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Once you understand some of the basics of how a coffee’s origin and processing impact a roasted coffee’s flavor, you are ready to explore the final frontiers of purposefully selecting a roasted coffee: understanding the basic roasting process and finding good coffee that you enjoy.
(If you are looking to maximize your understanding of what coffee is and factors affecting it’s flavor, I recommend starting with coffee processing, then reading about origins before proceeding with this article. If you are simply looking to decode roasting terminology a bit and learn strategies for finding great roasted coffee, read on and backfill your knowledge as needed.)
Single Origin and Blends
Before I go any further, I’d like to explain a little bit about single origin and blended coffees.
A single origin coffee is one that comes from a single source. These coffees are often labelled by their country of origin and a subregion, farm or trade name within that country. It is not unusual to find single origin coffees that do not have any indication on the packaging of the degree of roast. You can usually find out an approximate degree of roast in these situations by asking the roaster or inspecting the roasted bean itself (more on visual roast degree cues later).
A blended coffee is exactly what it sounds like, two of more coffees that are mixed together. These coffees can be from different origins, roast levels, crop years. varietals or any combination. Blends will typically say the roast level on the packaging or give an indication in the title. A Breakfast blend, for example, would usually be a medium roast with milder flavors. A French roast blend would be a very dark roast.
When choosing a roasted coffee to sample, don’t overlook blended coffee. Single origin coffees sound more exotic, glamorous and tend to get a lot more attention, but a roaster who is skilled at blending can elevate and enhance coffee in ways single origins can’t always do.
Degree of Roast and Terminology
As with most things coffee related, coffee roast level terminology can be a little ambiguous. The National Coffee Association has a nice breakdown of four roast levels (Light, Medium, Medium-Dark, Dark) along with the associated roasting jargon and where is falls on the spectrum. At a consumer level, visual cues are a great way to define degree of roast. Designations like light, light to medium and dark are all you really need to get a feel for the type of coffee you can expect.
Here is an explanation of basic roast levels:
Light Roast- The beans will be light brown in color. There could be some uneven coloring and small spottiness upon close examination. The beans will be dull and dry with no visible oils. These coffees are often pleasantly acidic (known as bright) with fruit forward flavors. Sometimes, if they are not roasted and rested correctly, light roasted coffees can taste grassy or sour (green coffee taste). Good light roasts highlight the characteristics of the green coffee not the roast. Since the coffee bean expands as it is roasted and the bean becomes more brittle and less dense, you will definitely notice a lighter roast being a little harder to grind in a hand mill.
Medium Roast- The beans will be a nice, uniform brown color. These beans should be mostly dry but not as dull as a lighter roasted bean. Because the roast has progressed a little further, more of the oils in the coffee bean are brought to the surface. This gives a medium bean a little bit (just a little bit) of a shiny look. Medium roast will typically have the most body and have some of the qualities from each of the roast levels that bracket it. It is balanced. They will have a sweetness at a light-medium roast that moves to bittersweetness towards the medium-dark end of the spectrum. You should still be able to taste a lot of the green coffee characteristics but the roast characteristics will start to be more forward.
Dark Roast- The beans will be dark brown with an oily look and feel. As roast continues even longer, the beans will turn nearly black. Dark roasted coffees have a smokey charred sugar taste that most people call strong coffee flavor. These coffees, if over-roasted, will taste extremely bitter and carbony. The body of the coffee also thins out as the bean is roasted past dark brown in color. A skillfully roasted dark coffee will still display some green bean characteristics with the heavy roast notes that many people enjoy. The closer the coffee gets to a black-brown color the more a bean identity is stripped and the charred roast identity dominates.
My Roast Degree Caveat
I wouldn’t get too wrapped around the axle about any of the particular roast levels.
As I mentioned earlier, the roast levels have a certain level of ambiguity associated with them. What one roaster may consider a darker roast, another roaster may call a medium or even lighter roast. This may sound crazy but there are no real hard and fast rules. The term light roast can be used as a more relative term. It could mean “Lighter than our other roasts or the roast level you would normally expect for us.” The same could be said for dark roast. Sometimes roast level descriptions are simply used to help consumers relate to coffees within the same brand.
If you are buying single origin, roasted coffee from a quality specialty roaster, I would definitely recommend ditching your roasting prejudices. Different characteristics of green coffee are enhanced by different roast levels. A quality roaster will have done a progressive roasting analysis on the coffee and decided what degree of roast shows off the coffee best. If I may be a little poetic for a moment, roasting coffee is an art. The roaster has carefully selected his materials and presented it in the way which he believes it should be consumed. Try it with an open mind.
Strategies for finding coffee you love
All this information collimates with you standing stone-faced in the abundance of your grocery store coffee aisle or looking at the 14 gazillion Google hits on roasted coffee. How do you find a coffee you enjoy? Here are a few strategies that you can employ to finding your coffee sweet spot.
Try the exact same coffee roasted different ways
Nothing can quite explain the effect roasting has on coffee like tasting the same coffee roasted a couple different ways. Because every green coffee responds a little differently to the roasting process, tasting the exact same coffee roasted to various degrees ensures the differences you are tasting are because of the roasting process.
This is not something you are going to be able to experience from a large national roaster. While I am sure there are plenty of roasters that offer this option, I know of one that is local to me. Eric at Fresh Ground Roast has an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe that is roasted to two different degrees (medium and dark). They ship their coffee nationwide and also have a coffee subscription program and sample packs.
Fresh Ground Roast is a great local roaster that works with importers and organizations to build meaningful long term relationships with coffee farmers. They also hold public cuppings most Fridays (which is a great way to learn about coffee too). My wife and I went one cold Friday in January and had a great time.
Try a lot of different coffees
In my post where I talk about coffee origins, I recommend getting one from each region and tasting them side by side so you can see the difference. This is something that is helpful to do with any two coffees. The only way that you are going to get to know what kind of coffee you like, it to try some. The more the better.
At this point you may been thinking how expensive it is to try specialty coffee and what a bummer it is to have a nearly full bag of coffee beans you are not a fan of. You are going to pumped when you learn about a company called Angels’ Cup.
Angels’ Cup is a subscription based coffee service that sends out tasting flights of coffee. You can order one out of the blue, or sign up for monthly or even weekly deliveries. What you get is four one ounce packages of coffee from a variety of different roasters and regions. These coffees are not labeled with origin or roaster, just a number. You can look up the coffee if you wish or taste the coffee first before you look and see what the deal is.
There are two other really cool features about Angels’ Cup. First, they have a coffee tasting app that walks you through a coffee tasting (you can compare notes with the roaster when you are finished). Secondly, you can buy the coffee from your tasting flight directly from the website.
I recommend trying Angels’ Cup if you are looking to explore some really good pre-vetted coffees. It is also a good way to think about what you are tasting in your coffee.
Take some notes
Take some time to sit down and taste your coffee. Drink it slowly. Think about what you like about it and what you don’t like about it. Write it down. If you intentionally sit down and taste coffee, you will start to notice things. If you start recording your impressions, you will not only get better at describing things you taste in coffee, you will start to notice a pattern in your preferences.
The aforementioned Angels’ Cup app has the ability to be used on any coffee (the app is free by the way) and you can save it in your account. This is a really cool feature of the website.
I am old school and like to actually write things on paper. My wife will tell you that she spends half of her week picking up little scrap pieces of paper and 3 x 5 notecards with scribbled notes on them (I didn’t say I was organized). Recently I received a small tasting journal from my family. It is a nice small little book that is perfect for intentionally tasting your coffee. Make a goal of sitting down once a week or whenever you buy a new coffee and tasting your coffee and figuring out what you taste, like and don’t like about it.