Welcome to the dark side (of coffee) / by Bryan Hibbard

Last summer, I wrote an introduction to light roasts as a way to demystify the subject and to encourage more people to step outside of their comfort zone and try something new. I thought it only fitting that I write a companion article that explores the dark roast. While a dark roast is more common in our area, I feel there are just as many myths and misconceptions around the darker end of coffee roasting.

What is a dark roast?

First and foremost, lets get the definitions out of the way. A dark roast generally refers to coffee that has entered or even finished the 2nd crack phase in roasting.

Quick roasting science lesson. Coffee goes through a wide number of physical and chemical changes during the roast process. After the coffee finishes drying and browning, it enters first crack in which the internal structure of the coffee bean "cracks" open and releases water vapor as well as a myriad of aromatic compounds. At the tail end of first crack is where you get the lightest drinkable roasts. These roasts mostly display the origin flavors of the bean and are often bright, intensely aromatic, and light bodied. As the roast continues to progress there is generally about a 1-2 minute gap between first and second crack, this period contains all light and medium roasts. At the end of this phase, second crack begins, this is a more violent physical change in which parts of the bean are literally blown off like coffee shrapnel. This is the beginning stage of dark roasting and many of my medium-dark roasts are stopped at the first sign of second crack.

The dark roast allows you to appreciate the flavors and aromas that are created by the roast process itself. The downfall is that you loose some of the complexity of the origin flavors, and the darker you go, the more the roast flavors eclipse the origin flavors. Dark roasts also tend to have a heavier mouth-feel (though extremely dark roasts start to loose body). At the very darkest of roasts (just before the beans set on fire) the coffee tastes mostly of ash and charcoal. I don't roast this dark, (1) because I don't want to risk a roaster fire, (2) because all coffee, regardless of origin quality is going to taste about the same at this stage (burnt). There is not much agreement on standardized terms for dark roasting. My medium-dark roasts would be called light by some roasters, and unpalatably dark by others. So I am going to define dark roasts from my perspective. This should give you a good basis for exploring dark roasts. My most basic explanation of a dark roast is that they all display that characteristic bittersweet flavor that is imparted by roasting.

Some examples

The medium-dark roast, such as my Marty's Blend or Fulshear's Finest Blend is, in my opinion, the perfect balance of roast and origin flavors. The origin flavors are mellowed and refined and that classic bittersweet flavor lends strength and complexity to the individual origin flavors. This roast level tends to be medium to low acid regardless of origin. These are also the coffees that I find do the best with cream and sugar. Flavors like caramel and dark chocolate are very common as well as dark sugars such as molasses (the major flavor in my Fulshear's Finest Blend). Other examples of medium dark roasting include Sumatra: Organic Gerlang and Espresso Blend.

The dark roast for me is at a rolling second crack, just a few degrees hotter than my medium dark. You will see a slight sheen on the beans because the oils are starting to be forced out of the bean by the heat of the roast. At this stage the roast flavor is dominant and the origin flavors lend support in the background. My Mexico: Chiapas Jacinto is a straight dark roast and it is also my most popular coffee. There are very few coffees that I am willing to take to this level. This Mexican coffee works great because it is an extremely hard bean (very high elevation) and it can handle the dark roast without getting ashy. It also maintains a hint of its floral aromatics which lend complexity to the smokey, bittersweet roast flavors. This coffee has been a gateway into my product for many customers. My dark roast is far lighter than the big national brands, but it still has the flavor profile you expect from a dark roast. For those who are used to very dark roasts, it tastes incredibly smooth. You may ask why I don't offer more coffees in this roast level? The main reason is that most coffees tend to taste the same at this level and I want each of my coffees to be noticeably different. I will be bringing in a Honduran coffee in a few months that I think is going work as a dark roast, so I may soon have more than just my Mexico to offer you dark roast lovers! But no promises, each coffee gets roasted to the level that best displays its unique qualities.

Beyond this stage is what many would call the "French Roast." I don't roast this dark, because I feel there are already plenty of readily available French Roasts on the market. You will recognize this stage because the beans look like they have been coated in varnish. This is because most of the coffee oils have come out of the bean. The flavor is mostly smoke and charcoal and the body is light. If my picture of Marty's Blend above doesn't look dark to you, it is because you are used to seeing shellacked, French Roast coffee.

Why drink a dark roast?

So if you are a light roast fan, why should you give my dark roasts a chance?

1. Dark roasts are more forgiving on the brew method. The best light roasts require near perfect brewing technique to bring out their best qualities. Darker roasts can taste great even in less than ideal situations (though proper brewing methods make them taste even better!).

2. My dark roasts are not bitter, at least not in the way you are thinking. That tactile, lingering bitterness that many associate with coffee comes from stale beans, underextraction, and very dark roasts. The bittersweet flavor that I describe is short, pleasant, and adds a low note to the overall flavor. It also accentuates the rich chocolatey sweetness contained in many of my dark roasts. Dark roasts can be very subtle and refined, we need to stop seeing them as a bitter challenge for your taste buds.

3. If you just can't handle coffee black, you are going to really like the way a dark roast blends with cream and sugar, especially if you can get yourself to use a bit less so that the coffee can be the star. Add a small amount of cream and sugar to my Mexico: Chiapas Jacinto and you get a flavor that is similar to an artisan hot chocolate. The caramel notes in my Marty's Blend are really rounded out with a touch of cream.

4. If you find the brightness in light roasts to be a bit much, a dark roast will be much more mellow as the roasting process tones down the perceived acidity.

Dark roasts can be every bit as exciting as light roasts and if you are careful with how you treat them you can still bring out the best qualities in carefully grown and harvested coffees. We will continue to proudly offer the full spectrum of roast profiles from light to dark.