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Roast Styles: Introduction

Given a good-quality bean, roasting is probably the single most important factor influencing the flavor of coffee. The most significant variable is degree, or darkness, of roast. The longer coffee is held in the roaster and/or the higher the roasting temperature the darker the bean. The darker the bean, the more tangy and bittersweet the flavor. When this flavor settles onto the uninitiated coffee drinker's palate, the usual response is to call it strong.

However, strength in coffee properly refers to the proportion of coffee to water, not the flavor of the bean. The more coffee and the less water, the stronger the brew. So you could make a light-roasted, mild-flavored coffee very strong, and brew a dark-roasted, sharp-flavored coffee very weak.

I would rather call this dark-roasted flavor dark, pungent, bittersweet, or tangy. This flavor occurs in degrees, depending on how dark the bean is roasted and how the bean is roasted (quickly at high temperatures, slowly at lower, etc.). It peaks when the bean is roasted to a very dark brown, and eventually vanishes entirely to be replaced by a charred, carbon taste when the bean is roasted almost black. To understand the chemistry behind the changes in taste, we need to examine what happens when a coffee bean is roasted.

Roasting Chemistry

The green coffee bean, like the other nuts, kernels, and beans we consume, is a combination of fats, proteins, fiber, and miscellaneous other substances. The aroma and flavor that make coffee so distinctive are present only potentially until the heat of roasting simultaneously forces much of the moisture out of the bean and draws out of the base matter of the bean fragrant little beads of a volatile, oily substance variously called coffee essence, coffee oil, or coffeol. This substance is not properly an oil, since it (fortunately) dissolves in water. It also evaporates easily, readily absorbs other less desirable flavors, and generally proves to be as fragile a substance as it is tasty. Without it, there is no coffee, only sour brown water and caffeine; yet it constitutes only one two-hundredth of the weight of the bean.

The roasted bean is, in a sense, simply a dry package for this oil. In medium- or American-roasted coffee, the oil gathers in little pockets throughout the heart of the bean. As the bean is held in the roaster for longer periods and more moisture is lost, the oil develops further and some begins to rise to the surface of the bean, giving dark roasts their characteristic lightly slick to oily appearance.

Beneath the oil, the hard matter of the bean begins to develop a slightly burned flavor while the sugars caramelize, which together help create the bittersweet tones so attractive to dark-roast aficionados. Eventually, the sugars are burned off almost entirely and the woody matter of the bean turns dry and brittle. This ultimately roasted coffee is variously called dark French, Italian, or Spanish, and tastes thin and charred.

Dark roasts also contain a touch less caffeine than lighter roasts, and lack the dry snap coffee people call acidy. Some dark-roast coffees may taste unpleasantly bitter, but this bitterness is the result of poor quality coffee or clumsy roasting technique. This disagreeable bitterness or sharpness should not be confused with either the dry-wine bite of a good, medium-roasted acidy coffee or the rich bitter-sweetness of a good dark roast.

Roast Styles: Roast Table

The only way to really understand roast is to associate flavor with the color and appearance of the bean rather than with name alone, but for reference I have condensed most of what an aficionado needs to know about the names of roasts in the following roast table.

Roast color Bean surface Agtron Numbers Common names Notes
Light brown Dry 80 - 70 Light Cinnamon New England Can taste sour and grainy. Typically used only for inexpensive commercial blends.
Medium brown Dry 70 - 50 Medium American Regular City Brown The traditional American norm. Flavor is fully developed; acidity is bright; characteristics of green coffee are clear.
Medium-dark brown Dry to tiny droplets or patches of oil 50 - 40 Viennese Full-city Light French Espresso Light espresso Continental After-dinner European The normal or regular roast for the West and for many newer specialty roasters. Acidity and the characteristics of the green coffee begin to mute. Bittersweetness emerges. The norm for northern-Italian style espresso.
Dark brown Shiny surface 40-35 French Espresso Italian Turkish Dark The normal or regular roast for many roasters in the West and Southwest. Acidity is nearly gone; the characteristics of the green coffee muted. Bittersweet tones dominate. The norm for most American-style espresso.
Very dark brown Very shiny surface 35-30 Italian Dark French Neapolitan Spanish Heavy The normal or regular roast for Peet's Coffee and its imitators. Acidity is gone. In tactful versions of this roast some characteristics of the green coffee survive; in aggressive versions all coffees taste the same: bittersweet with hints of burned or charred tones.
Black-brown Shiny surface 30-25 Dark French Neapolitan Spanish All differentiating characteristics of the green coffee are gone; burned or charred notes dominate. Body is thin. Flavor is reduced to faint sweet tones.


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