Lightness and Darkness in Roasting

Roasting coffee is, put kindly, a fickle affair. On a good day it feels like chasing a dropped piece of paper in the wind. On a bad day it feels both impossible and unknowable.

In recent years roast degree has become imbued with a kind of morality. A tenet of modern coffee is transparency, and we know that any step in the seed to cup process can cloud it or leave it clarified. Roasting, of course, is perhaps the most obvious step for scrutiny. Roasting a coffee to a deeper degree obscures its origins, any taste of place smothered under generic, carbon-like roast notes. This was considered bad, because this practice works well should your taste of place not taste very good. Low quality coffee would obviously be roasted darker to hide its shame. 1 Starbucks were long held up as the evil doers in the world of dark roasting. The reasons proffered within the community were many and varied: “They do it because they buy bad coffee.” or “They do it so their coffee tastes the same all over the world.” or “They do it so it is easier to extract/it’s more tolerant.”. Now is to the time to examine or debunk these claims, perhaps another time…

As such the idea that dark roasting was bad infused the community. Many of us spoke at length at how dark roasting was bad. Many of us preached that roasting lighter was good. To take a beautiful coffee, bursting with character, from a farmer who cared and then to roast it dark, to obscure it’s inherent goodness is (of course) wrong, morally reprehensible and ultimately repugnant.

The tricky part of this was that lightness in roasting became a kind of righteousness, and therefore the lighter you could roast the better you were (from a moral and qualitative perspective). The words themselves (light and dark, compounded by Star Wars) equally mirror these sentiments. The one who roasts lightest roasts best…

Here we reach a painful part. Collectively we, as an industry, are deeply forgiving of failed light roasts. The intentions being interpreted as pure, as pro-transparency, as pro farmer.

When coffee is grassy, and sour, we forgive it – for the roast was light.
When the coffee isn’t sweet, but vegetal, we forgive it – for the roast was light.
When the coffee is sparkling and bright, but one can’t finish a full cup because of the accumulated astringency we forgive it – for the roast was light.

In all this, I believe, we are making a mistake: the forgiveness is not ours alone to give. While we often crave, and also navigate by, the compliments of our industry peers, we only drink a fraction of the coffee we roast. Even then, much of the time we drink it we do so in alien ways like cupping bowls.

Consider this simplistic thought experiment: you are about to roast a coffee. However, you know beforehand that you can either roast it slightly too light, or slightly too dark. You must choose your mistake. The end result won’t be far from your desired goal, just a small miss, as might happen to every roaster on any day. Which do you choose?

If you work in coffee, then you choose “too light”. 2

I wonder what, if given a tasting of a small batch brew of each roast, your customers would choose? I doubt they’d be completely unified in their decision but I also doubt their preference would exactly match ours.

I should make an important point now: this is not an impassioned blog post encouraging roasters of the world to roast darker. Firstly, I like lighter roasted coffee and prefer drinking it and I strongly dislike the taste of dark roasted coffee. Secondly – roast however you want. Variety is a good thing. When we all do the same thing it gets very, very boring.

My point is that we are scathing to anyone who lets a roast run a little too deep, while utterly forgiving of those who make the opposite mistake. I would like that to change. I believe they are both equal mistakes, both impact the enjoyment of the end cup (though I would argue light roasting is perhaps worse as it seems to discourage consumption more. Also a painful truth: dairy and sugar do little to make a grassy, sour cup of coffee palatable…)

As I said at the beginning – roasting is hard. Mistakes will happen often, as reluctant as the industry is to talk about it. I think our tolerance is badly weighted, and I worry this is impacting our existing customer’s experiences and also our ability to reach and engage new customers and new audiences. If you’re going to criticise a company/roaster/batch for roasting too dark, then you should equally criticise those who roast too light.

  1. Let’s avoid the substantial contrary evidence of instant coffee and rapid roasting, where the coffee is roasted very quickly and dropped quite early. This has the dual benefit of leaving more soluble material and not causing problems – like fires, that rapid roasting to second crack will inevitably cause.  ↩︎
  2. I would be even more certain of this if you’d worked in coffee for less than 5 years, and significantly less certain if you’d worked in it more than 10  ↩︎