Some thoughts on degrees of roast

Today I received this comment from a reader on one of my earlier posts:

I'm enjoying your post Kevin. I don't mean to move the topic away from drip brew but since you were talking about roasting profiles I thought I would chime in.

I started out at Starbucks and then moved into the "third wave" coffee movement as a roaster. I have found it extremely challenging to grow my knowledge when most of the "respected" roasters are roasting just into first crack and I still insist on taking the roast to the brink of, (or right into), second crack. That means to the rest of the coffee world I roast "dark" and that this style of roasting is completely disregarded as a way of presenting coffee. Just wanted to say thanks for providing some wisdom and giving roasters like me a different influence to turn to.

Thank you!

I appreciate Landon's comments and it prompts me to share a few thoughts. 

One of the basic tasting exercises I've found useful over the past 30 years is what I call tasting a progressive roast of almost every coffee you have. This means roasting on either a sample or production roaster and pulling out samples of a coffee at every degree of roast from City to French. In a production roasting context (I'm assuming a drum roaster with a tryer) you can pull several tryer's worth of City, Full City, Vienna, Italian and French - enough not just to cup, but to brew, laying them out in the the cooling tray or on a cookie sheet. Obviously it's not a useful (or safe!) exercise with soft, low-grown coffees like Brazils or Hawaiians, but otherwise it's something very worthwhile to experience with as many coffee origins as possible. 

It should be fairly obvious that the degree of roast chosen for a coffee ought ideally to be correlated to the potential of the particular green coffee, where that coffee is in its life span, and the brewing method to be used, but equally important and less obvious is what the local water supply is like. Some specifics on all of these, in order:

1. Green coffee: hard, dense, high-altitude coffees of the highest quality are delicious at a wide range of roasts. Classic examples would include top Guatemalans from Huehuetenango or Antigua, Kenya auction lots, and on the natural side of things Yemen Mochas and excellent dry-processed Ethiopians. These coffees are way too acid to be palatable below a classic City roast, come into their own at Full City (chestnut brown, no second pop, no oils on the bean surface) and have a Port-like richness and depth without taking on a burnt character well into the Vienna roast range and all the way up to what in Starbucks or Peet's terms we'd call an espresso roast (Agtron in the 30's, still well shy of Italian or West Coast French). These kinds of coffees are becoming harder and harder to find, and what's happened at Starbucks over the years is the heavy roast lives on while the quality of the coffees it is being applied to has declined dramatically, resulting in an ocean of flat, carbonized coffee fit only for burying in syrups and milk froth. Peet's has done a far better job of buying green coffee that can handle deep roasting with a lot of varietal character expression, but I suspect that global warming will force some lightening of roast intonation even there, as coffees grown at 5500 feet are starting to cup like they were grown at 4000. 

2. Seasonality: by this I emphatically do not mean the bogus "seasonality" of many third wave roasters who use the term to justify offering a ridiculously small selection of washed single origin coffees. Instead what I'm referring to is that from a roasting perspective there should be a range of roast intonations applied to a coffee over its useful lifespan.

Taking a top new crop Guatemalan as an example, it'll arrive and clear customs in, say, May or June, and the coffee will never be better than it is at that point (assuming proper harvesting, drying and reposo). Acidity and aroma are at their peak, and its optimum use (assuming the roaster has a range of roast profiles and end users) would be moderately (City to Full City) roasted, ideally unblended or otherwise combined with coffees of the same caliber, in a blend intended for drip or (better still, however unlikely) vacuum-pot brewing. 

Assuming one is tasting one's production roasts on a daily basis, by October or so (depending on warehouse conditions) this coffee will have faded enough to have acquired a slight woody note, which can and should be "roasted out" by taking the coffee a few degrees darker. Depending on the broader coffee lineup, maybe it's relegated to blends and replaced by fresher single-origins, or perhaps used judiciously to add chocolate notes and some acid snap to a Northern Italian espresso blend that's otherwise composed of softer coffees such as dry-processed Brazils and the like. 

By January or thereabouts this coffee is tasting seriously past crop, and finds its best use in seriously dark Italian or French Roasts, while one eagerly awaits new crop. 

Semi-washed and dry-processed coffees are another animal entirely. Softer ones like Brazils are generally best suited to espresso brewing at roasts in a fairly narrow range that starts at Full City and goes not much past Vienna. Sumatras and other classic Indonesians are tricky to roast and have a tan or blond cast even when objectively quite far along in roast, but they need Full City+ to begin to blossom and earthier examples can go quite far into second pop. Dry-processed Harrars and Yirgacheffees and the rare great lot of Yemen Mocha are among the most forgiving of coffees, needing at least Full City to begin to show their best but also making for remarkable espresso late into second pop. 

3. Brewing method: the paper filters used in drip brewing mute the perceived acidity of a coffee, so the ideal roast for this method will taste a bit shrill in a cupping cup but just right when brewed in a commercial drip brewer. I should also point out that regardless of whether you rinse your paper filters or not the ratio of paper to coffee matters, which is why you'll never get the kind of stellar flavor of a just-brewed batch in a 1-3 gallon commercial brewer from a single-cup pour-over unit, no matter how much weighing of water, pouring through tiny spouts or other such geekery is involved. 

The vacuum pot remains, as Corby Kummer once put it, "the CD player of coffee makers - because all you taste is the coffee," offering a transparent experience of aroma and flavor that's a clear notch better than even the best drip units. Sadly there's been no rival of the sturdy, stainless-steel vacuum pots fit for commercial use from many decades ago and Bodum killed off their promising electric vacuum pots just when they were starting to get the hang of making them, so it's a fragile and arcane relic of a brewing method at this point. 

In general the best roasts for drip for washed coffees are in the City to Full City range, but there are certainly some exquisite exceptions for those who prefer body and lushness to varietal nuance. Some of the most memorable cups of drip coffee I've ever had have been out of 3 gallon urns at Peet's, Starbucks (back in the day) and Spinellli's (R.I.P.), with oceanic body, surprisingly high supporting (rather than leading) acidity and great aroma. 

Pressurized brewing methods increase the perceived acidity of coffee. The obvious case is espresso, where any coffee used needs to be custom-roasted for the purpose. Clearly there are a wide range of palatable roasts, but they begin with the coffee well established in second pop (Vienna roast territory) and end well before Italian roast no matter how hard and acid the bean. 

The French Press and the Aeropress are also pressurized brewing methods, albeit at trivial levels of pressurization relative to espresso. Nonetheless, there's enough pressure here to call for full city roasts at a minimum, and to make these methods particularly good showcases for coffees such as semi-washed Indonesians (Sumatra, Sulawesi) or full city+ dry-processed African coffees for whom body and depth are more significant calling cards than refined acidity. 

During my years at Starbucks the only brewing method used at the roasting plant besides espresso was the plunger pot. Meanwhile a senior executive at Peet's who was deeply involved with their coffee once told me he'd spent an entire year drinking their coffee only as straight shots of espresso - in consequence of which he might have been the only person in Peet's history to complain that the coffees were a bit too acidic!

 A steady diet of nothing but pressurized brewing methods trains the palate to value body over other aspects of a coffee, while the increase in perceived acidity afforded by the pressure makes a coffee that would taste flat brewed drip taste fairly lively. I argued unsuccessfully for years at Starbucks that our roasts ought to be lightened up to suit the drip brewing method that they were being used for in our stores and in most customer's homes - or, alternatively, that if we believed in the plunger pot so much we owed it to our customers to only brew coffee in-store using that method. "Roastmasters" (whatever that means) and buyers in newer shops today who taste nothing but cupping room roasts and then inflict them on their customers are living in the same kind of coffee bubble, and in either case the coffee and the customer (and ultimately the farmer) pays the price. 

4. Water: I don't think it's any accident that the places where the classic Full City roast flourished in the early days of good coffee in the U.S. were locales with naturally-soft [low mineral content] water that was generally free from off tastes and odors. On the East Coast Manhattan was (and still is) legendary for its soft water, while in Chicago or Milwaukee the high mineral content dictated much lighter roasts that would still show some life after being blunted by the water. On the West coast Peet's had good soft water in Berkeley, and the same held true in Seattle and Portland.

When we at Starbucks started expanding beyond these favored areas it was either change our roast or change the water, and I ended up specifying water filtration and treatment systems for places like L.A. and San Diego that cost a small fortune, taking rock-hard water with sulfur and salt water intrusion and running it through softeners, reverse osmosis and remineralization treatments to effectively duplicate the neutral ~3 grain hardness water needed for the coffee to taste the way it should. 

Cupping room roasts at retail and other modern phenomena

Getting back to the note from Landon that provoked this post, what I would call a cupping room roast - light City, first pop just ending - is indeed on offer for both retail consumption and, unbelievably enough, in more than a few espresso doser-grinders, in some of today's Third Wave cafés. Considering that most of these establishments are run by people with no actual coffee training perhaps it's not surprising that the range of pejorative terms that apply to such roasts (underdeveloped, cereal-like, green, bland and so on) are unknown to them, but such roasts represent an extreme over-reaction to Starbucks and its many imitators. 

What would be nice to see in coffee is the kind of stylistic diversity one sees in craft beers, with one roaster specializing in the coffee equivalent of Belgian lambics (which I guess would be nothing but edgy, wildly-aromatic Ethiopian naturals!) and another into Porters and Stouts (the Peet's universe) and many other options in between, but a lot of what I see at retail, at least in the Pacific Northwest, are roast-alike and taste-alike clones of Intelligentsia and Stumptown with the same half-dozen origin countries all represented at a very narrow range of roasts from light City to light Full City. 30 years ago we had Peet's and Starbucks pushing the limits on the dark side while Pannikin in San Diego, Kobos in Portland, Schapira's in upstate New York, Freed, Teller & Freed in San Francisco and (best of all, IMHO) The Coffee Connection in Boston offered superb true Full City roasts. Many of us hoped that that level of choice was a harbinger of a greater range of good choices to come, but it looks like we were overly optimistic. 

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