Coffee roasting is a delicate balancing act – one that requires a blend of science and art, consistency and creativity. Operating the roaster and understanding the bean origin is all science; but creating the ideal roast level for a particular bean is like striving toward a masterpiece.
Remember in middle school when your science teacher talked about how plants grow? The sun and soil are like the parents of the plant, guiding and modifying growth. Additional factors influence the eventual adult plant – proximity of neighboring plants, availability of water, elevation, temperature…the list goes on.
These environmental facts play a huge role in the coffee industry. Experiences of the coffee plant influence what ends up in your coffee cup. While there are always exceptions, the current understanding is that coffee trees will produce their best beans when grown at high elevation in a tropical climate where there is rich soil. Plant variety, chemistry of soil and other variables, combined with the way the coffee is processed (we’ll talk about that later), all contribute to the quality and flavor of the bean.
When Examining a bean’s origin, here are some things to keep in mind –
- Coffee trees grow slower at higher elevation and when under shade, thus prolonging bean development. This slower rate of growth causes the beans to ‘pack in’ the nutrients. As a roaster, we know these beans as High Density (HD), Strictly Hard Beans (SHB) or Strictly High Grown (SHG). In general, the higher the elevation, the more pronounced and distinctive the coffee flavor.
- Most people are familiar with the specialty coffee “Arabica”. It is the short way of saying the species of coffee, Coffea arabica. The other dominant species is Coffea Canephora (also known as Coffea Robusta). Robusta was thus named because it is easier to tend to on the farm, has a higher yield and is less sensitive to insects. Green beans are also about half the price of Arabica green beans on the commodity market. While all this sounds great, it is important to remember that Robusta is also known for its taste – burnt, tire-like or rubbery. Robusta is very common in blends, especially instant coffee and espresso.
Once the green beans make it to the roast house, the science takes a step to the side and the roaster puts on her painter’s smock. With the knowledge of a bean’s origin, the roaster dumps the beans in (usually at around 400 degrees) and carefully modulates the roast with heat and air flow to accentuate origin flavors and maintain antioxidant content.
When looking at roast degree, here are some things to consider –
- Darker is not always better. In fact, some roasters take their beans to a dark level when they dislike what the beans offer. By roasting dark, they obliterate flavors and create a general, ‘dark roasted flavor’.
- Oily beans indicate not only that they were roasted darker but that they are older. All beans will express oil at some point so it’s much harder to tell age when dealing with dark roasted coffee.
- Dark roasts have the least amount of antioxidants.
- It’s also possible to not roast dark enough and to end too early. Be wary of a roast that says it ended before ‘First Crack’ (the point in the roast where water is explosively being released from the bean). Beans at this stage in development often taste ‘woody’, or generally undeveloped. Another way to describe them is that they’re ‘too green’. Like eating corn on the cob – raw and unheated, it tastes like it’s missing a little something. Apply a little heat and the flavors really meld and take on complexity.
- Medium or Medium/dark roasts are the preferred degree among most in the specialty coffee industry. It’s about going dark enough to create complexity and nice body (how it feels in your mouth) but staying light enough to keep the origin flavors and antioxidants intact. This moment in roast time will vary with each bean.
- If your coffee has a “roasted date” on the bag of more than 2 weeks ago, pass on it. Fresh roasted coffee needs a few days to age (48-72 hours) where the energy of the roast subsides and the origin flavors and aromas start to come out. You then have about two weeks to enjoy that coffee in its prime. After that, things begin to fade.
- Whole beans stay fresh much longer than ground. Ground coffee starts to lose its charm within 24 hours and is stale in a few days. To enjoy the best cup, consider purchasing a grinder so that you can grind whole beans at home, right before brewing.
Fresh roasted coffee is a lot like fresh baked bread and a little like fancy wine. Like bread, freshness completely changes the eating experience. But like wine, coffee needs some time (48-72 hours) after roasting to develop complexity.
At Bean Vivant in Silver City, we offer our coffees in quarter pound increments (1/4 lb) so that you can purchase small amounts and try new beans out with little risk. Our smallest amount for online sales is a 12 ounce bag (3/4 lb). If you usually consume about a pound per week, feel free to visit multiple times and get small quantities. We’ll grind it for you if you have no grinder but we especially encourage small amounts in that case.