latte.

    But, for those few of us who make this fruit an obsession, isn’t there a preference toward lighter roasts? It seems in my experience that the more coffee that one drinks, and the better quality that coffee is (another discussion entirely), the lighter the coffee preferred becomes.

    So, is it fair to say then that the most affluent of those that drink coffee, the obsessors like us, prefer what is most interesting- perhaps what is best- lighter roasted coffee? I know not all coffee performs best as lighter roasts, but on average can this be accepted?

    Just thoughts.

  10. Where does brew method and drink type fit into this though?

    A good roast for cupping or filter will possibly not work well with an espresso based 8 ounce milk coffee.

    We’ve got an ethiopian yirg on tomorrow as a single origin in the 2nd grinder. In a way it’s a bad choice as it’s “too dark” (not my choice as we aren’t roasting) for filter i.m.o. and won’t hold it’s own as an espresso base for a milk drink in anything bigger than 90ml-ish. I’d rather have it lighter and only serve it as filter. In this regard it is “too dark”.

    Take an indonesian aceh to the same level. And make it the base of a blend for espresso and it will be perfect for it’s job, and I wouldn’t say it’s “too dark”.

    I don’t think it’s as easy as saying “you roast too dark”. But it’s probably fair to say that a lot of roasters roast too dark for certain origins/brew methods/drink tpyes. Or just plain don’t think enough.

  11. A post up there says this topic needs a much longer post and I’m inclined to agree. You’ve gone for a big controversial title and then under-discussed the whole issue.

    D minus fella.

  12. @Steve

    I would disagree – this post is not about roast development, nor “correct” roast degree.

    It is about the disconnection between those of us in the coffee industry who could well be perceiving different levels of roast in coffees we’ve roasted, or other companies have.

    Rick’s comment above (rightly rated highly) is entirely on point as a response – I want to discuss our sense of taste and not roasting theory.

    As I said above – roasting theory definitely warrants some discussion, and length discussion at that. This isn’t the post for that.

  13. Cool, a post about others roasting too dark looks to me like a discussion of roasting theory, I think I found it rather ambiguous.

  14. You are definately on to something James. I know I get habituated to the flavours in the coffee we roast, simply because it is the coffee I am drinking 80-90% of the time. I spent three months in the US this year and drank all kinds of good and bad coffee at different roast levels and I’m sure it shocked me into tasting ‘more’ than I would otherwise.

    It was equally revelatory to taste our own coffee again upon return which actually tasted significantly better than I expected. I enjoyed it more in that first week back than ever. Go figure. Does drinking the same thing repeatedly make it blander? Palatte fatigue?

  15. Also interesting to note, that after months of putting up with the over roasted, underextracted liquid that generally passes for espresso around these parts, i’ve been much more tolerant of coffee that I would have never finished drinking when I lived in Vancouver. Mediocre has become passable for me. Now though, when I do get a terrific coffee, it tastes extra terrific, and is extra special because of how rare the experience is and how I get flavours I rarely experience anymore.

  16. Interesting post. I often remark/lament to my coworkers (at the cafe where I work) about how many people, when offered a choice of our house blend or the current single origin offering of the month, reply simply “whatever’s darker,” or some variation of that. Both roasts are usually similar and in the full-city range; it seems that the general discretion for average or apathetic drinkers is roast level. I’m often surprised how some folks really don’t care what the cupping notes say about hints of meyer lemon, ginger, or cacao nibs, etc.

    Fortunately, there are enough people who do appreciate an opportunity to learn something about altitude, region, seasonality, washing process, or countless other factors that affect the cup (brew method and roast character aside). They’re the ones who will try a new origin every time they come in.

    Also, Peter G’s earlier post you linked to blew my mind- I hadn’t considered food pairings with select coffee much at all before, though so many wine labels suggest this same thing, and for good reason.

    The info regarding habituation and adaptation is really fantastic; the first time a tried a truly fruit-bomb Kenyan coffee (that was also a lighter roast than other coffees I had been drinking), it was such a memorable experience and a gateway to new territories and palates in coffee I hadn’t explored. If the people are used to having to “grin and bear it” through their usual bitter cup, then it’s understandable why they wouldn’t want to branch out.

    Anyway- thanks! Excellent blog!

  17. I’ve been reading this discussion since it started. I’ve re-read again and again. The findings still do not get my mind and may have to resort to another way of looking at the issue or establish what are the relevant views into account.

    I think the coffee has followed a separate but very close to the wine. In wine we have a not insignificant number of varieties and turned respectable.
    You can always see the quality of wine from the standpoint of the consumer, Winemaker / Sommelier and producer of wine. They may consider the quality of wine according to various parameters and these three groups often do not match.
    Winemakers will focus on the organoleptic qualities as the foundation of its creation, the years in oak barrels to achieve these aromas and precise methods to extract the maximum possible drink.
    Wine producers want to maximize their harvest, promote their qualities and in many cases if your wine will allow it, the same quality seen by the Sommelier and wine experts.
    Customers and consumers are the most difficult to serve because their views will depend on the group to which they belong. Connoisseurs could be differentiated, hobbyists, and ignorant (not that be pejorative). Connoisseurs will be educated people for whom experimentation and knowledge will nourish your opinion constantly. Such as with you (coffee sommelier), will study and follow up on quotes, references and conclusions. They will understand the enzymatic aroma of coffee roasting obtained mostly with mild and correspond to the more fragrance than other flavorings (most volatile molecules) and that is the type of grain, density, proper preparation, the type of soil, or terroir, which will determine not only these properties but the aromas of caramelization and those from dry distillation. Know that they are the ones to achieve the medium roast notes that exploit these three sources of flavorings, there are many that can be roasted coffees and to achieve strong Pinos, medicines, ashes, tobacco, bitter chocolate and few people succeed with the proper toasting provide you with roses, nuts, herbs, fruits and vanilla. If not precisely roasted and delivered passes certain limits common aromas in all pubs and inelegant. In conclusion respecting certain limits know that can taste coffee with special characteristics.
    Fans will be more permissive but also go exploring and testing experts cafes that offer them, hand in hand for a good explanation.
    The rest of consumers will like to move where most go, where common brands of coffee or wine tell them to go, take, drink, give them status.
    So if my better-educated James and company will allow me, I would conclude: “Only by educating the customer, being strict in the opinion of the best qualities in the best coffee by roasting, is that the discussion on that corresponds roasting makes sense. “,” and best qualities will be those considered most desirable coffee connoisseurs, the tasters and baristas trained to make coffee and not desirable ordinary. ”
    Therefore as in the wine, that wine may be better depending on who drink it. Still, for better or worse considering a wine parameters have been established based on expert opinion provided to assess the quality of coffee. If the majority believes understood as good coffee, is that opinion should be taken to achieve set these parameters.

    Please excuse my English and I would like to express my congratulations to this forum, I love it.
    Regards
    Mario Carvajal Juan Bou
    Chile

  18. Recently I cupped 5 or 6 of our coffees with a cafe manager. After tasting all of them, he commented on how they all had a certain “style.” It was surprising to me, as they all followed relatively different profiles, and ran the gamut from a lightly roasted washed sidamo to a darker sumatra. I do use an odd/distinctive roaster/process, but beyond this, I had never really thought of producing a roasting “style.” As has been stated above, I think of myself as simply trying to bring out the inherent attributes of a coffee; I’m just a conduit for showcasing someone else’s work and skill. I suppose in actuality this is impossible. As responses on this thread highlight, it’s funny how familiarity enables you hone in on some things, while making other stuff harder to pick up.

  19. I’m a bit of a newbie to the specialty coffee world, but I believe there is a place for darker roasts (not to the Starbucks level though…). The level of roast can help accentuate different flavour profiles from the bean that you may not get from a lighter roast, which is sometimes what I am looking for.

    Generally, I have been drinking brighter, lighter roasted coffees, but sometimes a little variety is nice. Sometimes this is just for the sake of variety, and sometimes this depends on the situation. In this instance, I would compare it to pairing wine with food (or wines that are good without food).

    For example, I would find a slightly darker roast may go better with a chocolate dessert or a hearty breakfst (although I usually prefer them later in the day). In contrast, this morning I had a Brazilian Daterra Reserve that was roasted a little darker than I have been drinking lately (since I was out of other coffees) and it jarred a little with the tartness of the fresh mulberries I had on my cereal.

    Matching these is a bit like matching the acidity and sweetness levels of a wine with the food you are eating. While many of us may have prefered grape varieties or wine styles, they are not suited for every situation.

  20. Ben,

    while I completely agree with you that a successful qc program should include the tasting of other companies’ coffee, I struggle to think that that actually helps us experience what they are doing. I would go as far as saying that barely gives us a glimpse of what they are doing. I certainly agree that it is of benefit to a roasted qc program, because it gives you a small example of what consumers are seeing from other folks around town and the world,and after all, it is the consumer we have to please.

    In order to experience what others are doing there needs to be an examination far greater than taste (e.g. roast specs, type of roaster, rate of cooling, do they have a sticky drum door that creates a few seconds more of suffocating heat and smoke build-up), though (and I agree) it is a great and necessary place to start.

    fwiw,
    jc

  21. Oh God, I hope I wasn’t the idiot that claimed to “roast in a way that resulted in absolutely no bitterness.” I am occasionally given to ridiculous empirical statements!

  22. Have you every tried roasting coffee in a wok, It might be the most balanced coffee you can get, the roast is so un-even that you get a broad spectrum of the flavours of lighter and dark roasted coffees. Because the outer edge of the bean over heats when its continually moved. Sure I don’t want to burn burn the beans, but I’ve learnt not too try so hard in not letting them scorch abit. Starbucks always get bashed, I usually complain about cafe’s like them using really dark beans you don’t get very much flavour, the whole reason is that it flows much better with how there business works. They can use higher temperature, for instance use say an HX and not upset the flavour of the extracted coffee and keep milk steaming output. Most of the drinks are orientated to have some kind of sugar add. sugar added to an intrinsically acidic espresso tastes more horrible than sugar added to a bitter coffee.

    It shouldn’t really be about what level we should stop roasting at, the key is that its all about flavour in the end. If this might require us to roast dark, then roast dark. The reason we do say its been roasted too dark is because we’ve lost the flavour that is there in lighter roasts, we’ve usually not gained any desirable flavours from really dark roasting.

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