By June 8, 2010 Read Article
Grades of coffee roasting

Making Sense (or Not Making Sense) of Words for Roast Color

Pawel, in a recent response to my blog “Boomeranging to Super Light Roasts,” asks whether he should order his favorite coffee, a Sumatra Takengon Gayo Organic from the Aceh region, at “City+” or a somewhat darker “Full City.” He answers his own question, quite correctly I think, by writing that there is only one way to find out, and that is by trying both versions.

But his response reminded me of another theme in the complicated discussions around roast color, and one that seems to cause newcomers to specialty coffee in particular considerable confusion. This is the question of names for color of roast (or more properly, degree of roast).

In the early days of American specialty coffee there was some consistency in roast color terminology. The linguistic representation of roast color ran: light or cinnamon / medium / city (slightly darker than medium) / full-city (slightly darker still), then going European with Viennese (just into the second crack) / Light French / Espresso / Italian, and at the ultimate dark end, dark French. There were variations, but the sequence was more or less clear.

Then came Starbucks, and things got a whole lot darker everywhere, particularly on the West Coast. So much so that a few years back we received a sample from a West Coast roaster that was labeled “Light Roast.” Quite literally, this coffee was – as measured by machine – darker than the Starbucks House Blend. If Starbucks was light, what was “medium” for this roaster? A dark roast, of course, a very dark roast. In other words, the entire roast color nomenclature had been moved decisively toward the dark end of the spectrum. In those days, the old dark was the new light.

As I suggested in my last blog, the move from darker to still darker has reversed directions, and we are in the throes of a reaction back toward true light roasts and true medium roasts. In the process of this roast color thesis and antithesis, however, the old specialty language for roast color has pretty much been left in meaningless chaos. What will replace the old language? Will it be revived? Does it need to be revived? Pawel’s favorite roast company’s use of the traditional terms City and Full City appears to be pretty much in calibration with the old specialty roasters’ use of these two terms.

Many of the new paradigm roasters avoid describing roast color at all, I suppose implying that the degree to which they have roasted a coffee is simply the “right” roast for the green coffee and the brewing platform. As it often is. They are essentially saying that they are letting the green coffee lead them. Or they may use a graphic representation, a sort of sliding “light to dark” roast color thermometer, which is a good communications solution, I think, given the confusion of the old descriptive language.

At Coffee Review, we long ago gave up on romantic or traditional names for roast color, and opted for a version of the stodgy but reasonable Specialty Coffee Association of America naming sequence, which runs: Light / Medium / Medium Dark / Dark / Very Dark, to which we added “Black-Brown” as a name for those dark-beyond-dark roasts we ran into when we first started reviewing coffees fourteen years ago.

Today some companies have more or less invented their own languages. George Howell, one of the pioneers of the back-to-medium roast movement, calls his subtly modulated range of medium roasts collectively “Full Flavor Roast.” Starbucks, of course, has gone to its own language: Starbucks’ “Mild” is by traditional standards a medium roast and the Starbucks “Medium” is medium-dark by traditional standards, but “Bold” matches up well with traditional definitions of a dark roast, and “Extra Bold” to traditional standards of an ultra-dark roast.

We have run into at least one roasting company that has tried to jump on the medium-roasting bandwagon without medium roasting. Despite put-downs of Starbucks for dark roasting and proclamations of adherence to the new taste for medium roasting, this company’s coffees (some of them outstanding) continue to come in at a roast color almost exactly the same as Starbucks’ house blend.

But this sort of linguistic waffling may be inevitable, given that many established roasting companies are faced with a substantial consumer base that still prefers darker roast styles, while the trend-setters are heading for the land of light – or at least medium.

Posted in: Coffee News

About the Author:

Kenneth Davids is a coffee expert, author and co-founder of Coffee Review. He has been involved with coffee since the early 1970s and has published three books on coffee, including the influential Home Roasting: Romance and Revival, now in its second edition, and Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, which has sold nearly 250,000 copies over five editions. His workshops and seminars on coffee sourcing, evaluation and communication have been featured at professional coffee meetings on six continents.

5 Comments on "Making Sense (or Not Making Sense) of Words for Roast Color"

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  1. Spot on article great pondering, felt like going for a walk through a park chatting about current trends. Thanks. Keep up the amazing work

  2. ben bona says:

    Never, never in my time on this planet have I ever read such drivel. This is by far the most absurd site on the entire net.

  3. bill Boggs says:

    For a number of years I drank Marques De Paiva Columbian Supremo. The Supremo is not much handled anymore and is not available. What’s the deal with the Columbian Supremo? I am currently using the Green Mountain K-cups, Sumatra Reserve. I like it but would like to use the beans or a similar coffee. What’s your opinion of Marques de Paiva coffees?

  4. Pawel says:

    Thank You Ken for the reply and article!
    Yes the roaster uses the qualification of roast degree according to the old days. Myself I love it and think it is very precise!
    As to the question I posed myself, I tried the offee Papua New Guinea Sigri roasted City+ and it is more appealing to me. The FC of it has delicious taste yet it is quite hard to replicate from cup to cup, it is very demanding and picky and I think the parameters change as it ages. On contrary roasted City+ there is just slightly more of fruit notes and they’re present throughout the cup, but then it is very replicable and more balanced over all.
    And I finally didn’t order the sumatran beans at FC! 🙂
    I must also say I was happy you reviewed the Papua New Guinea Kimel Peaberry! I was not very impressed with it but then I worked some more and I found two sweet spots and now I can only say this coffee rocks!!
    Here is a post on that:

    Thanks and best wishes,