This is the third in a series of coffee tasting articles that explores the importance of coffee roasting as key in the overall taste characteristics of coffee.
After you become familiar with the fundamental taste attributes of coffee (acidity, body, aroma, flavor and finish) discussed in the previous installment "A Coffee Tasting Primer - Taste Characteristics", the next important aspect in understanding coffee taste characteristics is the roast. Coffee roasting is the critical step in the process that brings out the best flavor potential in great coffee.
Harvested coffee beans come from the coffee growers as "green" coffee beans. Green coffee beans are not suitable for grinding and brewing coffee until they are properly roasted. Roasting coffee beans involves the application of high heat for a period of up to fifteen minutes depending on the level of roast (light or dark).
The Coffee Roaster
The coffee roaster stands in the middle of the chain between the coffee growers and the coffee consumers. The master coffee roaster is not only responsible for applying the proper roast, but also for selecting the best coffee beans from the preferred growers and regions.
The experienced roaster applies years of knowledge and technique to understand the subtle nuances of applying the most suitable roast to the particular coffee origin. Coffee connoisseurs recognize the value of a master coffee roaster, and learn to appreciate particular roasters for dependable and consistent results over time.
The Roasting Process
Coffee beans go through a variety of chemical and physical changes during the roasting process.
- As the heat is applied, most of the water moisture is removed.
- The longer the roast, the more the sugars in the coffee bean become caramelized.
- As the beans lose moisture, they also expand. As the beans expand, an audible crack is heard. There are two distinct crack levels - first crack and second crack.
- The longer the roast, the more oils are released from the interior of the bean which migrate to the bean's surface.
- The longer and hotter the roast, the darker in color the beans become. The lightest roasts produce a yellow or cinnamon color. The darkest roasts produce a bean that is almost black in color.
Styles and Levels of Coffee Roasts
Coffee roasts fall into three broad categories, distinguished by the level and duration of the roast - light, medium and dark.
The lighter roasts do not produce as much body in the coffee, but are good for tasting the bean's natural flavor characteristics. More of the varietal flavor of the bean comes through without being masked by the roast. Suitable for more mild coffees and sweet coffees where a darker roast would overshadow the natural qualities of the bean. The light roasts are often referred to as Cinnamon, American and City roasts. For the light roasts, the coffee is roasted just to the first crack. No oils appear on the surface of the coffee bean.
For the medium roasts, the coffee is roasted up to the second crack. Medium roasts will contain more caramelized sugars bringing out more body and richness, and the roast notes begin to stand out slightly. Some oils may begin to appear at the bean's surface with the fuller medium roasts (toward the darker range). The medium roasts are referred to by name as Full City and Vienna Roast.
The dark roasts take roasting level beyond the second crack. This pushes a visible amount of the coffee oils present in the beans to the surface. The sugars are heavily caramelized, and actually begin to burn off. The dark roasts are referred to by name as Italian, French and Spanish roasts. With the darkest French and Spanish roasts, the coffee bean actually begins to carbonize. The dark roasts produce a full to heavy bodied quality which is popular today. While in vogue, these roasts tend to mask the natural characteristics of the coffee bean. With the dark roasts, you are getting mostly the coffee roasting characteristics, and much less of the beans distinctive origin and flavor attributes.
We're expanding our coffee tasting vocabulary
In the next installment of the "Coffee Tasting Primer", we'll talk about what are called "taints and defects", which add further taste characteristics, some of which are desirable.
Then armed with our better understanding of the full range of coffee tasting characteristics, we'll be ready in a the final installment to discuss and explore some of the popular coffee varieties and origins.
Now that you know more about the different styles and levels of coffee roasting, jump in and try some different roasts.