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  The Effect of Roast Style on Coffee Flavor      
        August 25, 2010      

Coffee has never been without its share of enthusiasts willing to improvise with whatever tools were on hand for a fresh cup of joe. Frontiersmen, for example, roasted green coffee in tin pans over an open fire and ground the beans with their rifle butts. Thankfully, the science of coffee roasting has changed for most of us, but the importance of the roasting process has not. Aside from the quality of the green bean itself, no other factor contributes more to the flavor of coffee than the roast style applied to it. (See our separate blog entry for general information on ROAST STYLE .)

Put simply, a roast style is a means to describe how deep into a roast a coffee has been taken. The longer the roast time or the higher the temperature in the roasting drum, the darker the bean. Light, medium, and dark are terms used to identify a coffee's roast style. By extension, these terms also inform the consumer as to a coffee's general flavor profile since each roast style coaxes specific flavor properties from the bean.

        To examine the effect of roast style on coffee flavor, we have identified five primary traits that contribute to flavor— acidity (the pleasant brightness of a fine coffee), body, sweetness, varietal character (a coffee's inherent traits that distinguish it from coffee grown elsewhere), and aroma—and plotted the impact of five general roast styles—medium light, medium, medium dark, dark, and very dark—on each of the traits. The graphs below are intended as rough approximations of a coffee's flavor transformation, based on general consensus within the coffee industry.
                 The Effect of Roast Style on Acidity                                  The Effect of Roast Style on Varietal Character
The Effect pf Roast Style on Acidity
       The Effect of Roast Style on Varietal Character

As represented by the graph above to the left, the correlation between roast style and acidity is nearly linear. The darker the roast, the lower the acidity. Similarly, as coffee is subjected to increased heat in the roasting drum, varietal character diminishes, as shown on the graph to the right.

On the other hand, the effect of roast style on the three remaining flavor traits reflects the rise and fall of a coffee's body, sweetness, and aroma when an increasingly darker roast is applied.

                     The Effect of Roast Style on Body                                 The Effect of Roast Style on Sweetness
The Effect of Roast Style on Body        The Effect of Roast Style on Sweetness

                                                                The Effect of Roast Style on Aroma

                                      The Effect of Roast Style on Aroma 

Taken together, the five primary contributors to a coffee's flavor profile when plotted across the five major roast styles look like this:

                                 The Effect of Roast Style on Coffee Flavor
                          The Effect of Roast Style on Coffee Flavor 


At first glance, the graph above might suggest that the best roast style for all coffees is medium dark since three of the five traits intersect near the graph's apex there, with varietal character just below. Because of this, some roasters refer to a medium-dark roast as a "full flavor roast." At the same time, however, a medium-dark roast diminishes acidity, a favorable quality for many coffee  drinkers, and mellows varietal character. At that level, the lemony notes characteristic of a lighter roasted Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, for example, would deepen to dark chocolate and dried fruit. Roasting all coffees to the same level simply would not satisfy the taste preferences of customers whose coffee palates differ markedly. Further, the coffees that professional tasters most admire for their bright, fruity, and wine-like flavors are generally roasted with a lighter touch, just shy of medium dark. Still, roast style is the second most important influence on coffee flavor. The primary factor is the quality of the green bean itself—in most cases.

We mention the exclusion, "in most cases," to point out that all five traits fall off at the "Very Dark" roast level. Although a coffee's varietal flavors deepen to a baritone complexity in a "Dark Roast," in a "Very Dark" roast all varietal properties are muted. The carbonized taste of a very dark-roasted coffee results when beans have yielded all flavor of origin to the power of a intense roast. One tastes the flavor of the dark roast—termed roast character—rather than the intrinsic flavor of the coffee bean—varietal character—at this level.

A specialty coffee roaster's fundamental goal is to showcase each coffee's finest qualities. The roast style selected becomes a means to shape acidity, body, sweetness, varietal character, and aroma into a unified whole that complements rather than detracts from a coffee's overall flavor. Let's take Papua New Guinea (PNG) as an example. Since PNG is a high-grown coffee, it is also a hard-bean coffee. Consequently, it's an excellent candidate for a dark roast since it can tolerate heat with ease. Yet when the lineage and flavor potential of the PNG are considered, there's far more to this coffee than meets the eye.

Grown from the Typica coffee varietal (see COFFEE VARIETALS ), PNG is a mutation of the revered heirloom Ethiopian coffees and offers excellent cup quality, notably outstanding sweetness and body. Seedlings from the Jamaican Blue Mountain region were imported to Papua New Guinea in 1927. Today the PNG rivals the mild, mellow qualities of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. The question for the specialty coffee roaster becomes one of how to do justice to an inherently sweet and ample-bodied coffee, a descendant of Jamaican Blue Mountain. Roasters make decisions such as this based on the coffee itself, the best fit for a bean's roast style among the company's other offerings, and the predominant roast level preferred by customers. 

What does all of this mean for the consumer? In pursuit of a great brew, coffee lovers are more likely to settle in with the perfect cup when armed with a bit of information. Whatever the ideal cup might be for them—flavorful and bright, smooth and rich, or dark and robust—knowing how a coffee's roast style contributes to flavor is one more factor to consider when looking to satisfy individual preference. Consumers would be smart to assess the range of roast styles offered by a roaster or made available by a coffeehouse. If there exists little variation in terms of roast style, that single discovery is telling.

Knowledgeable roasters act on the belief that a roast style should be informed by the beans in the roaster rather than on a one-roast-fits-all approach routinely imposed on them. Although Starbucks took the American coffee scene by storm with its bold, dark-roasted coffees more than two decades ago, it has broadened its lineup in recent years to include mild- and medium-roasted coffees as well. The "Mermaid" had to acknowledge, as we all do, that customers deserve roast style options and that specialty coffees, distinctive as they are, warrant nothing less than careful attention to the "seeds of possibility" they represent. 

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