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Not Black & White

May 5, 2012

This is a fairly to the point blog post, for a change – we should stop talking about light and dark roasts so much.

My issue is that I have heard many people – home enthusiasts, baristas, trainers, roasters – talk publicly about roasting dark or roasting light as if this is an absolute that sums up all you need to know about how the coffee will taste. The simple truth is that lots of different things impact on how coffee from a roaster will taste – what coffees they buy, how they store them, how fresh the crop is, the machines they use, the time they take to roast, the temperature profile they use during the roast, among many others. Lots of that isn’t reflected in “light” or “dark terms. Add to that, there is not a direct link between how “dark” the roast is and how dark the beans appear – not all coffees change their appearance in the same way during roasting (for example, Yemeni coffees I have come across have looked very darkly coloured even very early on during a roast).

As with any simplification, talking just about light and dark can make it easier for people to understand that there are differences between roasts. However, aren’t we now at a point where most of us interested in coffee know this? Encouraging all parts of the community to use these sweeping simplifications tacitly dismisses the other variables. That propagates untrue assumptions, myths and false beliefs about roasting and how it effects the beans. Don’t judge a roaster by what colour their beans are – judge them by what they taste like.

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From → Commentary

2 Comments
  1. Mike permalink

    Hi Roland. I do sometimes get a bit frustrated when I read generalisations on forums etc, saying “is it a light or dark roast?” or “Steve roasts light, doesn’t he?” as if the one word answer will provide a comprehensive view of what to expect the coffees to taste like, in all circumstances. Also, when I’m logging my brews in MojoToGo it has categories for roast style… Light, Med-Light, Med, Med-Dark, Dark, Very Dark… and at times I struggle with knowing what to select. I can take a punt based on how dark I think the beans seem to be, but that is very subjective, and in reality I have little idea how it was roasted, e.g. how much beyond 1st crack/close to 2nd crack, bean mass loss etc, which to me would seem better indicators of the style of roast, and hence how it will taste.

    Getting people to abandon roast colour as a means of describing beans and roast style, and setting taste expectations, is a big psychological step as it’s a fairly ingrained way of talking about coffee, whether you’re a coffee afficionado or joe public. An alternative way of referencing a roast style would, I think, need to be easy to understand (which colour is), and easy & consistent for all customers to apply (which colour isn’t). Taste, as an alternative reference, has its own pros and cons. Is it easy to understand? Yes, probably. If I say “those beans taste of blueberrries” then anyone else is going to have a clear expectation of what they should get. Is it easy to apply? Once again, I don’t think so. How often have we heard of people failing to obtain the roasters taste descriptors when they brew a coffee at home? Perhaps they brew it badly, perhaps their water causes different chemical reactions during the extraction… leading to different flavours, and perhaps they just have different sensory abilities. I suppose we could mitigate this problem by keeping the taste descriptors quite high level, such as only using the primary ‘ring’ of aromas on the coffee taster’s flavour wheel (Flowey, Fruity, Herby, Nutty, Caramel etc) – perhaps most people should be able to pick out these descriptors, and the added bonus is that they do also correspond with the degree of roast as you go from enzymatic around to dry distillation.
    Sorry 🙂 I’m just throwing out ideas and probably making it more complicated! Point is, I agree that Roast Style is too blunt an instrument to set expectations, but maybe Taste is too sharp an instrument and it would be good to find something in between. Just a thought… would be good to chat this over some day.

    • Would be good to chat indeed Mike 🙂 I suppose I think that when people talk about lighter or darker roast, they’re talking about flavour in an implicit way – but which doesn’t line up with the reality. If people who aren’t experienced roasters use terms like lighter or darker roast, they must believe that what they’re saying communicates something about what the coffee will be like – it’s taste. Why not just say “their coffee tends to be quite roasty/fruity/acidic/chocolatey/whatever”? If someone asked me about espresso I’d had in a shop, I might say it was acidic, or thick and gloopy, or complex, or bitter, or spicy, or sweet – I wouldn’t quote the brew ratio they use, because that wouldn’t actually communicate anything relevant to a potential customer.

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