September 23, 2020

Why Are Coffee Beans Changing Rapidly From Dark Roasts To Light Roasts?

I remember vividly the first time I had a cup of light roasted coffee. I didn't actually know I was drinking a light roast at the time. All I knew was that it tasted WAY different than the Venti Pike from Starbucks I was used to drinking. So different that I almost asked the barista if something was wrong with the coffee. Something was different about this coffee shop though. There was a sense of community and the owner was a fellow entrepreneur his mid 20's, who I quickly had something in common with. After a couple weeks of working remotely from this coffee shop, I asked the owner why the coffee tasted different. He explained to me that he worked directly with a craft coffee roaster in Denver who specialized in roasting coffee beans on the light to medium side. He told me about the flavor profiles of light roasted beans: fruity, floral, and aromatic.

"You know how craft breweries each have their own unique spin on beer?" he asked. "Craft coffee is similar." I learned that roasters are able to pull out flavors like blackberry, green apple, raspberry, hibiscus, or honey, depending on what region of the world the beans came from.

He invited me behind the coffee bar and explained the detailed process of how to dial in his La Marzocco espresso machine every morning. I was fascinated. I hadn't missed a morning of coffee drinking since my sophomore year in college (I still haven't and don't plan to anytime soon.)

Up until that point in my life, I was drinking coffee strictly for the caffeine boost.  My experience in The Perk Coffee Shop opened me up to a whole new world of coffee. I've been fascinated with light roast coffee ever since. And I believe it can be boiled down to one factor:

The Experience

The Experience Of Light Roast Coffee

Before we go any further, I want to make something clear. I'm a millennial. We millennials tend to highly value experiences as a general rule of thumb. Therefore, I'm willing to pay exponentially more for high quality coffee, wine, beer, or food because the taste of the experience brings gratification.

Since my introduction into craft coffee, I'm obsessed with stopping at local specialty shops anytime I visit somewhere new. Denver is a hoppin' place for the craft coffee scene. The Mile High City is home to roasters and specialty shops like Huckleberry, Sweet Bloom, Corvus, Novo, and Thump to name a few. (Currently writing this article from Huck's Sunnyside location in Denver.) Other hot specialty coffee markets are obvious cities like Austin, Boulder, Raleigh, and San Francisco. As millennials who value experiences and travel, this gives us a solid go-to morning experience anywhere we travel to.Next time you're in a new city, Google search "craft coffee shop" and go visit several shops with the best reviews.

(Tip: A good indicator that the coffee shop is serving light roast coffee beans is by their photos on Google. If they have photos of drinks with latte art, it's a 99% chance you'll have a good tasting experience.)

Walk into a the shop and ask the barista what "single origin" they're running on espresso. Order this as espresso to get the ultimate full flavor of the bean. Or, if you prefer something with milk, order a cortado or cappucino to maintain the coffee tasting experience. If you'd prefer a cup of coffee, ask what they recommend serving for their light roast option in a pour over. The pour over style of brewing coffee takes longer than ordering a cup of ready made drip (roughly 5-7 mins total for pour over), but it's a much better way to taste the flavor profile of the beans. As you do this several times, you'll be able to start tasting different flavor notes in each of the different light to medium roast coffee beans. As a fair warning, if this is your first time transitioning directly from a dark roasted coffee bean, it will taste different to say the least. If you don't like the light roast on round 1, give it another 2 or 3 tries at different coffee shops. You can always go back to the dark side.

The Common Myth About Dark Roast Coffee

Most people who are proponents of the dark roast are that way because they believe dark roast coffee is strong, bold, and way more caffeinated than light roast coffee. The reason I can say this with confidence is because I actually used to think this very thing. Logically thinking, a darker, bolder, blacker (is that even a word?) cup of coffee should be stronger and therefore more caffeinated, right?

Wrong. Dark roast simply refers to the amount of time the coffee bean is left in the roaster during the roasting process. That's it. The longer the bean is roasted, the darker it becomes. Picture a piece of firewood. This firewood is whiteish, tannish, brownish (whatever color you'd use to describe normal firewood.) Take that piece of firewood and put it in the fireplace. What happens to the firewood as it sits in the heat of the fire?

It begins to change color. As the wood sits in the fire, the water inside the wood evaporates from the heat of the fire. When the water is completely evaporated, the wood turns to a pure black charred substance and then eventually ash. Coffee beans are similar. They begin as a green color. As the beans sit in the heat of the roaster, they become darker with time. Simply put, light roast coffee beans are left in the roaster for a shorter amount of time than dark roast coffee beans. As you can assume, this equation has a drastic effect on the flavor profile of the coffee beans. Dark roast coffee tends to have a nutty & charred taste, whereas light roast coffee will boast loads of fruity and floral notes.

How Did Dark Roast Coffee Beans Become The Norm For So Long?

Coffee roasted at lighter roast profiles will showcase the "origin character" of the bean. Origin character refers to the flavors produced by the bean based on certain variables such as: region of the world the bean came, how the bean was processed, what altitude the bean was grown, the makeup of the soil content, and humidity and temperature of the location. As the beans are roasted for longer amounts of time, the origin character of the bean is masked by the heat of the roasting process. The dark roasted flavor from the heat is so overpowering that it makes it difficult to taste any of the flavors associated with the origin character of the bean. Why does this matter?

Looking at the bigger picture, it seems that it's much easier to mass produce coffee beans at a darker roast being that the flavors of the origin character of the bean are masked. For large corporations who care most about the bottom line, it's much easier to deliver a similar tasting product at scale by roasting the beans for longer amounts of time and removing all of the bean's origin flavors. This also allows mass coffee producers to mix and match beans sourced from different suppliers because they know the dark roast flavor will cover up any differences in flavor between the beans.

Let's be honest, most dark roast coffee has a similar bold flavor to it. Doesn't matter if you get Folgers, Maxwell, or Lavazza, it's all going to taste relatively the same: bold and roasty. When you're drinking this stuff, you could be drinking beans from all different parts of the world in one cup. That might not always be a bad thing, but there's less quality control going into this equation. One motto I seem to be more fond the older I get is, "Quality Over Quantity." Who knows what kind of quality you're getting when a massive corporation is mixing all sorts of beans together.

Quality is another reason I get so excited about light roast craft coffee.

The Craft Of Light Roast Coffee

Roasting coffee at the specialty craft level is just that: a craft. Therefore, it takes more time and effort to ensure each bean is roasted to perfection. It's part art, part science. Let's take a single origin bean from Ethiopia and give the same bean in its green form to two coffee roasters: Coffee Roaster A and Coffee Roaster B. We ask both roasters to roast the bean to perfection. After roasting, we try a cup of coffee from each of the two batches of roasted beans. We notice that while similar in ways, they're also different some ways. Why?

This is where the art comes in. Each roaster has their own taste buds and flavor preferences. Each roaster will test a bean under different roasting variables such as heat and time to develop their own specific taste profile. They'll test this process religiously until they produce a flavor they like. They document the whole process so they can reproduce similar results in small batch quantities. Part art, part science. And this takes time. Lots of time. What I love about specialty craft roasters is they take pride in this process. Along with this, the roasters also take pride in where they're sourcing their green coffee beans from.

Many craft coffee roasters will travel to the origin farms of where the beans are grown. They get to know the farmers personally. They do business the old school way. Over a hand shake. They ensure the beans are being handled properly throughout the process before they agree to purchase the beans from the farmer. They take pride in quality control. And like I mentioned above, I prefer quality over quantity at this point in my life. Along with quality, I also enjoy my productivity boost from the cognitive enhancer, caffeine.

Light Roast vs. Dark Roast: Which Has More Caffeine?

In The Perk retail location, we focus on serving coffee that is roasted on the light to medium side. It's quite interesting to observe how many people come in the shop and say "gimme the darkest roast you got." I've personally made it a point to ask people in this situation if they are requesting a dark roast for the flavor profile or if they're simply looking for a caffeinated cup of coffee. If they say something like, "I enjoy the flavor of the darker roasts," I'll reply with the following: "Perfect, we focus on the lighter to medium roasts, so I recommend you check out the Rocky Mountain Roastery down the road. They focus on dark roasts and you'll be much happier buying a cup there if you prefer the darker taste. But, if you're open to trying a light roast, I'm happy to make you a pour over and let you experience the flavors that come along with it."

This rarely happens because the majority of people tell me they're requesting a dark roast because they want a strong, bold cup of coffee with the most caffeine they can get. I can relate to them. Before I started learning from my business partner about the roast profiles of coffee, I also thought that a dark roast meant more caffeine. Once I began to dive more and more into coffee, I heard from numerous people in the craft industry that caffeine was burned off during the roasting process.

After doing some research, I realized that scientifically the roast plays little role in the caffeine content of the coffee. Everything I have found from sources I believe to be credible state that the caffeine content is rather stable throughout the roasting process. I wanted to get an expert opinion so I reached out to our roasting partner at Huckleberry Roasters. He seemed to agree that the roasting process has minimal effect on the caffeine content. His intuitive opinion was "the caffeine content in the bean has more to do with nutrient development during the growing process." He used the example, "If a coffee is grown poorly (lower altitude, faster growing season, etc.) you’ll end up with less caffeine in the bean."

After hearing this from an expert craft coffee roaster, I'm choosing to believe the caffeine levels between a light roast and a dark roast are minimal in difference.

Conclusion: Light Roast vs. Dark Roast

So which one should you choose? If you like the traditional coffee taste of Folgers, Maxwell, and generic store bought brands, I'd recommend staying with a dark roast. For those of you who are into unique flavor profiles in food, beer, and wine, I'd highly recommend giving a light roast coffee a chance. Next time you're in a new city, google "craft coffee" and go visit two or three of the top reviewed shops. Ask the barista if they serve a light roast. If they say yes, order it on pour over or as a cortado.

You'll be in for an experience to say the least.