Jason Haeger is a coffee professional working to bring quality coffee to Lubbock, Texas. A transplant from AZ, he is in a unique position to draw a comparison between the similarities of the growing coffee scene between TX and AZ. He contributed this article. Thanks Jason.

Out of the Darkness and Into the Light: Appreciating Coffee for What it is

In this article, I hope to convey a new understanding of what it means to respect the coffee. I also hope to help the reader to determine what quality coffee really is.

I should specify that this is pertaining to all brew methods except espresso and moka.

Let me begin by getting straight to the point. Dark roasted coffee is not always better, and in a lot of cases, is actually a step down from the less popular lighter roast profiles.

That’s right, I said it. Extremely dark roasts can negatively effect the flavor of the very coffee being roasted, marketed, and consumed. Where did the idea that darker is better begin? Well, I have a theory.

There are a few advantages to roasting darker instead of lighter. From a consumer’s standpoint, the coffee has an increased body. Since more water is lost, a 1lb. bag contains more volume of coffee beans. Also, off-flavors are generally less pronounced, if not entirely non-existent.

From a commercial approach, consistent results are easier to achieve with a dark roast. When a new crop arrives, the beans may not be exactly like the past lot, but roasting darker can help to mask the subtle differences. A lot of customers may have the misconception that what they’re buying is gourmet; therefore, roasting dark has more marketing potential.

Most commercial coffee brands often describe their dark roast as being bold, gourmet, or coffeehouse style, while their lighter roasts remain with the generic label of mild or medium.

Many corporate specialty coffee companies tend to roast on the dark side.

This leaves most of us with the notion that dark roast means gourmet or better than light roast. This does, however, lead up to the question of whether or not lighter roasting actually is better.

When discussing bad coffee, roasting darker tastes better, but only because the off-flavors are being burned away.

The term French roast is taken from a time when the French had a contract with a single coffee producer, and the quality took a dive due to the fact that income was guaranteed either way. The French began to roast their coffee extremely dark to burn off the bad flavors inherent in the bean. This left a very dark, very oily bean with little to no origin characteristics left in the flavor. Somewhere along the line, possibly because of its European origin, most coffees labeled French roast gained favorable light in the eye of the consumer.

When discussing good coffee, however, the roasting objective changes considerably. The inherent flavors in the bean should be pleasant, not offending. The purpose of roasting suddenly switches from trying to mask the bean’s flavors, to trying to bring out the bean’s distinctive flavor.

The longer the roast, the more flavor and aromatic components are burned away. In some cases, this is necessary. There are certain circumstances that call for more roast flavors and fewer origin flavors. If you have ever had an espresso that tasted of chocolate, coffee, and nothing else, you’ve probably tasted the roast more than the bean itself.

To serve truly exceptional coffee, you must first respect the coffee you handle. This respect must continue all the way down the line from the farming, to the processing, to the shipping and handling, to the roasting, to the storage, and to the barista. Within the length of this chain lies the constant challenge and responsibility of maintaining standards for freshness.

A great barista can’t make a bad coffee good. Similarly, an unskilled barista’s technique will ruin the inherent quality of an excellent bean’s flavor. A great coffee used a month after roasting cannot display the coffee’s true colors. A bad coffee used immediately after roasting cannot somehow become a great bean.

The quality must extend down the line, from sapling, to seed, to roasting, to brewing. Quality really can be a measurable standard. Unfortunately, this scale of perspective is rarely achieved in the industry.

So, why is roasting lighter better? The reason is simple. It respects the care taken to maintain quality earlier in the chain. If the farm does a spectacular job on a particular crop, the results will be obvious. Roasting lighter will bring out the brilliant and wonderful flavors inherent in the bean thanks to the care of the farmer. This care and understanding of quality is what it means to truly appreciate coffee. There are over 500 flavor components in coffee. No-one knows how many of these flavors are good. However, even if only 20% of them are good, that’s a lot of potential for different flavors. There’s also the issue of a clean tasting coffee. Coffees exhibiting a clean taste are not muddled by processing flavors, fermentation, darker roasting, or other factors that would mask the true nature of the bean. Roasting on the light side is a skill, and the results can be spectacular.

If you were to search for a truly exceptional cup of coffee, you would want to sample a lighter roast, since this is where the actual quality of the bean can be determined. If it tastes muddy, it’s probably displaying flavors associated with processing. If it tastes chocolaty, it’s usually a result of roasting a little darker, but this is not always the case. Outside of brewing parameters, if it tastes bitter, the roast is far beyond where it should be.

For those new to specialty coffee, a chocolate flavor in a cup of drip coffee is a revelation. For those who have had a fair amount of experience, a strong chocolate flavor is often said to be uninteresting.

There are proportionally few coffee companies and roasters who actually practice in this manner. Those who are will usually put a lot of effort into sourcing their green coffee to ensure the highest quality possible. This is just another reason for seeking out lighter roasted specialty coffee.

I hope this article has inspired you to move away from dark roasts, and to move towards lighter roasts with an open mind. You could discover a new level of quality and flavor in the world of specialty coffee.

Jason Haeger is a coffee professional working to bring quality coffee to Lubbock, Texas. A transplant from AZ, he is in a unique position to draw a comparison between the similarities of the growing coffee scene between TX and AZ.

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  1. Steve Kessler

    Great job on the article. What are your thoughts on Espresso roasting styles? What’s your preferrence and can you have a lighter roasted espresso bean?

  2. Once again, this is a great article Jason. My best analogy for dark vs light roast is eggs. Slow cooking eggs on light heat produces an amazing omelette. If you just throw the eggs on a hot stove and cook them on high, they have almost no taste.

  3. Ken

    Thanks Jason for the great article! I’ve always preferred full city roasts to espresso roasts or French roasts and get some strange looks from people who think that when making espresso you have to use dark roasts. My view is that the oils in the coffee bean are important to good flavor and good crema–they are emulsified with the CO2 locked in the beans after roasting. Dark roasts, which bring the oil to the surface and expose it to air, spoil more quickly and reduce the quality of the crema. That isn’t to say that I haven’t had some good dark roasts, but lighter roasts with quality beans are the way to go.

  4. Another good point to mention is that the lighter-roasted coffee also have a higher caffiene content as well. Not only does over-roasting destroy the inherent flavor of the bean, it killes the jump start we all know and love! 🙂 Give me a cup of mediuum-roated 100% kona, and you’ll have a friend for life! Nice article.

    Cheers, Amanda

  5. Amanda, the caffeine content difference is so small, if measurable at all, that it’s really quite irrelevent. When an espresso extraction blonds and begins to look white, you are literally seeing some caffeine. Ever noticed how caffeine pills are thoroughly white, inside and out?

    While technically, if there were a considerable difference, this would be true, I still agree with Mark P. in the saying, “It’s about the quality, not the buzz”. of course, that’s not to say caffeine has no place.. it simply should not be the primary focus. Of course, your mileage may vary.

  6. Joe

    Really informative; thx for posting. I am just now starting to enjoy coffee “for what it is” which involves more light roast appreciation, like you mention

  7. Anyone that has spent any time in coffee shops along the West Coast knows by now that Phoenix has a long way to go with in developing tastes for higher quality light roasted coffee…
    Good article, I’d just wanted to add that I think one reason dark roasts have been so popular in the past with consumers is because dark roasts are harder to ‘screw up’ if brewed poorly. If brewed improperly, dark roasts tend more towards bitter profiles while light roasts tend to pick up sour tastes. Bitterness is easily masked with milk and sugar while sour is a little harder to do so. Just my completely unscientific opinion.

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