End Roast Profiling... Start Profile Roasting!

When it comes to coffee purchasing, there exists a horrible affliction called Roast Profiling, a mental disease that leads to wrongful assumptions about cup character based on 'roast level'. If your buying decisions have ever been swayed by the words light, dark, or medium, before even learning what the flavor profile of a coffee is... well, then I'm afraid you've been diagnosed positive. We're in this together though, as we have paired our coffees with roast level in such a way, and for so long, that even our own purchasing behavior has been located deeply within its paradigmatic grasp... and we never even knew it.

As coffee purveyors we are also educators. In the past we have trained our customers to locate and identify the roast level of a coffee, using it as the determining factor in a purchasing decision. Our longtime retail customers can remember our dichotomy of offerings as Featured Roast and Daily Brew, the darker and the lighter offerings respectively. We have asked you to become experts on the subject, really. Well, there is much more to coffee than its roast level, so it's now our duty to step up and educate beyond the color scheme.

Before going any further, let me offer that whether it's a bright acidity or bitter finish that's desirable to you, you are never wrong about what your preferences are. No one is. Taste is one of our most personal senses, as we cannot taste from a distance the way that we see or hear. No, a person is not wrong when it comes to taste, but they can be more informed about what it is that they taste and why they taste it. We're here to educate on this point, so keep this thought in mind as you read on.

A coffee's 'roast level' or 'roast degree' is often thought of as the color tint, how dark or light a coffee is. Color, although it is quantifiable and measured by the reflectance of light of the coffee's surface, is neither universally accepted nor indicative of a coffee's flavor. We often assume that the darker the coffee is, the stronger the brew is. In many cases, this is true, as darker roasted coffee tends to have more solubility and the resulting extraction is more saturated. However, if all coffees are extracted properly, the level of roast of the coffee used in the resulting brew doesn't matter. What does matter are the indicated flavor profile and cup characteristics, and trusting your own taste preferences. Because when it comes down to it, relying on color or roast level hardly provides an informed assessment of coffee flavor.

In reality, there are over 1,000 different aromatic and flavor compounds in roasted coffee, making it possibly the most complex food in your kitch
en. Compressing that complexity into 4 or 5 categories of 'roast level' is perhaps the fastest way to dumb down an articulate, quality product to educated consumers. What I want to convey here is this: when it comes to offering properly roasted, high quality coffee, roast levels are arbitrary and have no place in their presentation.

roast_5.jpgIn its most simplistic definition, roasting is the process by which the coffee seed is made edible for consumption. The roasting process is the means to the end, and in the end there should be no premeditated dark or light roasts, but only these 3 possibilities:
  1. The coffee is too underdeveloped, flavors taste vegetal
  2. The coffee is properly developed, flavors are revealed and highlighted
  3. The coffee is degraded, nuances masked by improper and over roasting
Of course, all of this has little meaning without the context of the quality of the green coffee (coffee seed) itself. If the quality of the green coffee is poor, then all that 'proper development' will do is highlight the intrinsic negative characteristics of the coffee (defects and the off tastes of cellulose). If the green coffee is of high quality and has complexity, uniqueness, balance and sweetness, then it is the roaster's job to develop, reveal and highlight these characteristics.

If you think about it, the road to roast level ideology was paved long ago by the marketing giants at major commercial coffee operations (your basic grocery store coffees) and their products don't taste very good. Why? One reason is that these operations race-to-the-bottom for cheap, commodity grade coffee, with poor flavor, thus necessitating the need to mask the negative characteristics by way of over roasting. So, it is in possibility #3, the degradation and masking for flavors, where all of the big name commercial, and some smaller roasters who follow suit, are constantly and consistently located. This is the main reason why roast levels are so pervasive in our ideas of coffee - the coffee is bad to begin with.

In the world of Specialty and boutique coffee, however, there is no place for roast level, only proper development. As pioneer George Howell says, "If the duck is delicious, why smother it in sauce."

roast profiling Colorblind_blog.jpg
At the Gimme roastery, manual Profile Roasting - finding the correct time and temperature curve for a coffee in order to reveal the beautiful aromatics and flavor nuances of a coffee - is what we obsess over day after day. Finding the correct profile for a coffee takes a skilled mind, and achieving that same profile small batch by small batch takes a skilled hand. We roast each batch of coffee manually, using time and temperature, smell, sight, sound and taste as our guides. Whether or not the properly developed roast has a color tint lighter or darker than another is quite beside to the goal. We can roast the same coffee two different ways (two different profiles), but to the same color specification, and we end up having two drastically different results.

So, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that you (yes, you) are 100% above choosing coffees based on roast degrees and color tints alone. Starting October 4th, 2010, in an effort to End Roast Profiling, we will slowly phase o
ut the use of roast level indicators on our product packaging. Instead, we will focus on emphasizing the flavor characteristics of each coffee product. The coffee inside the bag will be the same coffee you've been enjoying, but you'll just know more about what you taste. Go on... trust your preferences, you're never wrong.

To understand more about what you taste and why you taste it, we invite you to attend our weekly free cupping on Saturdays in our State St. store (coming soon to Brooklyn!!).


Ed Oct 4, 2010 – 7:29 PM

does this also mean a phase-out of the adjectival shenanigans on the rest of the label? because if not, i won't have any damn idea what to even try.

youngandfoodish Oct 5, 2010 – 11:49 AM

great post with but one possible hiccup: i understood that roasted meats have more flavor and aromatic compounds than roasted coffee.

Colleen Oct 5, 2010 – 1:30 PM


Shenanigans have been nixed in favor of true aroma and flavor descriptions. If you have questions about the language, please ask a Barista. They know the cup characteristics of each coffee, and are great resources when it comes to coffee information. Otherwise, stop in one Saturday to our free public cuppings!

Happy Tasting!

Colleen Oct 5, 2010 – 1:31 PM

Young and Foodish,

Noted and edited. How does the addition of 'possibly' suit your fancy?

rich Oct 5, 2010 – 10:49 PM

" ...If you think about it, the road to roast level ideology was paved long ago by the marketing giants at major commercial coffee operations (your basic grocery store coffees) and their products don't taste very good. Why? One reason is that these operations race-to-the-bottom for cheap, commodity grade coffee, with poor flavor, thus necessitating the need to mask the negative characteristics by way of over roasting..."

Huh? Actually, the major commerical coffee operations have long underroasted their cheap commodity grade coffee to minimize shrink. They don't seem to be concerned much with flavor, but the less that goes up the stack in smoke, the more they retain to sell.

Amina Oct 6, 2010 – 3:03 PM

Rich, if you take a look at the scale picture of green vs. roasted beans up above, you can see that the beans actually expand during roasting, rather than shrinking.

Those green beans are really dense and hard, almost like pebbles. Once they're roasted, they're larger and lighter and much more fragile.

It's kind of like popcorn, actually -- the water inside the bean turns to steam during roasting and causes the bean to puff up.

mark Oct 6, 2010 – 4:12 PM

I think what Rich refers to is weight. Dark roasted coffees weigh less. Typically low price supermarket coffees are of a very light roast. I've heard it called cinnamon roast.

Colleen Oct 6, 2010 – 5:29 PM

It's correct about the loss of bean mass increasing when degrading the batch (by taking it to higher temperatures). Color is just one way companies determine the roast degree of a coffee, while measuring bean mass, water and organic material loss is another. Other methods involve measuring the roast-gas composition, headspace (or volume), and determining the end temperature or end time.

Rich, I'm afraid I don't understand your comment. By 'underroasted' are you referring to lighter color? Or are you speaking to volume, mass loss, time, temperature, or all of the above? Let me know so the conversation can continue!

Mark, I'm glad you wrote in, because your comment speaks directly to the point I am trying to make: proper profile roasting has more to do with the process and outcome of the flavor profile than it does with color. How could I write 1,000+ words on how color doesn't matter, and then say that commercial companies roast too dark?! Wouldn't be very wise.

Let me attempt to clear up the confusion...

Not only do large commercial roasting operations, in comparison to us, often take their coffee to a darker color tint, but their roast process is also very very different. As a point of reference (and I can get into this more if you'd like) we roast our coffees over the span of 13.5 - 15.5 mins. As mentioned above, a lot can change within that time period. Many commercial companies roast their coffee between 4 and 9 minutes, in what is referred to as High Temperature Short Time (HTST) roasts. On top of that, other companies do what is known as Fast Roasting, where coffee is roasted to spec between 1 and 4 minutes! These latter two methods result in what is called 'high yield coffee'.

Here is a quote from a great resource "Coffee: Recent Developments", part of the World Agriculture Series, on high yield coffee:

"Fast roasted coffee beans are different from traditionally roasted beans: they are larger, have a reduced density and greater porosity. Because of these structural differences the fast roasted beans allow better water penetration and extraction of coffee solubles. The term 'high yield' refers to those coffees which give the consumer a higher amount of soluble solids as compared to traditionally roasted coffee; less coffee is required to achieve a comparable brew strength."

You can hear a similar report in the documentary 'Black Coffee', on how these larger operations found a way to 1) cheapen their blends and 2) roast in a way that requires less coffee to extract more. Of course, the documentary doesn't go into detail of the roasting process, but it is pretty exact as described above.

Also, I would try not to overestimate the need for commercial companies to worry about 'shrink' when it comes to coffee. For one thing, the shrink is finite and estimated well before the coffee even enters the warehouse, based on the quality and composition of the green coffee. Secondly, coffee has long been sold as a loss leader (below cost) in order to stimulate OTHER sales, and even in that, it still remains highly profitable.

Anyway, I hope that might clear some things up.

rich Oct 7, 2010 – 3:06 PM

To clarify, I wasn't referring to color. I was referring to the large commercials under-developing their coffee so the beans lose less mass. As you wrote, those numbers are estimated (and counted on) before the green enters the warehouse. Less shrink = more of the purchased green coffee that can be sold. I don't think that factor can be overestimated at massive volumes,

I'm not out there looking for it, but I haven't experienced much darker roasting as an attempt by the largest roasters to hide defects. In my experience many defective coffees are not trying to hide behind roast - they're right out in the open!

We have all tasted poorly executed roasts at many roast levels. Raw, green and thin, dead, lifeless and flat, or somewhere in between. It's the roaster who matches a stellar bean with a well-realized roast that makes a coffee stand out.

Agree with the gist of your post about the lack of importance of bean color. How you got there is what makes all the difference. Roasting to a desired flavor profile is the way to go, and there's room for different points of view on what that profile should be.

dr. d Oct 14, 2010 – 1:01 PM

Just a voice of dissent about this new plan of Gimme!'s...

I understand what they're trying to accomplish here; darkness/lightness of roast does NOT strictly correlate to a particular quality or taste. But...let me add a proviso...

There is *usually* a set of taste traits that accompany a degree of roasting (i.e.: "darker" roasts tend to have certain flavour characteristics, "lighter" roasts tend to carry a different package of flavours). To deny this is silly -- the roasting process will affect certain organics and aromatics in the same way, regardless of the bean used at the start.

Now, you certainly can have a bad bean, that no roasting will save. You can also have a bean that is roasted inappropriately to maximize its best flavour. Each bean tends to "shine" at a specific roast level... But the idea that you should ignore roast depth as ONE gauge of what a coffee will taste like is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Roast level is an objective, reliable (although incomplete) way of describing a particular coffee taste...

Even people who don't spend enormous amounts of time tasting different coffees at least have a sense of which "package" of flavours they enjoy best. They will associate this (rightly) with the degree of roast.

Gimme!'s plan is analogous to wineries saying that, because you can have a "bad" and a "good" Merlot, wines should not carry varietal information on the label any more and replace that info with subjective metaphors.

I know that a good roaster will adjust their roasting to maximize and enhance a bean's flavour. I also know that I tend to prefer a flavour "package" that is associated with a certain degree of roasting. Replacing this information with fuzzy and subjective language is a step in the wrong direction, particularly for folks who can't come into the shops to do tastings and see what all that "adjectival shenanigans" actually translates to in the cup.

In my opinion, Gimme! is doing their mail-order customers a big disservice by doing this.

Colleen Oct 21, 2010 – 5:44 PM

Of course, certain compounds are detected in higher quantities when the bean pile achieves higher and higher temperatures... pyradines, for example, which are at their highest yields in darker colored coffee roasted at very high temperatures. Pyradines, by the way, smell very unpleasant, what Flavornet considers 'fish-like'.

All that I maintain is that there is no direct correlation between final temperature and composition. All compounds have different retention times, and the composition before their creation depends upon the subsequent yield. One dehydration or 'ramp' rate causes different yields later in the Maillard and Strecker's that another rate would not. And it is the final composition that is crucial to the cup characteristics, so how can repetitive end temperature without an accurate profile yield the same cup characteristics? I certainly don't want to rely on color over my palate and miss out on the discovery.

I disagree that roast level is objective. If you say that color, or light reflectance, is objective, then sure. Color is measurable. Another question is this: Is that measurement universal? Meaning, can you measure the reflectance of the same coffee in two different environments and achieve the same results? How about the same coffee over time, say the month it has been sitting in the grocery store? Some maintain yes, some no.

Chris May 25, 2011 – 9:39 AM

This is a fantastic conversation and one that needs to be explored more thoroughly! When I first started roasting for my shop last year we had a high rate of "french roast" drinkers, this label was approachable and easy for most since they didn't want to have to think too much about their coffee and the descriptors that accompanied my other coffees were somewhat foreign and slightly intimidating. As people explored I saw a huge shift away from the dark roast and toward our lighter roasts, they noticed the actual character of individual coffees. Roast level indicators are misleading and this is why George Howell has attached full flavor roast to most of his coffees, this is the roast that is best for that particular coffee. Once the appropriate roast level is achieved (some coffees have many appropriate levels that shift their characteristics) the profile of time and temp is incredibly important. A recent microlot Colombian I roasted which has had a bright citric quality and a nice creamy body turned into a smooth but flat coffee with 45 seconds to a minute more in the final stages of roasting. A great coffee so easily ruined (in my opinion) by a slight change in profile. I thought I was going to better develop the sugars present instead I blew it! If this were a french roast it probably wouldn't have been obvious. So the question whether Gimme is misleading their customers by downplaying roast color is definitely NO! they are trying to put the emphasis on the actual qualities of the coffee itself. This is the place that coffee is heading as an increasing number of great coffees are available.....there is some really fantastic stuff out there! Lets present these possibilities to our customers. Yes there will always be those people that love the idea of roast but this is almost like the wine industry labeling wines as red table wine, it only speaks to a narrow pallet. Coffee is evolving much like the wine industry did years ago, it is still very much in it's infancy and it is an exciting time to be roasting coffee! Thank you Gimme for having the guts to make such a bold move and to have faith in your customers pallets!!!!

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