And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light.
Every so often my coffee world and my writing world line up and I can do both at once. Here’s an article I wrote for my friends at Caputo’s about Light vs. Dark in coffee.
For many years now, dark coffee has reigned supreme in coffee shops, grocery stores, and restaurants alike. To order a large dark drip coffee is almost as American as McDonald’s or baseball itself. .
Many of us equate “dark” coffee with “strong” coffee or full bodied coffee. What we are saying when we order a dark coffee (or French Roast/Vienna Roast) is that we don’t want a watery cup of coffee. We want coffee that’ll stick hair on our chest and wake us up like a shot of cold water to the face. The truth however, is that 80% of the time dark coffee is not synonymous with “strong” coffee but with burnt coffee.
The majority of coffee roasters are not as concerned about quality as you might think. They’ll buy inferior beans or poorer quality beans to mix in with the other beans to “cut” the coffee (in drug slang.) However they can get away with it because the darker you roast coffee the more it “burns” out any flavor deficiencies and provides a consistent, albeit, smoky and dark taste. Drinking coffee should be like drinking wine or eating cheese. You should be able to tell the basic difference from a Pinot to a Cab or from a Cheddar to a Swiss. Coffee after all is a crop. A crop with a specific taste and flavor profile dependent on the region it comes from. Coffee from Hawaii should taste different than coffee from Ethiopia. Roasting coffee lighter can accomplish this.
In the past decade we’ve seen a major switch of coffee roasting companies who are sourcing higher quality beans and roasting the beans lighter so you can actually taste them. Darker coffee, while one may still prefer it, is generally burnt. There can be such a thing as a “dark” roast that is not burnt, but it will not be as nearly ashy and flat tasting as one might be used to. For many years light roast coffee has been equated to “weak” or “watery” coffee, while in fact light roasted coffee has a considerably higher amount of caffeine than dark roasted beans. Light or medium roast coffee is not weak coffee, but rather roasted so that the true flavor and terroir of the coffee can come out.
In reality the terms “light” and “dark” are not accurate measures for how we should be describing coffee. For anyone interested in learning more about coffee and trying “specialty” coffee, you’ll find that factors such as region, country and processing provide a better measurement of what coffee will and can taste like.
It’s not bad to be a fan of a darker roast, but once you get a taste of what really good coffee can be, it’s hard to go back. Like any other specialty food item, coffee is nuanced and for us in the coffee world this is what makes coffee great—the ability to taste differences from bean to bean and region to region—and it’s hard to get that from low quality beans roasted dark.