The "dreaded" light roast

For many of my customers, mention of a light roasted coffee elicits a strong response of dislike. To be honest, before I had a great light roast, I thought I hated them too. Below is my fervent defense of the light roast. It is an amazing way to showcase many coffees (thought not all coffees).

The 2nd wave of American coffee that started in the 1970s (that would be Peet's, Starbucks, and their like) was built upon the dark roast. It was in direct contrast to the super-light and bland commercial roasts of the day. The darker a coffee is roasted, the less dense it becomes and the more coffee beans you have to add to equal a pound. Large commercial roasters had pushed coffee as light as it could go in order to maximize profits. But the light roast profile is very unforgiving, and so if you use bland, cheap beans, the light roast is going to taste weak and boring. The dark roasts coming out of Peet's and Starbucks were much better. 1. They worked at sourcing better coffee. 2. The dark roast allowed for a much more flavorful cup, even using the beans that were available to them 40 years ago. I theorize that most coffee drinkers started to hate light roasts because they had a really weak cup of breakfast blend that tasted like nothing, and then they went to a coffee shop and got a dark, bold cup and found it to taste much better, especially with our penchant for lots of cream and sugar.

So what should a light roast be? That was a question that I didn't know the answer to fully until I had been home roasting for a while. When I first started roasting, I took everything to a medium-dark or darker level. As I started to experiment with progressively lighter roasts, I started to appreciate the flavor and aroma qualities that only appear in a light roast. Here are a few things to work out before you can properly appreciate a light roast.

  1. It will be bright (meaning acidic, like an orange or an apple) but it should not be sour. The best light roasts balance their brightness with the other elements, such as sweetness, astringency, and body. Think lemon-aid: Pure lemon juice is pretty rough, but dilute it and add sugar, and it is amazing. It would not be nearly as amazing if you removed the lemon juice.
  2. It will not be bitter, at least not much. We have become so accustomed to bitterness in coffee that I often have people comment that my light roasts taste more like some type of tea. Instead, you may notice some gentle astringency or dryness, though not always.
  3. Light roasts are more easily distorted by cream and sugar. While the bittersweet flavors of a dark roast can cut through cream and sugar, you can loose a lot of the nuances in a light roasted coffee. If you are used to cream and sugar in your coffee, try adding less, or none at all to a light roast.
  4. While it may taste less "bold" it actually has slightly more caffeine than very dark roasts, so don't feel like a light roast can't give you a boost.
  5. Light roasts are more picky on the brewing method. I really recommend a pour-over device to bring out all the nuances. Also get your water temp, grind size, and ratios right.
  6. Light roasts tend to be very aromatic, so make sure to take the lid off of your cup and enjoy the aroma as you drink it.
  7. Light roasts offer some of the most interesting and amazing flavors that can be found in coffee. From every fruit under the sun, to delicate floral aromas, to malty or cane sugar sweetness, often in the same coffee. My Kenya Nguvu is a great example of this. Too many fruits to mention, a rich cane sugar sweetness that just continues to get stronger as the cup sits, and a complex fruit and floral aroma.
  8. Light roasts can be just as full-flavored as their dark counterparts. It just may not be the flavor you were expecting.

With that in mind, you can see why so many people are turned off from light roasts. They can be ruined with improper brewing or too much creamer and the flavors they produce do not follow what we expect in a cup of coffee. I love the full range of coffee roasts and I want my customers to enjoy everything coffee can offer. So, if you have been afraid to try one of my light roasts, I encourage you to do so. Pick up a bag, or come by the Imperial Farmer's Market in Sugarland and try a cup. You may be surprised just how much you like it!

Bryan Hibbard4 Comments