Coffee 101 : Roast Profiles

Last week we discussed the differences between caffeine content in light and dark roasts. Now that you know that no matter which one you choose, you’re still getting that caffeine buzz, we can move on to the roast profiles!

Being able to distinguish the main profiles will be beneficial to you, since you can now just pop into any store, look at a bag of beans and say, yup, this is it! Or well, be a little less disappointed when you get home and open up that mystery bag.

A little background story about the bean processing before we get started, since it is an integral part of the end result!

Once the coffee cherries have been cultivated, it’s time to sort and dry. There are several processing options, which according to some studies have an influence on the flavour profile of the beans. On most independent roaster packaging, you’ll find a note about the processing process, the most common are “natural”, “dry process”, “pulped natural” or “washed”. A natural or dry process means that the seeds are not removed until the cherries are 100% dry. Pulped natural process means that the skin and pulp of the cherries are removed, then left to dry completely.  Washed process can either be referring to a wet or dry fermentation of the mucilage (the outer layer of the seed), which can take anywhere between 6 to 48 hours.

Each processing method will have an effect on the cup profile; studies show that beans that were naturally dried or pulped will have an increased intensity of sweetness, fruit notes as well as have more body and acidity. Some studies state that having a shorter drying period will affect the taste since there is less time for enzymatic activity.

However, the key to coffee drying is fermentation. Unlike cocoa beans that need fermentation to develop a flavour, coffee beans ferment in order to degrade the mucilage coating around the seed. The process can last between 18h to 64h, depending on the type of fermentation process. The dry processing will take more time, since there is nothing added to the process of breaking down the mucilage. Wet processing, on the other hand, means that the seeds are mechanically separated from the fruit before drying.

Once the beans have been completely dried, they are packaged and shipped to their roasting locations! There are many steps to the roasting process, but here is a breakdown of the bigger steps, which will lead you to the final result: light vs dark roast!

Assorted coffee beans

The process of roasting will depend on the machinery used, but essentially, the beans go through a heating phase where they start to toast and expand. The “first crack” as they say, happens when the beans reach the lightest stage of roasting that can be deemed drinkable. The crack in the bean is caused by a gas release. You could technically compare this to popping popcorn kernels! If you were to stop the roasting process now, you’d notice that your beans are light brown and fairly dry; when you roast beans to medium/dark roast, you’ll notice that the beans are really oily, which is the result of the oils and gas escaping the bean after the first crack.

There is a second crack that will occur if you keep on roasting your beans to a dark roast; roasters don’t tend to go beyond that however. With computerized machines, it’s easier for roasters to program the length and degrees to which they roast their beans: this matter’s if you want to get a consistent, delicious batch of coffee! Also, the flavor profile of each bean depending on their roasting times will change, so lots of roasters do cupping sessions in order to determine which roast is best.

Oh! Keep in mind that not all coffee beans are roasted to be had in an espresso form and a filter form. What we mean is that when you go to most coffee shops, the espresso beans that they use will most often be dark, seeing the extraction process is much shorter than in filter coffee, the darker coffee will impart more taste. In filter coffee, since the extraction period is longer, a light roast will impart a different flavour profile since, like tea, it steeps for longer. You did know that caffeine is hydro soluble, right? All of this to say that some coffee beans won’t deliver on the taste factor depending on the method used.

Finally, what you’ve been waiting for, the flavour chart! Now, we know three things

  • Caffeine levels in light roasts and dark roasts are roughly the same
  • Flavour profiles vary from light to dark, and not all light or dark roasts are suitable for all brewing methods (espresso vs. filter)
  • Coffee tastes are extremely subjective

With these three things in mind, we can look at the wheel. Like wine, you can differentiate between taste and aromas since you use olfactory and gustatory senses when tasting things. Depending on your brewing methods, you might find more bitterness or acidity in the profile, but these descriptors are the ones you tend to find on coffee bean packaging.

SCAA_FlavorWheel.01.18.15

Personally, I tend to like my aromas to be spicy, chocolatey, and herby when I’m drinking an espresso or dark roast coffee, but I also love some flowery, fruity and vanilla-esque light roast.

If you were to describe your favourite coffee taste, what would it be?

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