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Love and Coffee Roasting

Rachel has been running her online coffee roasting business, Rachel's Roastery, for a year, and has been roasting coffee for some years.

The Dark Side of the Roast

One of the things that many artisan coffee roasters say about roasting is that is just that: An art. Getting the precisely correct roast for a particular bean; blending (a discussion for another post), and 'roast profiles' that define at what point in the roast to raise and lower the roasting temperature, and what that temperature should be, are all part of this art. Add that to a barista's art, deciding what type of drink fits best with which beans and roasts, and you have a lot of artists in the kitchen!

At my online coffee roasting business, we roast our coffee beans to order, anywhere from a light cinnamon roast to a dark French roast. People, we have found, have their preferences, and it is not up to us to dictate what they should be drinking.

How Dark?

However, as a coffee lover who came to my business through my own love of coffee, I do have a preference. And that preference, and the change in that preference is what brought me to experimenting with roasting and to where I am now, which is roasting beans to order. Coffee, like most things in life, is a journey of discovery, and to allow my customers their own discovery, I have chosen to not be an artist, but a technician.

A technician is able to document, and precisely reproduce, a process for achieving a very specific objective. In the case of coffee, the objective is simple: The roast level. If someone orders a medium roasted Brasilian Carmo Estate coffee, it should be the same colour as a medium roasted Ethiopian, and should be the same every time. The coffee's own characteristics ideally dictate how that roast level translates into a flavour, though as a good technician, I document that flavour using pretentious words like 'hints of chocolate', and 'rich honey bouquet' and such, though this is quite subjective.

My Coffee Journey

Though I am Brasilian, my own coffee journey began when I moved to Italy. My grandmother is Italian and did roast her own coffee, and Brasil is the world’s leading exporter of coffee, but it was the combination of living in Italy and working on an assembly line that drove me towards coffee, if for no other reason than that it was quite cheap in the canteen, and I was trying to save money but needed something to keep me awake through the repetitive work I was doing.

So, I started my coffee journey drinking very dark-roasted Italian coffee, which worked for me, as the small amounts were similar to how coffee is drunk in Brasil, in small cups, what we call cafezinho, or ‘little coffee.’ Brasilians use dimunitives pretty freely, but it really is a small coffee. The coffee in Brasil isn’t quite as dark, but nearly so, as the Italian.

Something about seeing your breath in the crisp air of the Dolomites and having my Italian cafezinho was really romantic and appealing. The strong coffee, warm but not hot (I don’t drink anything too hot) and strong, and prepared with a lot of care, was comforting.

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In retrospect, it was much more about the feeling, and how the coffee made me feel than about the taste, which was bitter and strong. At the time, I didn’t think that, however, I loved the cafezinho which gave me this feeling.

Here in London, the coffee scene is a bit different. People are in a hurry, and buy their coffee on the run much of the time. That is true of most things to do with food: In Italy, it is considered both rude and idiotic to rush through lunch or dinner, or even coffee, but in London, people are always in a rush.

There is a famous British economist called Douglas McWilliams who wrote a book about the London economy called The Flat White Economy. The reason that he called it that was that the flat white is the preferred drink of the hipsters and geeks and entrepreneurs around Shoreditch. Though he uses flat white economy as a signifier of the businesses that these hipsters and entrepreneurs were starting, the actual growth in coffee as the preferred hot beverage in the UK is also noticeable. I didn’t know any of that when I stepped into a café run by some Australians and had a flat white the first time.

Wow! It was a revelation! The flavours in the coffee were sweet, vanilla-ey, deep berry flavours, sort of all mixed together in an amazing way. I went back to that café quite often, until they knew my name. I asked what coffee they used, and bought a bag and took it home. It was so light! I now know that it was a cinnamon roast, but at the time I thought it was just so light! It was an 85% Brasilian, 15% Ethiopian blend from an East London roaster, and in the hands of the baristas was pure heaven on earth. In my hands it was not quite as good, but still lovely.

Because it was so light, and so tasty, it got me to thinking, about my own assumed preference for dark Italian roasted coffee, and eventually led me, because of a real lack of choice for a Brasilian girl wanting to try my coffees in all different roast levels, to buy my first coffee roaster. And what have I discovered? What was that long story leading up to? What is my kernel of wisdom for those not yet bored by my rambling?

It is this: Dark roasting like the Italians do, while maybe good for some, changes a coffee’s inherent taste, creating a much more bitter, burned taste. This come about, mostly I think, at ‘second crack’. First crack is where the coffee splits open. It is also an indicator that the coffee is ready. Before that, it’s taste is grassy and green and unpalatable. Second crack is where the cellular structure is effectively ripped apart, like popcorn in a popcorn popper. It also, like popcorn, expands, and has bigger size than coffee roasted for a shorter time.

Looking at it, I think this may be mostly economic: Because very dark-roasted coffee loses pretty much all it’s inherent taste, instead gaining a smoky, somewhat bitter taste, it means that even cheaper coffees can be dark roasted and taste very similar to the more expensive ones. Whereas properly roasted light and medium roasts have a lot of their inherent character in the flavor, with very dark roasted (French, Italian, or Spanish roasts), that is almost entirely lost. So, to get the most from cheaper, commodity-quality coffees, they are often dark-roasted.

With specialty-quality coffees with complex flavours and smells, those flavours are mostly enjoyed best in the lighter roasts. And there is a lot to enjoy! A specialty coffee like a La Primavera from Colombia or a Dota Tarrazu from Costa Rica has an immensely complex combination of flavours to charm your palate. All that sounds very difficult and pretentious, but what it boils down to for me…it’s magic deliciousness! And that magic sits between first and second crack.

So, that is my opinion on how dark your should roast coffee. You can order a French or Italian roast but I would urge you, if you are like I used to be, to just try a lighter roast. Enjoy the flavours!

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