Perfect Roast?

There’s a phrase I’ve been guilty of using in the past, but now really bugs me. The gist of it is:

“I’m just trying to roast the coffee to show its best qualities, without showing my influence over it.”

Yes, there are amazing characteristics latent in some coffees, and you can surely ruin those with too heavy a hand (er.. too heavy a roast). But here is my problem. The coffee trade is a value-added agriculture endeavor. At each step of the way, there is value added to the product and the price of the product increases accordingly. If you aren’t adding any value through your roasting and it is only these inherent qualities which make a coffee special, then how on earth are you going to charge the prices that you’re asking?

In the past few years, the “perfect roast”  has meant a very light roast, just a few seconds past the end of first crack (or, regrettably, even earlier).   You would think “roasting” had become a bad word. 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. 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.  The issue might stem from some confusion between the brightness that comes from good acidity, and what seems like brightness from light roasting.

Justin Carabello of Carabello Coffee says:

“[Roasting]’s  my part of the whole process from seed to cup. I’m the roaster, the one who helps transform [the coffee] from green to brown.”

There is no perfect roast for any particular coffee, and the idea that there issuch a thing is the root of the dilemma.  Getting fixated on the nailing the “perfect roast” can mean that you end up missing something else really surprising and amazing about a coffee.  Commercial roasters sometimes get locked into one roast as their signature – and then stop experimenting.  From a home roasting perspective, there is more room for experimentation, since the audience for your roasts is mainly yourself.

What gets lost is the importance of roast development, or controlling different aspects of the roast to pull out different characteristics of the coffee.  Sweetness, body, and acidity are all greatly affected by decisions you make at certain times during the roast. You can shape the roast so that  brightness is more front-loaded or more in the finish, or so that the sweetness is more fruited or more bittersweet-cocoa. 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.

Great coffee isn’t just the exotic. 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 is any number of things, including approachable and accessible.