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Coffee Language: Roast Names

Given a good-quality bean, roasting is probably the single most important factor influencing the flavor of coffee. The most significant variable is degree, or darkness, of roast. The longer the coffee is held in the roaster and/or the higher the roasting temperature, the darker the bean. The darker the bean, the more tangy and bittersweet the flavor.

Returning to terminology, coffee drinkers are so habitual that entire nations march from coffee initiation to grave knowing only one style of roast. This uniformity accounts for the popular terminology for describing roasts: French roast, usually the darkest; Italian roast, a little less dark; and Viennese or light French, only slightly darker than the traditional American norm.

This assigning of national names to coffee roasts is a bit arbitrary, but has some basis in fact. French roasters, particularly those in parts of Northern France, do roast coffee very darkly, justifying the epithet French for the very darkest roast style. And, very generally, southern Europeans roast their coffee darker than northern Europeans. I will leave the question of whether darkness of roast correlates to the relative intensity of nocturnal habits among the various nations of coffee drinkers to those who may want to consider the issue over their second cup of dark-roast coffee.

However, the "standard" roast against which the French and Italian roasts of America are implicitly measured varies both by region and by roaster. Berkeley-based Peet's Coffee & Tea, which initiated the current American fashion for very dark roasting, brings all of its coffee to an extremely dark degree of roast. Consequently, the "regular" Peet's roast is far darker than many other roasters' French roasts. Traditionally, the American West Coast prefers a darker roast standard than the East Coast, with the Midwest appropriately somewhere between. Some of the darkest roasting in the world goes on in the American Southwest.

The success of Starbucks with its darker roast style has, in part, altered this regional pattern. Many newer roasting companies, regardless of region, are now attempting to imitate the original Starbucks dark-roasting style. Unfortunately, many of these newcomers tend to be clumsy in their imitation, resulting in dried-out, burned coffees. Meanwhile, Starbucks itself has pulled back from its original dark-roasting position. And, being Starbucks, has come up with its own copyrighted terms for various degrees of roast as they interact with the coffees being roasted. In Starbucks-speak, 2000 edition, a traditional American medium roast is Milder Dimensions; a slightly darker roast Lively Impressions; a moderately dark roast Rich Traditions, and a dark roast Bold Expressions.

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has gone in the opposite naming direction from the fanciful route taken by the Starbucks' publicists. The SCAA has promulgated a straightforward, no-nonsense set of terminology for roast and related that terminology to objective, instrument-determined criteria for degree of roast. The SCAA terminology, which is as practical as a Volvo station wagon (and about as exciting), runs from Light Brown for the lightest roast, through Medium Brown for the middle of the range, to Very Dark Brown for the darkest, with various intermediate stages defined by inspiring terms like Light-Medium Brown and Moderately Dark Brown. Despite its blunt simplicity, the SCAA system probably gives the specialty coffee buyer the clearest available set of guidelines for describing roast.

The only way to really understand roast is to associate flavor with the color and appearance of the bean rather than with name alone.

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Adapted from Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing & Enjoying; Espresso: Ultimate Coffee; and Home Coffee Roasting: Romance & Revival. St. Martin's Press.
Copyright © 1996, 2001 by Kenneth Davids. All Rights Reserved.