The Narrows

The Narrows

There's a phrase that I've been guilty of saying once or twice in the past, but which now really bugs me. The gist of it is:

"I'm just trying to roast the coffee so that all of its best qualities are realized without showing my influence over it."

Yes, there are some amazing characteristics latent in some coffees, and you can surely ruin those with too heavy a hand, but here is my problem. The coffee trade is a value added agriculture endeavor. At each step of the way, there is increased value added to the product and with this value, the price of the product should increase as well. With that in mind; if you aren't really adding any value to a coffee through your roasting and it is only these qualities which you believe to be inherent in them that makes them special, then how on earth are you going to charge someone the prices that you're charging them for that coffee? I don't want to get too much into a slap on the wrist kind of sentiment going here though, I want to make this about celebrating your craft of roasting. Being not just comfortable with your skill, but proud of what you're doing with the coffee.

I think one of the real roots of this dilemma is this idea that there is just one perfect roast for any particular coffee, or that if you want all the nuances of a coffee to be experienced that you can only take the roast seconds beyond the end of the first crack and that that is the only way any coffee should be roasted. THis thought process is as tyrannical as the one in the not so distant past that a coffee had to be roasted dark as possible before charring so that it would be "strong". If these are your personal preferences then I'm by no means going to tell you that you should roast your coffee differently, but I personally think that any particular coffee has a range of roasts at which great qualities will emerge. It's not just about roast level, not in the slightest. What gets lost in the extremes of this roast level debate is the idea of roast development.

Sweetness, body, and acidity are all greatly affected by decisions you make at certain times during the roast. The effects of those decisions can obviously be bad, but there is a good deal of range where you can shape the roast so that the brightness is more front loaded or in the finish, or so that the sweetness is more of a fruited sweetness or a more bittersweet cocoa type sweetness. Depending on the coffee and how you're brewing it or selling it for someone else to brew, this is such an important skill to learn.

One of the casualties of a narrowing idea of how coffees can be roasted is the ability for someone to have a really great coffee experience with brewing it in their own homes. Too often we push coffees on folks because they are what we like and what tastes great on our cupping table or in our pour-overs, but we've never looked at the coffee in a press pot or, god forbid, an auto drip brewer. I think it's really important to have a clear picture of how your coffees perform in various brewing devices, especially methods outside of the "ideal" brewing conditions.

I also think that it's wise to have a range of coffees (roast levels as well as flavor profiles) in your line up, not necessarily in a futile attempt to please everyone but in an attempt to reach a wider range of people who really want to have a great coffee experience. The great experience doesn't just have to be the fruit juice Kenya, or the jammy dry processed Ethiopia, or the delicate floral or tropical fruit nuanced obscure varietal. The great coffee experience can be something that's sweet, clean, and balanced. That's a great coffee experience, for anyone, at anytime. Great coffee isn't just the exotic, great coffee is any number of things, including approachable and accessible.

which really gets into a whole other discussion about how we score coffees in the first place... next time.



#1 Thank You for Saying This


I really appreciate your comments here. I've only been roasting for 2 1/2 years and am still very small by roaster standards. The man who trained me on the 5 kilo Primo roaster I have stressed post first crack development time. Right now I'm roasting 6 coffees and I drop them as follows:

Rwanda CoE, City+
Burundi, FC
Sulawesi, FC
Honduran, Roasted Coffee Pictorial Guide. ">FC+
Peru, FC+
Dark Roast, Roasted Coffee Pictorial Guide. ">light French

Our brand is primarily driven by the fact that we're philanthropic with the profits. So, many of our customers are attracted to our brand because of the fact that they want to spend their coffee dollars in such a way as to help others. Most of them tend to be soccer mom types in the Midwest who love the idea of drinking local coffee that's fresh, high quality, delicious and that allows them to be conscientious with their coffee dollars.

At times in the past two years I've stressed out over this whole third wave thing of uber light roasting coffees. I read blogs, look at what roasters in other parts of the country are doing, experiment in the shop and think... do I lack integrity as a roaster if I'm not following suit with this trend? I took an Ethiopian Sidamo that I had roasted to FC to a local roastery and had the guys there cup it. First comment, "I can definitely taste the affect of the roast on that." It was offered as a negative and I thought... "but I'm a coffee ROASTER." As if tasting some of the impartation of roast flavor is automatically a negative.

I have to keep coming back to one main thing for me: what do my customers enjoy drinking? Bottom line is, if I introduce a lot of them to a really bright light roasted Kenya, they may say, "no way." And I'm not in a demographic where I can expect to run a business appealing to hipsters that want to live on the coffee cutting edge for the sake of image. (OK, I didn't mean to make that sound harsh! ) I need people to look forward to getting up and brewing a cup of their favorite coffee in their Mr. Coffee maker. That's where most of them live right now.

Of course, we have moved a lot of people away from darkly roasted coffees and helped to educate them about the myriad of flavor profiles available to us in coffees. We've helped to deepen and increase many of our customers understanding of different brewing methods and how to taste what they are drinking; I'm excited about that.

Bottom line... I want to grow and expand my roasting knowledge. But I want to apply it in such a way that it helps to enrich and enliven the experience I'm offering my customers when they brew our coffee. And since people are at various places in their coffee journey and preferences, that means I need to recognize that and offer them a range of quality products they will enjoy and keep coming back for. That's what my part of the whole process from seed to cup is. I'm the roaster, the one who helps transform it from green to brown.

Sometimes I feel like the attitude of some people out there in the coffee industry towards ONLY light roasted coffee is, "This is what coffee is supposed to taste like. You should like this. If you don't it's because you've not yet been enlightened."

I just don't want to live there, and I appreciate your willingness to broach the subject.

Justin Carabello
Carabello Coffee

#2 agreed

I fully agree with the sentiment in your post, being a roaster in a small company it is sometimes difficult to balance what you think with what your customer wants. In our lab we have almost every method of brewing available, and we always try each method with our coffees to see how they taste in each including a Fetco brewer since that is what the majority of shops are using to brew coffee, if it doesn't taste good to them they are not going to want to drink it. I also think that this trend towards only roasting super super light doesn't really highlight the coffee the best sometimes, or show the skill of the roaster in general. Honestly anyone can listen to first crack wait 2 minutes and dump the coffee. I think it is unfortunate that we allow the few to dictate to the many, but that is how things always are in life as well as coffee. I like to see variations ion the roasting process and see someone who has a different yet fantastic take on the same coffee we roast, long live variety!

#3 Spoon Versus Cup

Nice Chris. You would think "roasting" had become a bad word as of late. You hear people say "I don't want to taste 'roast' in the coffee." What? Unless you want a mouth full of astringency and possibly a stomach ache, you DO actually need to roast coffee before drinking it. And that requires you make decisions. As you hint, light roast is the new dark roast. Under-roasting is being applied to all kinds of green coffees with the same lack of fore-thought that dark roasting used to be slathered on everything. I think the issue might stem from some confusion over brightness from good acidity, and seeming brightness from light roasting. On a cupping table, new cuppers usually pick more acidic coffees as the better ones, and can be tricked by slightly lighter roasts. And those coffees do stand out when you taste with a spoon. But customers drink coffee by the cup, not by the spoonful. What impresses you pulled across your palate with a slurp needs to be translated into a drink that works as you sip a brewed cup, from hot to cold, beginning to end. Cup testing is not cup tasting, I guess you could say. Okay, a little heavy-handed in my comment here, and maybe tacky to post on a site I also admin ... but your post hits a chord that seems timely. -Tom

#4 Roasting for the smaller shops

I would have to agree with every comment and the commentary of this post completely.

In my shop, I have always struggled with how "dark" to take the roasts. Where is that ideal balance of roasting dark to appeal to the "it always has to be dark" masses and roasting light to juuuuust try to coax a little more flavor out of the bean? Sure, I always try to explain that a lighter roast of the right coffee can have just as good of a mouthfeel as a dark roast, but there's always the ones that won't change their opinion.

I'm not saying that we are roasting everything for everyone, that's for sure. And I've found that over the years my roast profile has definitely migrated more to a City, City+ level by default, but I try to judge each coffee by tasting notes or sample roasts.

What I try to do with my main importer, Atlas, is this: with every bag I receive, I automatically plan on the first three pounds green of the bag goes to multiple roast level sampling. Only after cupping and brewing in multiple methods will we determine the correct roast level for the coffee. When figuring the cost per pound retail, I automatically remove those pounds and figure pricing as necessary. This won't work for many of the Shrub coffees we get, simply because of the green batch size, but the detailed notes on the site allow a great starting point for the roasts.

I am a firm believer that constant sampling of your product and the willingness to accept that you may have to change a roast profile as the bean either ages or your palate improves. If you have that mentality and the willingness to show people how great coffee *can* be made at home, I believe you've already taken that leap to being more of an accessible roaster.

R&R Coffee Cafe / Golden Pine Roasters
Black Forest, CO

#5 Development too

I love to see these comments, thank you for participating. I do want to stress that this is not just about roast level, but roast development. Bringing out the range of what can be good about any coffee has as much and probably more to do with development at specific stages of the roast. If you're trying to get folks to appreciate a lighter roast of a particular coffee, then stretching out the time between first and second (without stalling it) can break down the acids that lead to perceived acidity in the cup so that they are not so front loaded while still maintaining a fairly light C+ profile on it can maybe help them appreciate it more. When everything is in the very front of the palate and there hasn't been enough caramelization to develop the sugars beyond the cereal/malty sweetness, it makes for an aggressive cup and unpleasant experience for a number of people.

Caramelization is not a bad thing. Yes, the more you push it, the more bitter it is than sweet. But again, there is a range

#6 An open mind

Thanks to Chris and all of you for this excellent discussion, it's a common one at my work place and very important given some current trends. I very much agree with all your comments here, and have certainly been guilty in the past of the aforementioned statement of giving all the credit to the coffee's inherent qualities, even though I firmly believe in the complexity of our unique contribution as roasters.

All opinions aside about perceived ideals in profile, an unwillingness to understand the full spectrum of roast development is very confining and an injustice to any great coffee. For all the complex science there is to learn about the roasting process, there is in equal measure so much intangible, unknown, fascinating stuff to explore and uncover. It's nothing short of magic, and such a beautiful thing to be involved with...why would you limit yourself to a one-dimensional understanding of it? Between the factors we can control and those we cannot, there are limitless possibilities for us to express the coffee and comprehend its reaction to a roast.

The same types of dilemmas are toiled with well before we even get our hands on the green, as producers and cooperatives make decisions about how to process. Every detail from cherry selection to drying can propel that same coffee in profoundly different directions, each with its own unique qualities, successes, and challenges to be developed. Ultimately, which method they choose is less important than how well they understand it and how expertly it is executed. The most successful producers seem to be the ones who show a desire to understand more about the full spectrum of cultivation, experiment with new methods, and never close their minds to new knowledge and experience. I believe the same is true of great roasters, and that means we can never stop learning nor be content with one singular approach.

Patrick Grzelewski
Stumptown Coffee Roasters

#7 roast development

Great post. Just came across this and thought I would pitch in as its something I've been thinking about too recently.

I want to highlight something Chris said:
"It's not just about roast level, not in the slightest. What gets lost in the extremes of this roast level debate is the idea of roast development."

I completely agree here. I think we can all agree that there is a desirable range of roasting coffee. Below a certain point of development you will taste nuttyness, green, flat body, herbal notes and above a certain point of development you will taste bitter, adstringent, char and smoky notes. We dont want either. Also of course we dont want taints like baking and scorch, Within that range though I think we can roast however we want. Have our drop temps, drum speed, airflow, ramping however we want and thats what i think should be focused on.

To begin with i think the first thing is to state the density and moisture content of the bean. Then you can state weight loss and agtron color as indication.

Also can we stop using terms like light and dark and Full City, City and City + or whatever because they mean nothing to me. They may be a good indicator to consumers but its not taking us anywhere amongst professionals in the coffee industry

Felipe - Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza

#8 Felipe, I might take the


I might take the opposite stance and say that discussion of roast level might do very little to educate consumers, and very much to educate roasters. The discussions I have with my guests focus much more on variety and geography, because these are what I consider the defining characteristics of the coffee I roast. Were I to roast a coffee from a single estate or cooperative, and just vary the levels of my roast, that discourse might shift. Now, words like "light" and "dark" are beyond meaningless. So many roasters who have used these words and put them on a visual spectrum, giving the impression of something scientific and quantifiable. Of course, everyones scale is different, unless we start putting Agtron numbers on our retail bags... What I like about the City scale is that it means something concrete to me. When you say, "City+", I have a relatively good idea of what you are looking for. These are NOT terms that I hope become common usage with consumers; I think it is important to keep the discussion surrounding place in coffee, but really helpful terms for roasters to create a common language.

Here is a link to the SM visual guide. I hope you enjoy!