Every so often, we get asked about whether our beans are roasted light or dark. It’s one of those questions that seems so straightforward on the face of it but we still always struggle to provide a useful answer.
Part of the difficulty is that we often conflate strength with roast degree, which leads to further confusion. Some people will be used to seeing these concepts mixed up by the commodity coffee industry - evident in any supermarket.
Bags of coffee that contain ratings for ‘strength’ when they actually mean something else is far from helpful. In this context, 'strength' should probably be swapped for 'bitterness'. I’m all for trying to providing information that helps people identify what they like but this is blatant misinformation.
Anyway, we’ve already talked about ‘Our Strongest Coffee’ - and you can read that post here if you like (TLDR: if you want it stronger, use more coffee). In this post, I want to focus on roast degree.
As long as I can remember, dark roasted coffee has been a thing. Taken to it’s extreme, this is coffee that will have progressed past second crack, the second major reaction that happens in the roasting process. The result of this event is that much of the oil contained within the bean is forced onto the outside of the coffee, giving that highly polished look.
That’s extreme and I suppose we would also consider coffee where there is ‘roastiness’ evident in the brew, a dark roast. ‘Roastiness’ causes bitter, astringent notes to develop in the coffee.
At this point, it’s good to remember that if that’s how you like your coffee, that’s fine. We all like different things. We try to avoid ‘roastiness’ in our coffee, so it’s likely that you may prefer coffee from a roaster who embraces it.
So, maybe a dark roast for us begins where a medium roast ends, when we can detect these flavour notes that are characteristic of a roast which has progressed for longer.
That’s one half of the equation. Pinpointing where ‘light’ becomes ‘medium’ is harder and largely a question of preference and perspective.
When pushed, I say that we roast ‘medium’. Whilst being aware of the limited helpfulness of this statement, it feels like all I can say. I would define ‘medium’ as not too light, not to dark. Now you can see where the problem lies.
There are machines and instruments that can analyse the colour of the coffee and give us a number that represents that colour. At the top end of the market, these machines are precise, accurate and reliable. They are also incredibly expensive and of limited use given that there is no agreed common standard or specifications to help define the actual roast level.
Hopefully it’s somewhat helpful to understand what we mean when we say ‘medium’. For us, we roast coffee until it is sweet, delicious and soluble enough to be brewed easily. We do actually use a colour meter when roasting as a quality control measure and most of our roasts fall within a fairly narrow range.
It seems to me that the coffee fan needs to try to find a roaster that sources the type of coffee that they like and roasts it how they like it roasted. This is essentially what roasters are doing - sourcing and roasting coffee that they like. Each roaster has their own idea about what is the perfect roast for any given coffee. It’s the roaster’s job to find the people that think the same way and deliver that coffee to a consistently high standard.