October 9, 2020

Views From The Industry: Dark Roast


It’s no secret that medium and light roasts have become more popular with the rise of third wave coffee. However, the first cup of coffee for almost everyone in the world would have been a dark roast.

Newer and lighter roast profiles have only become more prevalent and accessible in recent years. They are also primarily associated with higher quality and more expensive specialty coffees.

To understand more about why coffee has historically been roasted dark and what the future holds for specialty dark roasts, I spoke to professionals from across the supply chain.

Lee este artículo en español Tueste Oscuro de Café: Opiniones de la Industria

Defining Roast Profiles

Before looking at dark roasts in particular, let’s examine the difference between roast profiles and how different industry professionals define them.

Tim Wendelboe was the 2004 World Barista Cup Champion, and is now the owner and coffee director of his self-titled coffee shop in Oslo, Norway. Most customers familiar with his coffee would describe it as a “light” or “Nordic” roast.

“I don’t talk too much about light, medium, and dark any more,” Tim says. “It’s more about whether a roast is developed or not. And then, of course, once it’s nicely developed, it can either be a lighter version or a darker version.” 

Tim suggests that roasters use tools like Agtron or ColorTrack, but he also says that it’s helpful to define it through the phases of a roasting cycle – specifically, what happens between first and second crack. “A very dark roast means the coffee has almost lost its identity. You could take a Kenyan coffee or an Indonesian coffee and roast them very dark, and they would taste the same.”

Michael Philips is the Director of Coffee Culture at Blue Bottle. He tells me that Blue Bottle also tries not to use the terms light, medium, or dark in describing their coffees. 

“[We try not to do it] unless we’re comparing two products, saying for instance that ‘coffee A is darker than coffee B’. Instead, we use things like colour, weight loss, and roast duration to establish a spec for a given coffee, based on the desired flavour profile.” 

Danny Wilson is the Head Roaster at Ona Coffee, and a two-time Australian Coffee in Good Spirits Champion. He says that Ona provides a more “purposeful” description with its roast profiles. “We classify them based on the end approach we’re trying to achieve. We have a filter roast, an espresso roast, and a milk-based coffee roast.”

Danny adds that the team at Ona think about the end result first, and try to make sure that everything else that happens across the supply chain is reflected in the cup. 

Enjoyed this? Then read Light, Cinnamon, City: What Do Coffee Roast Names Really Mean?

A Very Brief History Of The Dark Roast

Before the specialty coffee sector existed, coffee was roasted dark. Coffee companies generally cared about tonnage, rather than quality. As yield and sales were the only priorities, coffee generally had a much higher volume of defects. 

Coffees were generally roasted dark so that all green beans, good, bad, and everything in between, were developed to a level where they would taste the same. This was a way to ensure consistency and mask any defects.

This is why there is something of a stigma around darker roasts among third wave coffee drinkers. Even with high-scoring coffees, a lot of “modern” specialty coffee drinkers look down on darker roasts, believing that it “masks” the origin characteristics and innate flavour of the coffee.

Dark Roasts In Specialty Coffee

The general trend seems to be that coffee is roasted darker to deliver a specific flavour profile, product, or taste for the consumer. In most cases, a coffee is developed darker for espresso or milk-based coffee drinks.

Kyle Ramage is the co-owner and green coffee buyer at Black and White Coffee Roasters in North Carolina. He says: “When you’re getting into those roastier things, you need a lot of sweetness to make it even palatable. If we roast a not-super-sweet coffee pretty dark, it’s just flat. It becomes one-dimensional.”

Michael says: “For our blends, we often start with the desired flavour profile, and try to reverse engineer it through the coffee selection and roast profiling.” 

He adds that some of Blue Bottle’s highest quality coffees are developed for longer. “Blends like Three Africas or Bella Donovan regularly get extra development, but we are plenty proud of these coffees to feature them on their own.”

Martin Mayorga is the owner and founder of Mayorga Organics. He tells me that for Mayorga Organics, thinking about the roast profile starts at the farm.

“We’re advanced enough in the supply chain that we can curate and spec out the coffee from the farm to the wet mill, to the dry mill. We want a coffee that’s going to have that density and that sharpness, which will be able to kind of carry through a good, heavy dark roast. 

“Sometimes, the dark roast will overaccentuate the coffee’s characteristics, but you can’t go too far. You need something quality that’s going to hold up to that dark roast, or else you just tasting roast.”

Tim also says that, for example, an 88-point green coffee will generally taste better than an 84-point green coffee, whether it’s roasted dark or not. “High-quality material will still taste a little bit better than the lower even if it roasted dark,” he says.

Accounting For Personal Preference

Tim says that we shouldn’t try to be gatekeepers of what’s right and wrong in coffee. “I buy from some farmers who are selling coffee to a company that roasts very, very dark, and they sell some of their best coffee to them, although they don’t prefer to drink it that way.”

He notes that the most important thing is that a farmer sells off their entire harvest, and is appropriately remunerated for it. 

Kyle says that, as an industry, we should be careful not to tell customers that they should only be drinking light-roasted single origins. “It’s gonna take some changes in the way that we talk about coffee with ourselves within the industry and the kind of ‘dark roast shaming’ that we tend to do.

“When you start insulting the way someone drinks coffee or the way someone makes coffee, a lot of people see it as almost an attack on the way they do things. We did really poorly about five to ten years ago with the whole ‘no cream, no sugar, no condiment bar’ thing that we were trying to push. It was an absurd time for specialty coffee.”

Martin tells me that dark roasts always had their place in the industry, specialty or otherwise. “I think it’s a very ironic scenario where you get all these new, small, little roasters claiming specialty and claiming to know a lot about origins. And they kind of look down their nose at a profile that cultures in Latin America, African culture, and a lot of the Asian countries, enjoy – the darker roasts.”

Dark Roasts: A Future In Specialty?

Danny says he hopes that the industry changes the way it looks at roast profiles. “Hopefully, it’s heading to a point where we don’t just talk about light and dark. 

“[We should be] talking about roasting appropriately for the drink. Roasters need to ask themselves: ‘How do I take this coffee that’s grown in origin and then turn that into the best result for the customer and what they want to be drinking?’ Roasting is the way that you translate that information.”

Michael says: “It was only when I joined Blue Bottle that I was introduced to the way that you could treat a coffee with a higher level of development and still come through with something delicious. Just like with anything else, it takes exposure to something done well. 

“If you source it well, roast it well and build a recipe to its strength, just like we do with lighter offerings, I think you would see some opinions change.”

Kyle, however, believes that the future of the supply chain means dark roasts will have to become more prevalent. “I think the reality of climate change is going to be more a part of it. We’re not going to have access to these coffees that are truly vibrant unless we make some big changes in the way we do things in our environment. Every coffee producer I’ve ever talked to is saying that their world is changing. ‘It’s getting hotter!’ 

“The climate is changing for them, and they can’t do anything about it. So, unless we make some big changes there, I think you’re gonna see a lot of darker roasted coffee. Those beautiful filter roasted coffees that we love and cherish are going to go up in price exponentially as they go down in supply.”

Martin adds: “I don’t think specialty realises how insignificant it is in its own industry.” He says it’s naive to think that the rest of the coffee-drinking world will “convert” to light and medium roasts.

“Dark roast isn’t going anywhere. It’s just that perception that we’re the 1% of the industry who will dictate what people want. For me, there’s a segment that drinks dark coffee. They can enjoy their dark coffee all they want.

“If [specialty coffee] wants to make a legitimate change, it needs to put its ego aside and look at where the volume is going. And the volume is going everywhere that says everything the opposite of what the new specialty movement is saying. I can tell you from my experience in the last three months: every farmer who’s defaulted on, it’s been from the smaller specialty guys.” 

Finally, Martin says that if people prefer dark roasted coffee and continue to drink it, then it remains relevant – for him, that’s all it comes down to.

Despite the preconception people have of darker roasts in specialty coffee, there is a consensus between all of these interviews: we shouldn’t disparage people from drinking dark roast just because they enjoy it. It’s a huge part of the wider coffee industry, and specialty coffee needs to remember it’s a small part of a much larger market.

But what about personal preference? Well, before you write off a coffee just because of its roast profile, as Tim said, remember that high quality will often still shine through in the cup. You could be discounting a new favourite without even giving it a chance.

Enjoyed this? Then read Roasting For Filter Coffee Vs Roasting For Espresso

Photo credits: Neil Soque

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