The level of education of the coffee customer has moved well beyond the expectation of the beige-coloured dishwater from the corner gas station.
Along with many other fresh food choices, consumers are no longer satisfied to just open a can of generic beans.
The grocery shelves are lined with choices of brands, roasts and grinds to cater to a growing discerning taste palate. And for those wishing to obtain the highest quality of freshest roasted beans, the local coffee roastery has become as popular as the neighbourhood bakery.
One of the most frequent questions people ask me when they come to the Roastery is, “What is the best coffee?” The answer: “That is completely personal to you.”
In the coffee world, terminology is a maze of complexity that can be mysterious and daunting. With a brief overview, one can start to refine which characteristics their tastes lean toward and enable them to find a coffee they enjoy or find a range which they can explore without wasting their money (however, in my biased opinion, good coffee is never a waste).
In the process of coffee roasting, starches (acids) are being converted to sugars, the cooking of which give the green bean (which tastes more like a lentil) its taste that we know as coffee.
The longer the bean is roasted, the more sugars (and fewer acids) are converted. At the point of roasting that is called “full city”, the acids and sugars are in natural balance for that coffee bean.
A full-city roast is typically a medium roast in the roaster’s offerings. As the roasting progresses, sugars start to caramelize and the distinctive quality of dark roast coffees comes out. This can range from a slight increase in sweetness from its full-city counterpart as in the case of Dark Colombian, or to the deep, burnt sugar taste of the very dark roasted coffees, like Dark French.
Coffee loses body (the “weight” of coffee in your mouth) as the time in the roaster increases; so many very Dark Roasts can be “thin” and sharp. It also loses caffeine as it roasts, but only slightly, not a significant amount like decaffeination, so lighter roasts are actually higher in caffeine as well as acids.
In the dark roasts, the bean dries to a point where the oils inherent in the bean rise to the surface, giving sheen to the darker beans. This oil contains flavinoids, complex organic compounds that hold the magic of the coffee taste.
These oils are volatile and can stale within 10 days after roasting, so freshness plays an important role in how your coffee tastes.
Most specialty coffee names are by varietal or country of origin. If the coffee has been taken past full-city roast, it will have the term “dark” before the country name.
Then there’s Dark French or Dark Italian, named for regions we know don’t grow coffee beans. What’s up with that?
These are simply Industry names which, to confuse you even more, are not standardized. One Roaster’s Dark French is comparable to another’s Dark Italian. This is where helpful charts and staff can guide you through your decision making.
Then there are blends, which have often nebulous or downright weird names like “Breakfast Blend”, “Yukon Blend” or “Deadman’s Reach”. These names are reflections of the character of the roastery and are usually made up of a combination of two to five different varietals giving a more complex taste than a single coffee.
Blends can be roasted and then blended, giving a combination of distinct flavours that complement each other or blended green, then roasted, giving a richer, more unified flavour (think a long-simmered spaghetti sauce).
Espresso is also subject to your roasters’ whim, as every company has its own, often very secret recipe for their particular taste of espresso.
While any dark roast can be used to make an espresso coffee, these blends usually offer a carefully nurtured profile of enough acidity to add liveliness on the palate with enough caramel richness to carry the body through when added to milk.
So your choices can range from a complex taste of a blend to a pure, simple,clean taste of a varietal, from the balanced taste of a medium full-city roast to the caramelly richness of a dark roast.
Still confused? Roastery staff are always happy to help you find the range that suits your preferences.
Or you could drop in on your roastery if they have a cupping (tasting) session or get a group of friends together to arrange one. Once you determine what you like (or don’t) you can start to enjoy the wide world of coffee flavours that are as varied and unique as the many countries and roasters that produce the object of our affection.