Why has buying coffee become so complicated?
We explain some fundamental differences in light, medium and dark roasted coffees.
Brew methods are essential when selecting coffee.
Within the quality segment of the coffee industry, there has been an ongoing discussion on the best roast style for the different brew methods, such as filter and drip.
The newer brew methods, including Aeropress, overwhelmingly favour lighter roasting styles.
So, let's unpack what exactly is a roasting style, level or depth.
The technical term for roasting recipes is called a "profile". It's called a profile because when you roast coffee, it's not a "linear event".
That means you don't just set the temperature or burner power at the start and then wait for it to reach the endpoint.
Nope, roasting has many different reactions and milestones that require the operator to change the roasting platform's settings to navigate to the finish.
For example, we generally roast with profiles requiring at least 30+ changes throughout a 14-minute roast batch. That's many changes, and they all need to occur with split-second accuracy.
What is it they are trying to achieve?
Each roast style works for only some coffee beans or blends.
Similarly, roasting profiles can only be suitable for some brew methods - despite the mass-market volume sellers and supermarket branding ignoring this critical element in the product's development.
Around 2012, the coffee roasting fraternity coined a term or concept called "omni-roast".
Omni-roast was an effort to try and convince consumers (or buyers) that a single profile produced coffees that can span both lighter roast filters and darker roast espresso applications.
Unfortunately, it's complete bullshit - pardon the language.
Omni-roasts were nothing but a "stuck in the middle" option. It was a place where coffees failed to please light roast enthusiasts and, at the same time, annoyed and frustrated traditional espresso drinkers due to their thin bodies and a lack of solubility. What on earth were they thinking?
There are distinct differences between coffee roasted for espresso and coffee roasted lighter for a filter.
It's these grey overlapping areas that are the cause of so much disappointment in the coffee market.
I thought coffee was just coffee - why is it now so difficult?
You pick up a pack of coffee from a retail shelf, and the packaging looks fantastic. For many brands, shelf presence is all about sexy appearance.
Then you instantly recognize those tiny symbols for the famous coffee brewing methods - espresso, stovetop, filter, plunger.
OK, so I've just picked up a pack of coffee, and it has all the brew symbols. Does this mean I should believe the marketing message enticing me to buy?
Why? Because that pack of coffee promising a universally adaptive brew method is just a lie. It's not true or accurate. They are covering all bases like a fisherman casting a wide net.
A deception from coffee brands trying to sell more products by deliberately marketing their packs as suitable for anything and everything.
Wake up customers - it's not real.
Like most products in supermarkets, there is just enough information to comply with essential product labelling laws. Yet, there is rarely enough to help you make informed decisions or to match your requirements more accurately. Sometimes, the print is so tiny you can't even read it.
Light, Medium or Dark roasted
At times, a circular argument goes round and round indefinitely.
The small 3% of coffee fanatics worship lightly roasted coffee for its clean, sweet, sparkling complexity and acidity. Nice.
That same light-roasted coffee underwhelms the remaining 97% of coffee drinkers. Why?
A sour, woody, lemony, tart, grassy, weak flavours and thin-bodied brew could be better, especially in a milk-based espresso prevalent in Australian cafe culture.
How often have we heard the story about eager coffee lovers excited to visit the latest "hot and trendy" hyped-up cafe? They tried their exclusively roasted specialty-grade coffee only to experience an acidic and sour coffee that curdled the milk.
It's an interesting debate with an enormous range of possibilities.
We often find that the people deeply involved in passionate arguments at extreme ends of the spectrum remain blinded by their self-beliefs.
They risk forgetting the very reasons they are doing this in the first place - serving delicious coffee to paying customers, many of whom want rich, smooth, creamy chocolate flavours with a long aftertaste.
The history of coffee is a story of a late rapid evolution. Despite almost 200 years, it's been the last 14 years, specifically the last seven years, where most advancements have occurred.
Inherent growth of the quality coffee market (referred to as specialty) has seen the emergence of thousands of micro-roasters challenging traditional ways of coffee - sourcing, roasting and brewing.
Light-roasted coffee preserves the original integrity of the bean's characteristics. It's not the silver bullet some people make it out to be.
Light roasting must ensure sufficient development of the sugars and carbohydrates within the bean cell structure to eliminate the grassy, woody, and sour elements from under-roasted coffee.
Light roasting comes with a high for any coffee brand. There is a fine line between getting it right and ruining expensive coffee, as the grades of coffees used for light roasting must be higher than for espresso roasts.
Med-roasted coffee is the haven for commercial viability - it's neither a soft option nor a cop-out by any stretch of the imagination.
The Australian coffee palate has been sitting in Medium-roasted for the last decade. It has evolved from the darker roasted style and takes a fraction from dipping a toe in the lighter side.
The average coffee punter wants a rich, smooth, creamy beverage with a chocolate aftertaste. They don't care about fruity complexity or roast notes.
Then we get to Darker roasted coffees.
They are part of the past and, regretfully, today, still a domain of the cheap, mass-marketed rubbish sold in supermarkets and, unfortunately, many retail stores.
Medium-roasted coffees are sufficient for soluble extraction.
Dark roasts exist for a good reason. Typically, a dark roast is required because the ingredients (raw coffees) are, in fact, low in grade, quality and cost, or it is robusta.
These harsh, rough coffees with characteristics of leather, cedar, cigar, and clove must be dark roasted into a homogeneous product so that the defects disappear as smoke up the chimney, and you end up with a caramelized product with smoky, ashy and slight bitter taints.
Dark roasted coffees require or work best with sweeteners such as milk and sugar.
Dark-roasted coffees also degrade faster, meaning they have a shorter shelf life.
Dark roasted coffees with oils migrate to the outside of the bean. Once it comes in contact with oxygen, it quickly turns rancid and bitter.
A medium-roasted coffee that has been stored incorrectly, e.g. at high heat or is old (aged) may take on the appearance and features of a dark-roasted coffee.
Strong does not mean dark or bitter - a misunderstood relationship.
Consumers have traditionally held a mindset that more robust coffee is dark roasted - which is not the case.
Strong can mean caffeine levels, or it may be a function of the efficiency or effectiveness at which you brew or extract coffee in the cup.
After all, coffee is an ingredient, so the strength of a brew is directly proportional to the dosage of ingredients.
You can achieve a strong coffee in many different ways - using acids, roasting it dark to make it bitter, enhancing the body, crema or richness (commonly referred to as the length of finish).
When a coffee drinker is accustomed to drinking bitter coffees, it is no surprise when they convert to freshly roasted specialty coffee beans; there may be complaints about it not being "strong enough" for their daily cup that also includes three sugars and 300ml of milk!
The equipment you use to brew coffee and your technique influence the "strength or flavour" of your coffee.
It's also essential to use quality, fresh, roasted coffee beans. As coffee ages, it loses vital compounds, even inside sealed bags.
Most Arabica coffees have relatively similar levels of caffeine.
Many supermarket coffees are from commercial roasters that use a quantity of robusta in their blends.
Robusta has a more robust flavour (although harsh), and robusta contains up to 3 times the levels of caffeine compared to the equivalent dosage of arabica coffee.
When roasting raw coffee, there is a point where no further flavour development is possible.
Once you pass this point, the coffee becomes a caramelized homogeneous product, and bitter taints start to accumulate along with the loss of acidity.
Roasting darker will increase these bitter and ashy taints. It does not increase strength.
Dark roasted coffees also do not taste stronger.
They are likely to contain harsh robusta that delivers a higher caffeine payload than arabica. But this also comes with powerful, bitter and unpleasant attributes.
You can also read our article: Single Origins versus Blends.