Why We Roast Light(er), Part 2


Last time I talked about my own journey from drinking darker-roasted, "second wave" coffee to lighter-roasted, "third wave" coffee. Now I would like to explain why I believe this happened and continues to happen for many other people as well. In coffee roasting, there is a spectrum from light to dark, as the picture above shows. So when you see a coffee labeled "bold," that really just means dark. You can think of a piece of toast or roasted marshmallow. The spectrum for how you would judge these as light or dark is not entirely different from coffee (though in coffee the more technical term "degree of roast" goes beyond color alone).

By all means, there is a lot of room for subjectivity here. One man's light is another man's dark. But there does come a point when you really begin to taste the roast and not the natural flavor of the coffee bean. Coffee is a fruit, and like any fruit there are a lot of wonderful, interesting flavors. But when you roast the coffee dark enough, you begin increasingly tasting things like smoke, carbon, and charcoal that are not natural to the bean itself. To go back to the marshmallow illustration. Some people love to set their marshmallows on fire, blow them out, and eat them burnt. No judgment here. We like what we like. But if you want that nice, caramelized-brown, perfectly-toasted-but-soft-in-the-middle marshmallow, it's going to require a little more care. Coffee roasting is the same way. There comes a point when you begin to taste the burn. In fact, if left in the roaster long enough, the coffee bean would literally catch on fire, like a marshmallow.

Now, of course, everyone is different and has their own preferences. My coffee palate is more sensitive than it used to be, so I taste roasty flavors at a good deal lighter degree than I used to. I'm also not writing this to judge anyone's personal taste. If you love coffee, no matter the type, I'm sure we’d get along just fine. But the bottom line is, we roast lighter because coffee has a ton of wonderful, natural flavor that deserves to be experienced. And our burden is for people to enjoy these flavors as much as possible with the roast interfering as little as possible, all within the bounds of personal taste. 

A final note. Light roasting is sometimes associated with a weak "Breakfast Blend" or something that tastes sour and grassy. This is not what I mean by light. Lighter-roasted coffee can still have fully developed flavor. For me, light more-or-less means no roasty flavors. Or as little as possible while still fully developing the flavor of the coffee. If roasted and brewed with care, the flavors can be phenomenal. Roasting this way takes a bit more care and attention to detail, but in our opinion it is worth the effort.

Why We Roast Light(er), Part 1

(Photo credit: Sweet Maria's)

(Photo credit: Sweet Maria's)


Bold. Dark. Robust. This is the kind of coffee we have come to love as Americans. The darker and stronger we can handle it, the more we’re true coffee lovers. I get this. I used to be proud that I liked my coffee as dark and hot and strong as you could get it. This is the legacy of the “second wave” coffee movement. The Starbucks revolution. Coffee lovers of all stripes can be grateful for this movement, because it got specialty coffee on the radar for many, many people. I would not be roasting coffee if it wasn’t for this movement.

At the same time, this is not the way I roast today and rarely how I drink coffee any more. So what happened? Well, thanks in large part to Sunergos Coffee in Louisville, Kentucky and the many people we knew connected to it when we lived in Louisville, I was introduced to coffee that was different from what I was used to. Lighter roasted, smaller batches, more attention to coffee origins and to detail. These are the characteristics of what has come to be known as the “third wave” coffee movement. And, step-by-step, I slowly began drinking different coffee. At first it was more of a treat, and then I would go back to my darker Starbucks, or cheaper substitute. Eventually, though, I was hooked for good.

This seems to be the natural progression to third wave coffee. At first you’re like, “Wow, that’s different. Hmmm. Smooth. Interesting. Almost tea-like. I’m not so sure about this.” You go back to your oily French roast, but the flavor you tasted kind of sticks with you. So eventually you circle back around and try it again. Now you’re more intrigued, the territory is not quite as unfamiliar as before, but you’re still not sold. At this point, it may or may not take a while, but if you are continually exposed to this kind of coffee, it becomes difficult to go back. It gets a hold on you in the very best way imaginable.

Next time we’ll talk a bit more about this, as well as what goes on in the actual roast that makes it light or dark . . .