Currently the predominant style in high-end, artisan roasting is certainly light roasting or medium-light roasting, which allows the roaster to highlight the character of the bean rather than the roast. However, there is no question that many coffee lovers still prefer the bittersweet bite of dark roasts, even if the subtle varietal characteristics have been muted by darker roasting.
In the early days of Coffee Review, I often resorted to more familiar cooking analogies to explain the impact of roasting on coffee taste. For example, I compared roasting coffee beans to toasting bread. At the simplest level, I would explain the some people like their toast barely warmed and others prefer it nearly black. The barely warmed bread tasted more like, well, the bread, while the blackened toast may make the taste of the original bread unrecognizable.
The analogy inevitably was extended to consider the type and quality of the bread, which might inform how to toast it. If the bread were a hearty pumpernickel, it’s character might be maintained or even enhanced during longer (and/or higher temperature) toasting. The argument went that big, distinctive Sumatras, for example, could handle darker roasting better than, say, a mild Kona.
The point of all of the analogies wasn’t to convince the consumer to choose a lighter roast, rather to help them understand the impact of the roasting on their coffee tastes.
When I was in the mood for a livelier debate over the merits of dark roasts, I would draw the analogy to cooking steaks. In this analogy, clearly dark roasting is considered a bad thing. Even if most chefs and steakhouses will cook a steak to medium-well or well-done if asked to do so, they probably don’t show a grayish brown steak in their marketing materials. In fact, most people cringe at the thought of cooking a Wagyu Kobe rib-eye steak to “well done.”
For my tastes, the steak analogy holds for dark roasting high quality coffee beans. Personally, I want to taste the terroir, the distinctiveness of origin, and the hard work of the coffee farmer appropriately enhanced by a tactful roaster.
My personal preferences aside, I was interested in looking at how Kenneth Davids and Coffee Review actually score dark roasts relative to lighter roasts. Kenneth addressed the issue as early as our June 1999 article titled Extreme and Not-So-Extreme Dark Roasts. Quoting Kenneth from the article:
I often am accused of “not liking” dark-roasted coffee. Whereupon I try to explain that what I don’t like are bad dark roasts: thin-bodied, burned dark roasts. Tactfully developed dark roasts, those in which the sugars have been caramelized rather than burned and in which enough fat survives to smooth the cup, are fine with me. And if some nuance also survives, or better yet, transforms in some interesting way under the impact of the roast, so much the better.
The problem may be that many coffee lovers, and even a few coffee professionals, don’t understand that, at least up to a point, it’s not how dark you roast the coffee, it’s how you roast it dark. You can roast it slowly and sensitively, keeping the temperatures in the roasting chamber from escalating at the end of the roast, or you can, essentially, burn it and destroy it.
I admit that I do have difficulty appreciating “French roast” blends, the consensus name for blends brought to the very most extreme dark end of the roast spectrum. No matter how skillful the roastmaster, very little tends to survive with these roasts except a rather thin-bodied bittersweet sensation.
There is, of course, something attractive in the right kind of burned taste. And certainly bitter combined with sweet is a paradox that runs pleasurably through human cuisine, from sweet-and-sour East Asian dishes to Campari to bittersweet chocolate. But I often wonder whether people who buy French roasts wouldn’t be happier with roasts that are a little less extreme, and preserve a bit more sweetness, brightness, and nuance to go with the bitter tones. Perhaps they don’t understand what to ask for, and buy “French roast” because they’re not fully aware of the range of possibility on the dark end of the spectrum and don’t have names for those possibilities.
In that cupping, the highest rated coffee earned 88 points, which is a solid score but far lower than the highest scoring coffees on Coffee Review. What do we see if we look at all of the dark roasts that Coffee Review has reviewed over the years?
Using the advanced search tool on CoffeeReview.com, you can see that Coffee Review has reviewed over 1,000 coffees that are classified as “medium-dark,” “dark,” or “very dark” as measured by their agtron numbers. If you’re not familiar with agtron readings, you can learn more on our page about interpreting reviews.
Of the more than 1000 dark roasts reviewed, 276 scored 90 points or higher. That’s solid. Of those, only three dark roasts earned 95 points, all of which were medium-dark roasts:
Among “dark” dark roasts, there were numerous coffees that scored 90 points or higher, though with less frequency.
There was one 93-point “dark” roast, also an espresso:
Looking at the coffees categorized as “very dark,” several managed to score 92 points, again, all espressos:
It’s interesting to note that all five of the highest scoring “dark” and “very dark” coffees were espressos. I don’t find that surprising. Dark roasts with lower acid levels tend to show well with espresso brewing, especially if presented in milk. However, 3 of those 5 espressos were decaffeinated coffees. That is a bit surprising. I’d be curious if any roasters or baristas have observed a similar pattern that might suggest a beneficial link between dark roasting and decafs for espresso brewing.
One other observation that relates back to my earlier comment about pumpernickel toast, of the coffees that are listed above, the three single-origin coffees are bold, distinctive coffee beans: A Kenya and two mochas, one from Yemen and one from Maui. It seems that these bold beans held up very well to tactful dark roasting.
Are you afraid of the dark? Let us know your thoughts about dark roasted coffees and other roasting analogies.