Roasters' Choices by Kenneth Davids - February 2003 | CoffeeReview.com

February 2003

Roasters' Choices
by Kenneth Davids

After having cupped excellent reader-nominated coffees for the last two issues of Coffee Review, I thought it might be a good idea to give the professionals who actually buy the green beans and roast them a shot at picking the coffees for a review, unhampered by the usual theme-oriented restrictions -- this month we are reviewing Guatemalas, this month breakfast blends, and on into the Coffee Review sunset.

What would happen if the roastmasters and green coffee buyers were simply asked for their best, regardless of origin or theme?

What happened was a particularly impressive collection of coffees. Without a doubt the thirty or forty samples chosen without limitation by green buyers, roastmasters and directors of coffee collectively were considerably more exciting than any of the sets of coffees I've solicited by theme or origin.

In fact, I was sent considerably more impressive coffees than I could manage to fit into a review. I ended by writing about those that came off the table with scores of 86 or higher, but several with slightly lower scores were almost as impressive as some reviewed here.

Kenyas and Galapagos Bourbons

Among single origins, Kenya attracted the most representation, with three examples. I chose two of the three from this perennial insiders' favorite, one displaying an austerely acidy version of the Kenya fruit and another that displayed a sweeter and more floral version.

Several roastmasters and green buyers submitted samples of "partnership" coffees, coffees that represent an ongoing relationship between roasting company and growers from a particular farm, mill, or cooperative. Among them, the most unusual was an offering from a farm in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador roasted by Flying Goat Coffee of Healdsburg, California. Rather than simply constituting another coffee curiosity, the Galapagos turned out to be as interesting and distinctive in the cup as it is in its geography. Its cup character would seem to derive from the heirloom Bourbon variety of arabica, a classic cultivar once widely planted throughout Latin America and now growing rare owing to its susceptibility to disease and other agricultural drawbacks. Perhaps because the remote island location has protected the trees from the diseases that have killed Bourbon trees elsewhere, the crop is apparently entirely from very old, well-established Bourbon trees. The age of the trees may be responsible for the very pronounced Bourbon character, a character that is as memorable as it is difficult to describe. Here is my best shot at description as it appears in the review: "... a dry fruit character that suggests wine at one moment, at another tart berries, at another pipe tobacco, at still another a roasty but sweet chocolate."

Dark-Roasting and Peet's Coffee & Tea

Also represented here are two coffees from Peet's Coffee & Tea in California, chosen from four sent me by Peet's longtime green buyer and coffee leader Jim Reynolds. Peet's not only helped reinvent specialty coffee in America thirty some go, it also flat-out invented the now widespread practice of bringing all coffees, regardless of origin, to a rather extreme dark roast.

Thereby setting up an ongoing, three-decades-and-counting battle between advocates of medium roasts and dark roasts. I regularly am savaged by Internet communications from proponents of both camps, those who think I am biased against dark roasts and those who think I am too soft on them. What neither seems to grasp is that it may be possible to distinguish between quality of dark roasts, between those that, on the one hand, are thin-bodied, taste like a sodden burned-out building, and which totally extinguish any characteristics whatsoever of the original green coffees, and dark roasts that are full, sweet, roundly roasty without burned bitterness, and which preserve at least hints of the character of the original green coffees.

As I have observed before, dark roasts of the latter, round and sweet kind are difficult to bring off. The target for roasting success is much narrower than with medium or moderately dark roasts. Plus, roasters need to be very disciplined about roast color, and gauge it either by cupping or by machine reading with an Agtron color reader. It is very, very difficult for the human eye to distinguish between beans brought to an M-Basic Agtron reading of 30 and those brought to a 18, even though the difference in how the two taste will be dramatic. Done right, the 30 has the potential to be roasty tasting but full-bodied, sweet and complex, whereas the 18 will end up a bit thin in body and anonymously burned in flavor no matter how well the roast is managed.

As Often Missed as Hit

And, if the dark roasts from American roasters I have been cupping over the past five years are any indication, the roasty-but-round-and-sweet target is as often missed as hit. I have reviewed some excellent dark roasts from a variety of roasting companies over the years, but all too often I end up with three or four per cupping that are thin-bodied and sharply burned at best, repulsive and rubbery at worst. I can only conclude that many roasters simply don't cup their own coffees with any consistency, or they would never send out to a reviewer the monotonously thin, burned ultra-dark roasts I often receive.

Which returns us to Peet's, which arguably comes closest among larger American roasting companies to consistently hitting the full, sweet, complex target with dark roasts. I think this success has to do with a long, uninterrupted roasting tradition based on rigorous apprenticeships, with regular and obsessive tasting of all roast batches, with the use of an Agtron machine to analytically confirm roast color (yes, Peet's does use one), and with careful selection of green beans that can stand up to a very dark roast without completely losing character.

But the very difficulty of the dark-roasting project is highlighted by the fact that, at least based on my sporadic tasting, Peet's still does not always hit the roasty-but-sweet-and-full dark- roast bulls eye. I have cupped and decided not to review three Peet's coffees for the recent readers' choices reviews because they were OK, better than their counterparts from Starbucks, for example, but not exceptional. In these cases the main problem seemed to be that the green coffee was not sturdy or distinctive enough to stand up to the dark roast, which meant the coffees ended up just a bit flat in range and astringent in finish.

Try It Yourself

The two Peet's blends I review here did hit the bell quite resoundingly for me, however. For readers who are still curious about what I am carrying on about here in regard to the distinction among dark roasts, I suggest you immediately order one of these coffees from the Peet's website and drink it next to a couple of other ultra-dark roasts available in your area. I'd be curious to hear from any who try this experiment and want to share the results with me. It could be you are fortunate, and your local dark roasts also are full, round, and complex. Or perhaps your taste differs from mine, and you prefer a dark roast with a more dominating burned bitterness.