Darker Isn’t Stronger: Understanding Roasted Coffee

Roasted coffee is music to my ears!  Saying the word itself makes me salivate and immediately run for the kettle to get a pot of boiling water going.  The sounds and smells as green coffee is magically transformed by heat into those tasty brown morsels of awesomeness really gets my senses going.  While most people feel mostly the same way about coffee as we do at Ciclismo, we often find that folks (to no fault of their own) have been somewhat brainwashed by the coffee available to them at the supermarket.

Let me explain this a little more, and I’m not trying to offend anyone here.  We often hear folks say, “I like your coffee, but I really prefer mine stronger.”  Or the classic, “It’s really [insert good, interesting, delicious, etc.], but it’s not as strong as [insert major coffee brand or corporate coffee company].”

And that, my friends, is our disconnect.

What a lot of folks perceive as strong coffee is actually the roasted, bitter flavors that come out in dark roasts.  If you’re familiar with “that ‘S’ place”, then you know how bitter coffee can be when roasted on a massive scale.  While dark roasted coffee needs those characteristics to stand up to milk in espresso drinks or with creamer added, those darker characteristics themselves aren’t indicative of how strong the brew is made.  In this post, we’ll explore the roast a little more and help shine some light on the degree of roast in roasted coffee.

Roasted Coffee is Sensual

No, not sexually sensual.. But maybe for some of you.  I’ll leave that right there.

What I mean to say is that coffee relates heavily to the senses.  The way we roast coffee requires us to rely heavily on our senses to know when the coffee is reaching certain stages of the roast.  In fact, that is part of learning how to roast coffee.  By eliminating our ability to physically see the degree of darkness a coffee bean has attained in the drum, we rely on our senses of smell and hearing to determine how roasted our coffee has become.

Take a look at this roasting by the senses chart from Sweet Maria’s below to get some more perspective:

roasted coffee

This chart displays the characteristics a roaster experiences through his/her five senses as coffee goes through its roast cycle.

As you can see in the chart above, there are a number of things we look at when determining how and where our roast is going.  This chart also helps explain some of the ways roasted coffee is graded (City, City+, Full City, Full City+, etc), although those metrics are largely sight driven. Unless you have a way to specifically measure the temperature of the coffee beans throughout the roast, you’ll find it extremely difficult to determine where a bean falls into categorization.  The differences between these roast levels may be as little as 15-30 seconds, but the chemical composition of the beans can change drastically as the chart indicates.

Typically, we’ll keep most (if not all) of our beans in the City+ to Full City range.  This roast level will ensure that most (if not all) of the origin character from the beans remains without the roasted coffee tasting undeveloped.  This is something we’ll be constantly working to perfect as we move forward: ensuring that the consistency of our roasts from batch to batch remains such that all of you can continue to enjoy our products without guessing as to what you’re getting from week to week.

Where Does Roasted Coffee Taste Best?

The answer: in the Winter, at home, under a warm and cozy blanket.

But that’s probably not what you were asking, was it?

I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear me say that roasted coffee tastes best where you like it.  Yes, back to those dreaded personal preferences.  Alas, it is 100% true that not everyone will like a medium roast and medium roast drinkers probably won’t like a dark roast to save their lives.  As I’ve already alluded to, though, roasted coffee does have a happy medium.

Roasting too light or pulling the coffee beans before they finish first crack will leave the cup tasting a little thin and underdeveloped.  Some folks will describe an underdeveloped roast as grassy, earthy, sour, acidic or unfinished overall.  On the other hand, roasting too dark will create flavors that taste burned, chalky, roasted, blackened, or even charcoaled.  Also, a “thin” cup with regards to mouthfeel can (in my experience) be characteristic of both an underdeveloped roast and an overdeveloped roast.  To little or too much roast can thin out the finished cup leaving you wondering what happened to your precious morning cuppa joe.

To answer our question above, we have to look at our roast profile chart in the previous section.  In addition, I’ll direct you to this pure gem from Sweet Maria’s: Using Sight to Determine Degree of Roast.  Follow along with this video from Tom at Sweet Maria’s as I attempt to explain where roasted coffee tastes “best”.

In short, both origin characteristics and desirable roasted characteristics are brought out best in roasted coffee somewhere between images #10 and #11 in the visual guide linked above.  What is challenging for us on equipment where we can’t pull a quick coffee sample is that we must rely on data (mainly time and temperature) and our senses to determine when our coffee is ready to pull and be cooled.  While this may (and does) generate some subtle imperfections in quality, to me it is all part of the artisanship of being a coffee roaster.  After all, I doubt the Romans had a way to check their roasts back in the day.  (Did Ancient Rome even drink coffee?)

Certain roasters will tell you that roasted coffee is better at certain degrees of roast; however, it’s all up to interpretation and the customer base each roaster is roasting for.  On the other hand, there is a case for darker roasts…

Making a Case for Darker Roasted Coffee

Alas, even the villain is justified in some way.  Let’s face it, dark roasted coffee isn’t the bad guy here, and yes, even I’ll admit that I like a dark roast every once and again and rather enjoy the full-bodied mouthfeel of a darker roast.  Quite frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Enter Black Bear Dark Roast: Ciclismo Coffee’s Dark Roast Hero!

This Saturday, we’ll be launching our Black Bear Dark Roast as our brewed coffee for the week.  Last week, many of you tried our Biking Bear Blend to “rave” reviews.  Many of you were blown away by the aromas and flavors that came out in our medium roast hero, but we want to keep you on your toes!

Roasting Darker

The fact of the matter is that dark roasted coffee can actually bring out some different origin characteristics altogether, especially in coffees grown in the Americas.  Central and South American coffees are known by many to exhibit some awesome chocolatey features that are often highlighted more through darker roasts.  If you’re a fan of nutty, chocolatey characteristics in a cup of coffee, then a dark roast may be what you’re after.  In our case, we’ll take our Black Bear Blend just a few seconds into a rolling second crack before pulling it to cool (Full City+/Light Vienna for those of you keeping score at home).

In our test runs, this has resulted in a well-developed bean with an extremely even surface.  In the cup, we get far more chocolate tones as well as some signature nuttiness characteristic of Central American beans not to mention some full-bodied mouthfeel.  It will also hold up well to milk or cream.  Our original customers got a taste of what the Black Bear Blend will be like a couple of weeks ago when we were running calibration roasts.

Regardless of what coffee is roasted, darker roasts bring out some interesting flavors that light roasts can’t quite touch.  On the other hand, of course, you have our medium roast protagonist exhibiting all of his glory and heroics by bringing Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador to the top of our taste buds.  Either way, you can’t go wrong with fresh coffee.

A Final Note on Strong Coffee

I rambled a bit more than I wanted to in this post.

My intentions were to debunk that strong coffee is dark roasted coffee, and I feel that I accomplished that task successfully but there is a little more left to uncover.  Mainly, that the strength of your coffee is actually not predicated by the degree of roast, but by the dosage by which you brew.  Have a look at the chart below:

roasted coffee

This chart from the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) indicates the three major factors influencing the strength of coffee: strength, extraction, and brew ratio.

Please for the love of your mind don’t look at that chart too long! It gives me a headache almost immediately.  Let’s talk about it though.

  1. The chart assumes using 1.9 L of water for your brew (1900 grams/~64 ounces/1/2 gallon).
  2. The numbers in bold at the upper right corner of the chart are weighted measures of coffee in both grams and ounces.
  3. The numbers on the left represent the total dissolved solids in your cup at a given coffee dosage (#2) given 1.9 L of water.
  4. The numbers at the bottom represent the percentage of dissolved solids in your cup.

Whew.. Basically, by accurately dosing your coffee according to the chart, you should end up with a coffee within the acceptable range of strength.  Of course, the chart also makes assumptions such as correct grind for a given brew method and temperature of water.  Assuming you’ve got those two variables dialed in, you can use the chart to get a brew that suits your taste.  We’ll cover coffee strength and dosage in a stand alone blog post at a later date.

Baxter, You Know I Don’t Speak Spanish, In English please!

Okay.. Do this:

Weigh your coffee and water!

For every 1 cup (8 oz) of water you use to brew with, use approximately 15 grams of coffee.  Essentially, you should be using about 60-65 grams of coffee per 1,000 grams of water.  If you’re not weighing out your coffee, now is a great time to start.  You can buy a cheap digital scale off of Amazon and start making much better coffee today!   By weighing your water and coffee, you’re controlling the variables that you’ve only assumed in the past by using measuring cups and tablespoons.

Roasted Coffee

Pour over coffees and drip coffees should be dosed at roughly the same ratio to ensure even extraction of the roasted coffee in water.

If you’re the type that makes pour over coffee at home, each brewed 10 oz. cup you make will have 21 grams of coffee and 350-380 grams of brewing water.  The ratio virtually remains the same for drip coffee as well (60-65 grams coffee per 1,000 grams water).  Experiment, though and find a happy medium.  The best thing is to get freshly roasted coffee so you don’t have to worry about stale, old coffee tricking you into thinking you’ve made a strong cup of coffee and always, always, always grind your coffee fresh!

My best advice is buy a copy of Lani Kingston’s How to Make Coffee: The Science Behind the Bean and use it as your resource for brewing coffee.  It’s a pretty gritty read, but probably one of the best coffee brewing resources out there.

Conclusion

That took a lot out of me, but I wanted to stress the importance of differentiating dark roasted coffee and strength.  Don’t let dark roasted coffee fool you into thinking your coffee is strong.  Instead, play with the dosages of lighter or medium roasted coffee to get some ideas of where you stand on coffee strength.  It never hurts to play around in order to find something you like.  You’ll find that with some experimentation with your grind settings, you can brew a balanced bodied cup with only minor adjustments in your brew regimen.

Ashley wrote a blog post last week called Less is More: Exploring the Sugary Coffee Drink Conundrum where she concluded by speaking about exploring different ways to drink coffee and enjoy it.  Try something different and get out of your element for your morning beverage.  You’ll thank yourself for doing so!

We want to know your thoughts though.. What have you found in drinking coffee?  Is darker coffee stronger to you or is it just the roast?  Leave us some comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe to our blog!

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