Light Roast Good…Dark Roast Baaaaaaaaaaad
Or: the Agnostic Roaster vs. the Orthodox RoasterThat’s right. Contemporary coffee culture is so outrageously reactionary and ideological that this memorable line (read in a sheep’s bleat) from George Orwell’s classic extended analogy for Soviet Communism fits my criticism.
Since you probably read Animal Farm in eighth grade or so, I’ll refresh you. “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad” is a piece of propaganda mindlessly chanted by the sheep. As the goals of the pig administration change, the chant changes to the similar-sounding but completely opposite “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better.”
My point here is that roast levels have historically been driven more by the marketing needs of roasters than by any objective sensory truth. My aim, because I regularly receive flak both for roasting too dark and for roasting too light, is to promote the idea that more than one roast style can simultaneously be appropriate to the bean and delicious to the consumer.
To illustrate what I mean when I talk about roast levels, I will refer to this picture. It's borrowed for the use of this commentary from coffeelabequipment.com:
Because I am in the awkward position, as someone who as a rule does not like dark roasts, of defending them, I need to make the quick point that we do not roast darker than about an Agtron of 35 and we do not roast lighter than about a 60. Our French is lighter than that of a certain national chain whose name rhymes with Charbucks, for example.
The reason is that more than two decades of experience has taught us that coffee does not taste very good outside these parameters.
Now, there’s a lot more to roasting than the color of the bean (there’s something called a roast profile, which is basically how much time and heat are applied to a bean and in what proportion) but for the purposes of this article, let’s assume that roast color is the defining characteristic of roast level.
For years, our main competition, especially in Santa Fe, was roasting exceptionally dark coffee and we were always being unfavorably compared to it as “not bold enough” or “not strong enough”. (Strong coffee refers to brew strength, i.e. how much coffee is in your water, regardless of color).
Nowadays Third Wave roasters, most of them just toddling their first adorable steps into the coffee business, insist that only very light roasts are correct, even for espresso.
I recently had a wonderful conversation with a coffee professional I truly respect about a coffee he was very excited to show me. When he gave me a bag, which was so unevenly roasted that it had four distinct shades in one sample and silverskin still on the bean, I was shocked. It was objectively, technically defectively roasted. If Starbucks is criminal for burning coffee to death, surely it’s just as wrong to ruin good coffee by half baking it. How could someone who loved coffee so much like that coffee, which, in the cup, was sour, astringent, starchy, woody, BEANY?
And that’s the point—coffee that’s not roasted for long enough doesn’t develop the sugars that make a cup of coffee taste good. In the words of Joseph Rivera, founder of Coffee Chemistry, "The truth is that any underdeveloped fruit, whether it be an apply or coffee, regardless of origin, will contain significant concentrations of citric, malic, and chlorogenic acid which will create a very sour and astringent cup. Most people would never eat an unripened apple, why do we expect consumers to drink 'unripened' brewed coffee?"
So why is it in vogue now?
One of the reasons is that part of Third Wave ideology—the laudable part—is the belief that coffee should be transparent. This means no blending, and roasting light enough to preserve coffee’s terroir, or the taste arising from the place it was grown and processed.
So, yes, it’s true that French roasts pretty much all taste like French roasts, and that it would be a waste of a really, really fine coffee to roast it so dark that it only has burnt sugar, molasses, toast, and dark chocolate flavors.
That doesn’t mean the opposite is true.
Very, very light coffee primarily cups as citrusy, which itself is the very kind of overpowering flavor wallop that makes all very, very light-roasted coffee also taste pretty much the same: instead of all tasting like an ashtray, it all tastes like hot lemonade.
Good development (a combination of origin flavors and caramelization) is something that, in my experience, happens throughout first crack and beyond. If the origin of a coffee can’t be identified at an Agtron of 45-55, the issue might not be that the coffee’s too dark—it could be that the cupper isn’t very good.
The other reason to roast as lightly as possible—the reason that the First Wave of American coffee roasters like Folgers and Maxwell House did it—is that it reduces something we call shrinkage and saves roasters money. Basically, the longer you roast coffee, the less moisture it has and the less each bean weighs.
Therefore, the darker the roast, the more beans it takes to make up a pound, and, because coffee is sold by weight, the less money you make. We might be talking about a shrinkage comparison of 9% vs 20% per pound of coffee. If you could save 11% on every pound of coffee you sold, wouldn’t you try to sell more of that coffee?
So if the public can be convinced that they’ve been complete idiots to have been drinking Full City and French roasts all these years, every roaster gets to make more money! Go, coffee marketing team!!!!
I hope I’ve explained myself clearly enough that you understand I’m not really that cynical and that’s not necessarily the primary reason we’re all drinking light coffee now, but it is definitely a factor in this discussion.
My point, in all of this, is that there are many traditional styles of roasting, and they are all legitimate. Just as you can drink espresso, pourover, French press, or Turkish coffee; just as you can enjoy a Balinese or a Yemeni or a Honduran coffee and no value judgments are passed; so, too, should you be allowed to drink light, medium, and dark roasts without being treated like a moron.
I don’t believe it’s my job to tell you what to like. I believe it’s my job to roast and blend to reach each coffee’s full potential, and to give you as much of my knowledge as you can stand and let you make your own choices based on your experience and preferences. I don’t think people are stupid and I don’t feel the need to exclude anyone from this coffee party. That’s not how I establish myself as an expert. That’s the difference between Coffee Agnosticism and Coffee Orthodoxy.