Drink, Features

Is your coffee still on the dark side?

Daniel Thompson, global head of coffee development, enters the debate on dark vs light roast coffee

Coffee is the world’s favourite affordable luxury: 2015 saw a record number of people stopping by coffee shops for their daily caffeine fix. But we all have our own ideas about what great coffee is. Maybe you’ve grown up in a European city drinking classic dark roast espressos, or perhaps you prefer a blended venti double chocolate-chip crème frappuccino with a caramel swirl. What I would personally argue is that in either case you can’t taste much coffee. 

While most people think of bitter dark roasts as the ‘best’ and most sophisticated coffee, the truth is that you can make any coffee taste exactly the same by roasting it dark enough. Dark roast simply means the beans have been roasted at a higher temperature for a longer period. This causes flavours to be burnt away, leading to a ubiquitous taste that a lot of people think of as ‘what coffee should taste like’. But this familiar dark, bitter chocolate taste blocks the consumer from tasting any of the natural flavours originally found in the coffee, making it impossible to judge the quality of the bean.

The good news is that we’re now seeing a movement away from mass-produced dark coffee to smaller independent roasters who showcase the natural flavours in the coffee. In fact, roasters like Origin Coffee, who supply Soho House in the UK and Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters in the US, see coffee as a fruit. As well as being passionate about origin, that means that their approach to roasting is to allow the variety of natural flavours to shine through. The result? Medium and lighter roasts of sweet, complex coffees that balance acidity and fruit-driven elements.

I for one welcome the lightening up of coffee beans because it allows us to appreciate more of the complex coffee flavours

Not everyone is a fan, of course. As with the craft movement in beer, wine and spirits, speciality coffee is sometimes seen as pretentious, independent coffee bars an unwelcome sign of ‘gentrification’. (I do smile when a friend or relative tells me how some nonchalant bearded hipster has taken 10 minutes to produce a coffee that is smaller than expected and twice the price, with a story about flavour notes chucked in for free.)

Some people will never want to know how their coffee was roasted, but
I for one welcome the lightening up because it allows us to appreciate more of the complex coffee flavours. Take dark roasting too far and we become desensitised, meaning we no longer pick up on the bitterness in most cases. This is why traditional drinkers often find more progressive speciality roasts ‘sour’ or ‘acidic’ and a new generation of drinkers complain that darker roasts are dominated by a carbon, ashy flavour.

Expecting everyone to like the same coffee is impossible, because just
as we all have a preference of wine or how we like our steak cooked, it is extremely subjective. But the next time a bearded hipster offers you a light roast, do give it a go. Extending your repertoire could help you experience the range of flavours the world has on offer. Even devout speciality drinkers can be guilty of routine.

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