COFFEE AWARENESS MONTH, DAY 15: The Taste of Coffee, Part II (Roast Level)
Above is a picture (taken from Sweet Maria’s) of the same batch of coffee beans, pulled from the coffee roaster at different points in the roasting process. No. 1 are the beans before they’ve been touched by heat; No. 16 is what you might call “Spanish” roast, in which every possible desirable flavor in the coffee has been burnt out of the beans.
Roast level plays a big part in the flavor of coffee, but let’s clear up a big misconception: Roast level (“light” or “medium” or “dark” or “French” or “Italian”) shouldn’t be viewed as a preference in the way that, say, “rare” or “well done” are viewed in terms of steak. In fact, for any particular batch of coffee beans, there’s likely an optimum roast level that will bring out the most desirable flavors while contributing the fewest undesirable characteristics. At Spencer’s, you’ll generally find that we don’t describe our coffees based on roast level — African coffees tend to taste best when roasted light (somewhere between No. 6-9 on our above graphic, where South American coffees taste best in the 10-12 range.
The coffee industry has done a poor job in the past few decades, misleading customers into perceived preferences based on roast levels instead of inherent flavors. Believe it or not, a good Ethiopian coffee should taste of citrus or berry; if it doesn’t, then the roaster probably didn’t do the best job with the beans. Similarly, a Colombian coffee that doesn’t have a snappy/tangy finish was probably over-roasted; as a result of years of this sort of thing, a lot of coffee drinkers have come to believe that coffee should taste very smoky, very bitter, very heavy on the palate. Hence the need for copious amounts of cream and sugar to improve the taste!
There’s still much more to consider as regards the flavor of coffee: In the coming days, we’ll talk freshness, filtering, and “acidity” — one of the most misunderstood words in coffee. In the meantime, mark your calendar for this Wednesday at 2 p.m., when we’ll host a brief, fun Coffee Clinic that’ll touch on a few of the flavor concepts we’ve been blogging about.