Extolling the Virtues of Dark Roasts
By Nate Lumpkin with illustrations by Elise Becker, Crown Baristas
Man, I really love dark roast coffee. I love walking into a place and asking for a “coffee” and getting a cup that burns the heck out of my mouth and tastes like tar smoke. I love diner coffee, gas station coffee, and automatic coffee maker coffee. At my house, we use a Sunbeam brand coffee maker that looks like it’s from 2003, and every morning I brew one to three pots of whatever’s on the counter and get so wired I can see ultraviolet light.
However, it is well known that specialty coffee professionals have been perfecting light roast coffees for many years. We love their complexity and sweetness and variety of unusual flavors such as florals, sweet herbs, and tropical fruits, which you just don’t see in longer and darker roasts.
But I also just love a good dark roast. It’s a completely different beverage from light roast coffee, and I suspect achieves something light roasts can’t, or aren’t interested in.
So, I’m going to be working on a project for a little while to try to put my finger on what makes the best dark roasts great, and try my hand at roasting and brewing my own. The first step is just thinking about some common flavors and qualities of dark roasts, and why I love them.
A widespread and much adored flavor. It’s rare to find a dark roasted coffee that doesn’t have chocolate flavors. Some of my favorite coffees have tasted like chocolate cake, melted baker’s chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, carob nut, and all variations of bittersweet chocolate. In my experience, South American and Ugandan coffees have had the strongest chocolate notes, of which our dark-roasted Peru FTO Alto Urubamba at the Crown is an excellent example.
Though we may add sugar to cut the bitterness (and because sugar just tastes good), I find many fine dark roasts have a natural sweetness. This is often a sweetness similar to caramel and brown sugar, and many roasters seem to describe their dark roasts as having “sugar browning” notes.
I love a good smoky coffee. I’ve noticed, however, that many roasters shy away from describing their dark roasts as smoky. I’ve personally enjoyed flavors of pine tar smoke and campfire. At its worst, there may be notes of asphalt.
Another thought: smoky drinks such as mezcal, scotch, and lapsang souchong are very popular, I don’t often find this as an intentional quality in specialty coffee. Why is that?
I talked to our Director of Roasting Candice Madison about this question. She says, “In specialty coffee, you’re trying to bring out the best characteristics of any attribute. Dark roast coffees will take on more of the characteristics of the process, rather than reveal the inherent qualities of the bean.” The quality of smokiness refers to the “pyrolysis” that occurs during a roast, where the cellulose matter of the green bean is burnt away. She points out, however, that smokiness is often regarded as desirable, and is associated with the earliest days of specialty coffee roasting.
I describe a good, strong dark roast as “zippy.” It feels tingly, full, or thick. Strength in coffee has more to do with preparation style than roasting, and an experience of strength often indicates a high ratio of ground coffee to brew water, or a high TDS ( “total dissolved solids,” a commonly used measurement that indicates the proportion of coffee solids dissolved into water). Nevertheless, I hate when I get a dark roast coffee and it tastes weak.
Similar to strength. However, I experience a full body differently from strength, and my favorite dark roasts have big body as well as strength. They might be thick, oily, syrupy, silky, coating, or just have a quality of “largeness.” By no means exclusive to dark roasts, and by no means necessary to a good cup, however, this is a common quality to many good dark roasts.
Bitterness is good. It’s a quality commonly associated with all coffees, but dark roasts are especially notorious. I feel this is a desirable quality which sets coffee apart from other experiences.
Bitter flavors in nature are associated with poisonous and toxic foods, which is why the human palate has adapted to experience the flavor as unpleasant. However, I’ve also heard it said that the human body desires some bitterness, because the palate associates small amounts of the flavor with nutrition. Kale and mustard greens, for instance, are the most bitter greens, but also the most nutritious. Makes sense to me.
Flat bitterness with no sweetness is not a quality we are looking for. These coffees, while they may be drinkable, are boring, and not the dark roasts I enjoy.
TAKES MILK WELL
Important! The coffee should taste good with milk—dairy or otherwise. The flavor of the coffee should come through and taste nice, even when coated by the milk fats. It’s well known that some of the most interesting and pleasurable qualities of coffee are smothered by milk. However, milk tastes great, and tastes even better in strong, dark coffee. I personally don’t drink dairy milk, but I do often enjoy steamed Califia Farms almond milk, cold Good Karma flaxmilk, or even Spectrum coconut oil, which mixes really well with the oils in dark roasts.
Again, not exclusive to dark roasts, but many of them exhibit a pleasant nuttiness: walnut, almond, macadamia, and hazelnut are common. I dislike the taste of walnut skin, and personally don’t care for nuttiness, but it seems too often discussed to leave out.
My coworker Elise Becker at the Crown pointed this one out. Some excellent dark roasts have a tobacco flavor I don’t find in other foods. Not the flavor of smoked tobacco, but the mellow sweetness of the dried, oily leaf. I usually experience this as a pleasant and mild leather flavor.
On this matter, Elise has to say, “My favorite thing about dark roasts are the nostalgia, like my dad’s old leather smoking jacket. There’s so many nice, perfumy, delicious, dark-scent notes in tobacco, and that’s the nostalgia trip I go on.”
As for cigarette flavors: I know some people who will wax on about how they love coffee that tastes like cigarettes. I respect their opinion, I suppose.
A pleasant quality of sweet earth or mild clay can create a very enjoyable cup of coffee. I enjoy this best when the coffee is naturally very sweet, but find this element detracting when the coffee is more bitter, or has accompanying flavors of vegetable, such as bell pepper. At its worst and most defective, earthiness can be reminiscent of dust and spiderwebs.
I THINK THAT COVERS IT FOR NOW
Thanks for reading! I may do some experiments on roasting and tasting dark roasts in the future. But in the meantime I’d like to know, what are your favorite qualities in dark roasts? Are there any deal-breakers in a dark cup of coffee? And what are your favorites?
Talk to you later!
Here is my formula for a terrific dark roast experience: get your hands on some Ethiopian or Yemen naturals that have blueberry notes, not so easy to find, but worth the search. Once you find some you like, roast them well into the second crack, slowing the development some at the first crack just a bit. Let the beans de-gas for at least four days, grind fine, and brew in a melita pour over. But I think your Sunbeam probably can do the job as well. Man my new Sunbeam was really somethin’ back in’ 78. It ’s nice to see a youngster take an interest in a bygone era. Thanks for your article.
Hi Bob! Thanks for the advice, now that I’ve got a little more time on my hands I’m actually thinking about doing some stovetop roasting for fun. I’ve got a chemex and a hand grinder lying around but first thing in the morning hand grinding is the last thing I want to do, and honestly our automatic maker can make a really solid cup of coffee if you use good beans and are careful about dosage. Thanks for reading and hope you’re well!