Pandemics, frosts, and shipping shenanigans. Let’s talk this month about something we have more control over – roast levels and how we describe them.
By the time a coffee arrives at the roasting arch we have already tasted it numerous times, from buying samples to the arrival sample and everything in between, and we have a good idea what we expect to do with the coffee once it’s loaded into our roasters. We may want to keep the roast on the lighter side, preserving the natural acidity and fruity or floral notes, or we may take it fuller where we develop the fruit notes into jam and the sweetness becomes more honeyed. At the darker end we push the coffee to bring on the sugar caramelisation and bring out the chocolate and éclairs – yummo.
Different coffees suit different levels of roast and for us it generally follows a pattern that has been established over the last forty odd years. Not every coffee does well at every roast level, but some coffees can take quite a variance and give more room for play. A light roast for the Suke Quto, for example, brings out its floral and tea-like notes whereas in a medium to dark this would become all raspberry jam and toffee. Also on the counter in a light roast we have the Las Lajas but this has more dried fruit and syrupy sweetness – a darker roast here would obliterate these interesting flavours and burn in the caramel notes. In comparison a dark roast for our Yellow Bourbon Pulped Naturals from Brazil, which we adore, keeps the caramel and chocolate on the sweet side and reduces the inherent acidity to something more restrained.
It may surprise you that there is no universally accepted way to describe the roast level of a coffee. There have been and are attempts to do this periodically, but nothing has really stuck and become accepted by all the roasting industry over the years. Instead, we all classify them as we see them or want them described. On some bags of coffee, you’ll see a number denoting ‘strength’, on others you’ll see words such as light or medium and on others words that may not seem to describe a roast level but actually are in their own way.
Within the industry itself some roasters use colour-meters which measure the amount of light reflected from a sample of coffee and attribute a roast level number to that value (perhaps the best known are the systems by Agtron and Probat). Other roasters use the temperature of the beans at the end of the roast (the higher the number the darker the roast level), and some other roasters use the sensory profile to decipher what is happening (this is where we hang out). In reality, it doesn’t really matter how the degree of roasting is decided or described as long as you (yes you reading this) understand what the roaster is trying to communicate and the way that transcribes to how you like your coffee. How you like your coffee is the most important bit here.
We use describing words and we have five categories: light, light medium, medium, medium dark and dark. You’ll find them on the back of the bags, the coffee list in the shops, and on the website. For us, the roast levels relate to the type of acidity and quality of the body in the coffee. Typically, a lighter roast will have brighter acidity levels and lighter body, a medium roast has less acidity but more developed body and the darker roasts have more subtle acidity and fuller body. Of course, these are generalisations and there are coffees on our counter which make all this sound silly.
We all have our favourites and roast colour can have a big impact on this as it affects our perception of acidity and body. Take a closer look at the tasting and roast notes and you might well find a new favourite!
Time to dust off the autumnal wear it seems, if it was ever put away this summer.
See you next time,