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Posted by Geoff | Feb 18

EXPLORING ROASTS: LIGHT, MEDIUM AND DARK

At IKAWA we provide our recommended roasts, which are generally on the lighter side, but we know there is a spectrum of tastes that people enjoy. There is also a trend of light roasting and some confusion about what the difference between light, medium and dark roasts is. This post aims to encourage the exploration of coffees through roasting and, who knows, maybe stir up a little discussion.

I’m going to preface this by saying that I love coffee. And I’ve been working in coffee for 10+ years. I was a green buyer for 5 years, roaster for 8 and yes, I vehemently promote the support and awareness of the growers and producers of coffee.

But I’m also here today to cautiously say that specialty coffee as an industry needs to be less afraid of roast flavour.

Speciality coffee has, to some extent, run away from roast flavour, as far and fast as possible towards much lighter roasts. Although generally I’m a big supporter, I think there are many instances when this can do more harm than good. I would like to encourage everyone to allow the pendulum swing back – just a little.

As home roasters, we have the luxury of exploring the spectrum and diving a little deeper into what’s possible with the coffees. And we should – we can roast small batches and apart from 50g of coffee not tasting it’s best, we have almost no real negative consequences. Mostly upsides!

Below I’ve outlined the differences between medium and dark roasts, the profile for a light roast and more.

But let’s begin with why light roast coffee are so popular right now, because there is a really good reason.

 

How we got here

I personally have been drinking coffee since I was 15. Long enough to have entered and exited a few different phases, shall we say, of coffee preference. From Tim Horton’s to Starbucks to medium-roast blends coffees to light roast single origins, I’ve explored a lot of what’s out there.

When I started drinking coffee there was just one kind available to me: Tim Horton’s, aka Timmy’s. You order it like this: “Hi – I would like a large double-double”. That’s 2 cream, 2 sugar and it doesn’t taste much like coffee but it’s pretty delicious. It’s still extremely popular – there is a Tim Horton’s for every 7500 people or so in Canada.

I eventually discovered Starbucks which was much more coffee focused than Timmy’s and opened my eyes to the world of coffee. Truthfully, Starbucks had incredible resources for coffee and they paved the way for Speciality, but the coffees were roasted very dark and the nuances of the coffees were lost. In addition, they would present coffees as a Starbucks blend “Ethiopia” or “Colombia” without diving into where they really came from. Colombia is a very large country.

Finally, I discovered speciality coffee, where all the flavour was.

 

The Rise of Speciality Coffee and the pursuit of new flavour

With the rise of speciality coffee came a few awesome trends, choosing a coffee by farm, by processing method or by tasting notes. A coffee was no longer just a dark roast or a medium roast, but it had provenance, a story and character. I went from drinking “French roasts” to seeking out washed Ethiopian coffees from Yirgacheffe for floral and stonefruit flavours. That might sound crazy, or pretentious, but it’s a part of a coffee journey, and I was honing in on what I really liked. Just like some people really like California Cab Sauv’s or IPA’s from the West Coast, I really liked washed Ethiopian coffees from Yirgacheffe.

A major support for this trend of buying by tasting notes and flavour was the roast level. Speciality roasting focused on highlighting the unique, intrinsic flavours that were in these incredible coffees while taking advantage of the fact that they are nearly defect-free. That meant lighter roasts than Starbucks. Flavour opened up from roastiness into something complex and amazing.

Now, you can find a coffee shop in almost any city where you’ll see the coffees listed similar to “Rwanda Gatare – notes of orange, brown sugar and pecan” instead of “Medium Roast”. I love it. Cafes and roasteries are featuring the farms and producers where unique flavours are developed – both in packaging and promotion but also in roasts. Almost all of these speciality coffee roasters are utilizing light and medium roasts to highlight those unique characteristics that set these coffees apart from the more commercial roasteries, or “second wave” shops.

I love that we’re embracing origin and nuance. I truly do. But I’m concerned that the pendulum of roasting has swung past where it needs to be and it’s time for it to swing back ever so slightly.

Do I love a good light roast? You bet. But too often every coffee is a light roast when maybe a coffee would suit something with a little more development. Or, I’m getting coffees that taste like cereal, vegetables and paper. In both instances, the roaster hasn’t achieved what they set out to do, that being, to create the most delicious coffee possible.

Coffee Roast Characteristic Progression graph

Light Roast Coffee

Looking at the graph above you’ll see that a light roast will feature acidity and maintain large amounts of sweetness and unique flavours.

A really good light roast will be easy to brew and highlight the best aspects of that particular coffee.

There are many roasters out there that are executing incredible light roasts. They are usually most successful when they are also brewed by the roaster or roasting company. In these cases, they are in touch with their equipment and water and have learned how to tease out the best in each coffee, and will align the outcome of testing using that same equipment and water to how they adjust their roasts. In the end, they have a very specific roast tailored for that moment and as a customer you can have a truly amazing experience.

Home roasters are a group that have taken advantage of that. They have so much control over their outcome and can quickly and easily go back to the roast to make small adjustments that suit how they are brewing.

Unfortunately, I have heard from many friends that they’ve struggled to brew a nice cup of coffee after buying a light roast from a professional roaster. These professional roasters are often evaluating their roasts using commercial equipment like EK43 grinders, complex filtered water, etc. Home equipment can’t match commercial equipment and if everything doesn’t go well for the end consumer, there isn’t a lot of room for error and the coffee won’t match their experience at the cafe. It’s a small sweet spot.

Another reason for the poor results is if the roaster “misses” a roast, or the roast doesn’t go exactly as well as planned. This happens often. And because the window for a good light roast is so small, it can often result in a coffee that is under-roasted or underdeveloped. When this happens, the sweetness is reduced, the bad acidity is heightened and much of that unique character that was supposed to be highlighted is left behind.

 

Roast Flavour

Looking again at the graph above, a good medium roast will highlight the unique flavours within a coffee and have great body and sweetness. And you’ll notice that roast flavour begins to creep in.

As speciality coffee has grown in popularity it has become more and more focused on notes like “floral”, “grapefruit”, “clementine”, etc., and possibly to the expense of good roast development. These tasting notes do help set speciality coffees apart from commercial coffees. Only the best coffees will taste like, for example, grapefruit and jasmine flowers. And the easiest way to preserve, or highlight, these delicate notes and set that coffee apart from the “second wave” is to roast light.

But it’s possible that this has gone too far, and now it’s almost become unnatural to say “dark roast” or “medium dark”. Looking at the graph it’s easy to see why dark roasts can be seen to “ruin” coffee, especially if a farmer has worked really hard to produce some incredible flavours. Roast flavour is high and the components that are unique and special have degraded.

However, we shouldn’t be scared to go beyond light. There is a huge amount of potential for a delicious coffee that is true to its origin and has a small amount of roast flavour. Also, my experience is that medium roasts are generally much more forgiving, both to roast and to brew. The “sweet spot” is larger. 

In fact, I believe a lot of coffees offer MORE when taken beyond light. More depth, more character, more balance and more consistency. And I’m not suggesting this just for coffees that have been thought of as darker roast coffees, such as Brazilian or Indonesian coffees, for example.

I’m referring to coffees that have acidity and florals and more, as well. That could be a particular lot from Huehuetenango in Guatemala (my desert island coffee region), Costa Rican yellow catuai or a dense, jammy Kenyan SL-28 . With a little more development, sometimes these coffees can explode with flavour and complexity. And there may be just a slight hint of roast in there too, but it works.

If the coffee is quality to begin with, a good medium roast will highlight how amazing it really is. And the best part, is that it usually provides the home brewer more forgiveness in brewing so they can enjoy that coffee more often.

I’m not saying, by any means, that we should all give up on pursuing better coffees, or more refined flavours, or the unknown. On the contrary – let’s explore the coffee more fully and see what tactile and flavour profiles lie beyond just a light roast.

In addition, I believe some coffees just don’t suit a light roast. The inherent structure of the coffees tactile and flavour profile lend itself to a more developed roast. We shouldn’t force a coffee into a light roast if it just won’t taste good there.

For home roasters, we can curate our own experiences. Roasting at home is an amazing way to explore coffee, and how different roast can open up different experiences with the same coffee.

Let’s look more closely at each style of roast beginning with light roasts. Use the graph above to understand how each element of a coffees taste profile develops throughout these roasts.

 

ROASTING

Light Roasts

Light roasts are also referred to as “city roast”. They are usually more mottled on the outside of the bean and have a light coloured chaff. Generally a light roast is most successful for very high quality coffees.

A good light roast is sweet with lots of good acidity and features the inherent origin characteristics of the coffee. They usually taste best with at least a few days rest and stay fresh longer than medium and dark roasts.

Roasts are usually still in first crack when they finish or they end at the same time as first crack.

Proper development is more difficult to achieve and coffees can easily taste vegetal, sour, papery and weak if the roast doesn’t fully develop. Often, a higher amount of energy at the beginning of a roast is really beneficial to developing any coffee and especially a lighter roast.

 

Medium Roasts

Also called City + by some groups, the medium roast lives between the end of first crack and the beginning of second crack

A good medium roast will highlight the unique flavours of the coffee, have lots of sweetness and begins to see more body. The acidity will be slightly lower than a light roast. Generally, the sweet spot for a medium roast is larger than it is for a light roast. By that I mean there are going to be more than one way to make a coffee delicious in the medium roast style, but also when they are being brewed it’s usually easier to make them taste good.

 

Dark Roasts

Dark roasts have gone past second crack where the structure of the coffee begins to crack at a cellular level. Oils are released and migrate to the outside of the bean, either immediately or as the coffee rests over a week or two.

Dark roasts have very reduced acidity and unique flavours. The body is very high and the beans, being broken down more, are very soluble.

Roast flavour is dominant which can produce flavours that are smokey and ashy, or molasses like in flavour.

This isn’t to say that all dark roasts are bad – a good dark roast of the right green coffee is enjoyable. It can be dense and sweet with enough acidity to cut through and balance the coffee. However, like a light roast, the balance is fine and a dark roast is usually easier to get wrong than right.

 

Choosing Your Roast

So, how do you choose? My recommendation is to experiment, learn and most of all, chase what you find delicious.

Subscribing to a single roast style can keep you from something truly delicious. Each coffee is different so explore – roast it a few different ways and then hone in on the direction you think holds the most potential.

Happy roasting.