watched as an Olympic sprinter flashes with great grace toward the finish line, with rippling muscles and pumping veins leaning and stretching with all they have trying to finish one hundredth of a second ahead of their competitor.
Or watched as a slalom skier flies downhill at break-neck speeds, skillfully flicking their skis left, then right, all the time knowing that the slightest miscalculation will not only cost them the race, but possibly send them careening down the hill.
Or maybe you have been witness to a physicist, frantically scribbling on a pad of paper, looking for that perfect digit that will make what looks like random cave etchings to the average person unlock certain mysteries of the universe.
Professionals Perfecting Their Craft
These professionals put everything they have into perfecting their craft, relentlessly moving forward, always looking for the next great discovery or attempting to shave that millisecond off their time. Sometimes, you have to stop and ask yourself, “Do I put this level of focus on my coffees?” Do you analyze the every possible potential locked away in each bean that enters your roastery?
The same attention that an athlete puts to each step of their race or routine can and should be put to creating the ideal roast for each coffee in your lineup. This takes a tremendous amount of time and effort. But through tastings you will find that each coffee has its own sweet spot that can be zeroed in on with attention to detail.
With increased coverage that boutique coffees are getting in the media and cafes, it is more important than ever to develop your skills of coaxing out all that a given coffee has to offer. The public’s attention is quickly shifting away from the old standards of “How dark is this coffee?” or “How much caffeine is in this coffee?” to “Where exactly was this coffee grown?” and “What are the natural flavor characteristics that I should be looking for in this coffee?”
And so, we, as roasters, must be asking those questions to ourselves with every coffee we purchase. And not only “What are the natural flavor characteristics of this coffee?” but much like the sprinter squeezes every last push out of his burning legs, “How can I roast this coffee in a way that will bring out every last drop of deliciousness?”
This is one more thing to contemplate as you cup samples of coffees you may potentially purchase. Ask yourself how this particular Costa Rica differs from your previous offering. If it is different, which of course it will be since no two coffees are identical, then what specific roast will maximize this coffee?
Which Roast is Right?
Deciphering what “roast” will best suit a particular coffee is about so much more than just the degree of roast or the darkness of the finished product. It means analyzing every stage of the roast and understanding how it will interact with the flavor components of the coffee. How will the adjustments you make interact with the coffee, calling certain characteristics to the forefront, all the while diminishing other taste characteristics to the faint background of the cup. One roast profile just doesn’t work for every coffee.
To know how the small changes in a roast will interact with the nuances of a coffee is to know the magic of our craft. There are a lot of techniques developed to break down the effects that the different parts of the roast will have on the coffee, but it is always best to start with the final degree of roast.
Generally, as you go from a lighter to a darker roast you will notice a few consistent changes in the taste profile of a coffee. The acidity and brighter flavor characteristics will go from most intense at the lighter end of the spectrum, and will decrease, the darker the roast. Generally the lighter fruit notes such as lemon, grapefruit, or green apple characteristics will become diminished with darker roasts.
The body, or mouth-feel, of a coffee works more like a bell curve, with the lightest roasts possessing less body, and increasing as they move to a medium rich chocolate color of roast. But as the roast turns the corner towards a darker roast, the body will diminish as the oils leave the bean.
The sweetness of the coffee will follow a similar curve as body; the light extreme will be lacking in sweetness, as the sugars have yet to be caramelized. As the coffee darkens, those sugars are developed in the same fashion as sauteeing onions develops their sweetness. As the coffee darkens, sweetness decreases and bitterness increases; the sugars are broken down further by the roasting process.
So as you cup a coffee at a light cupping roast, once you have verified that it is defect free, you can begin the process of assessing the natural flavor characteristics that it possesses. Then use your knowledge of how certain degrees of roast will harmonize with the coffee’s flavor.
If you have a coffee that has very delicate flavor notes, then you may not want to be too aggressive with your roast. If you do, you risk losing those flavors behind the bitterness that can develop at more extreme dark roasts. On the other hand, you may have a coffee that has an abruptness to its flavor, which you can take the edge off with a darker roast.
Developing a Champion
This basic level of roast development is really just the beginning, though. It is the equivalent of telling that strong sprinter that he is better suited for the hundred-meter race than he is for a marathon. The refining of a roast profile is more complicated, much like teaching that sprinter the finer techniques that will propel him to a championship.
In order to develop a championship level of refined coffee, you will need to go further in depth into the different sections of a roast. To do this, it can be helpful to split the roast into a few separate stages. Then you can time and graph each section, and cross-reference that data with what you are tasting in the cup. You can then make educated adjustments to the roast profile.
The first stage is what roasters have often called the “drying stage,” which is generally from the start of the batch up to around 300?. This stage of the roast may, at first, seem like a non-consequential part of the roast, where the roaster is simply driving the water out of the bean. In reality it is much more important than that.
Besides the drying process, the beginning of the roast is where you establish the acceleration of heat within the coffee bean. This acceleration of heat will directly affect the path that the coffee will take through the beginnings of the browning stage. The drying stage is where the beans are at highest risk for scorching. As the batch moves towards 280?, keep a close eye for scorching. It will show up as small dark dots on the coffee beans. Lowering the flame setting, increasing the airflow, or decreasing the batch size will help to avoid this scorching.
The browning stage is between 300? bean temperature and around 385? when the beans are full into the first crack. This stage is where the foundation for the flavor developments is laid. Too fast, and you will notice excessive bitterness. Too slow and the coffee’s flavor will end up flat and lifeless.
Finally, the last stage of the roast is the finishing stage. This is where every adjustment is crucial to the refinement of the flavor profile you are targeting. This stage lasts from first crack at 385? through to the end of the batch. Too fast through this crucial stage and the coffee’s flavor will be unbalanced and underdeveloped; too slow and the baked coffee will be lacking brightness and complexity. The end of the batch is where those split-second decisions and the exact attention to the ideal degree of roast will make all the difference.
Where experience comes into play will be your ability to measure and link these distinctly different stages in the roast, bringing out all that a coffee has to offer. Anyone can roast a crisp acidic Kenya, but can you make it gleam without any murkiness, perfectly clean with a tea-like quality to the texture?
Finally, cupping these different profiles on one single coffee will demonstrate how truly different one coffee can taste with small adjustments. Only through mastering the time versus temperature curve, and specifically tailoring that curve uniquely through each stage can you have your coffee Olympic ready.
Roast master Phil Beattie is director of Coffee for Dillanos Coffee Roasters, Sumner, Washington, a member of the Tea & Coffee Editorial Advisory Board and is recognized nationally for his passion and commitment to the specialty coffee industry. He is an active member of the Roasters Guild; a regular contributing writer in specialty coffee and roasting magazines; and cupping instructor at all North American Coffee Fests.