For the past few years, talk surrounding the virtues of light roasts has been trending in the coffee community.
I can remember the morning (November 29th, 2011) when I read “I’ll have a tall blonde please.” Starbucks, known for a distinctively dark roast, had announced that they were introducing a new line of lighter roasts. Starbucks went “blonde” in their terminology to avoid linguistic confusion – “light” (when removed from its roasting-specific content) having the potential to imply that something is missing or has been removed.
My first response was to start a list recording how many variations of “insert inevitable blonde joke here” I would encounter in the coming months. (24 and counting.)
My second response was to consider the virtues of lighter roasts.
The Virtues of Light Roasts
Researchers have documented a thousand different volatile compounds present in coffee, with approximately 40 contributing to the aromatic complexity. The process of roasting increases the concentration of certain compounds while decreasing the concentration of others.
Light roasting is best suited to high quality green beans that have a more delicate flavor profile. In that context, light roasting brings out bright, sharp flavors, citrus notes, flowery aromas and subtle differences between beans.
One self-described convert to light roasts describes the situation like this: “I am now a fan of the brilliant clarity of a well-executed light roast. It didn’t happen right away. The coffees are so juicelike that I had to realign my frame of reference, abandon a few prejudices. At first it’s disorienting — the coffee isn’t like any other coffee. Then it’s exciting — the coffee isn’t like any other coffee. Rather, the finest coffees stand out. If a dark roast cloaks a bean’s flaws, a lighter roast leaves it naked: good coffees are strikingly good, mediocre coffees are powerfully mediocre, and great coffees are epic.”
Is There a “Perfect Roast”?
Short answer: No.
Long Answer . . .
The process of roasting can highlight or downplay specific volatiles, to both good and bad effect.
Light roasting can highlight delicate volatiles and create a complex, nuanced cup. Light roasts also have the potential to be underdeveloped, grassy and acidic, just as dark roasts have the potential to be bitter, ashy and burned.
(Remembering here that bitter and acid, in the right context and correct proportions, can be good things.)
As the light roast convert noted, a dark roast can be used to mask a bean’s flaws – any bean roasted to the point of charcoal will taste like charcoal. It’s an unfortunate practice, but one that shouldn’t result in dismissing all dark roasts out of hand.
One note in favor on the dark side: Sensitive tummies will do better with dark roasts. Scientists have found that dark roasting promotes a compound that results in decreased production of stomach acid. Another research paper (from a well-respected, peer-reviewed journal) ups the ante even further in terms of potential benefits: “Dark roast coffee is more effective than light roast coffee in reducing body weight, and in restoring red blood cell vitamin E and glutathione concentrations in healthy volunteers.”
The Philosophies of Roasting
While thinking long and hard about the perfect answer to the question of the perfect roast, I decided I was unlikely improve upon David Schomer’s diplomatic response: “Choosing a roast for a single origin bean is a very personal choice and should generate heated discussion about the best way to roast it. The individuality is what makes a coffee culture . . . This is a “given” when we approach roasting any coffee: we want to taste that unique coffee. We don’t want lemony flavors or burnt rubber . . . Find your own unique favorite intonation for each bean you use and vigorously defend it as the best way to roast that coffee. Paint your own picture between yellow and black.”
For an interesting sort of point/counterpoint on roasting philosophies, we suggest reading Sweet Maria’s essay on “The Perfect Roast?” and Stumptown Coffee Roaster’s Roasting page. Both are well considered and well written, and they make an excellent pairing that may promote a paradigm shift, or at the very least provoke some lively conversation.
Where are you between light and dark (or between yellow and black)? Let us know in the comments below!