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Coffee: Taste dependent on level of roast or origin

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I know both of these factors influence the taste of coffee but is one more important than the other?

Can you discen subtle differences even when two regional coffees are dark roasted?

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  1. The short answer is that roast is more important, but that doesn't diminish the profound significance of origin. The long answer could fill a book.

    Coffee roasting can be compared to the vinification of wine. It is where the flavor is created; yet it is also where the flavor is revealed. You can't make good coffee from an inferior bean, but even starting with the finest raw beans available provides no assurance that you'll end up with a palatable product. Just as superb grapes can be ruined by poor vinification, great beans can be wrecked by improper roasting. With artful roasting however, tremendous subtlety and complexity can be revealed, and regional flavor variations can become quite striking.

    There are many methods and techniques for roasting coffee. Each imparts its own "footprint" to the taste of the coffee. The three major variables in the process are time, temperature and airflow. Apply the heat too quickly and the beans may be scortched: burnt on the outside and still raw on the inside -- some of the worst-tasting coffee to be had. Apply the heat too slowly and the flavor is baked out of the coffee, leaving a flat, dull lifeless brew. Too little heat in too little time leaves the beans under-done, acidic, astringent and lacking in body and aroma. Too much heat for too long will turn the beans to charcoal -- literally -- and they will taste like little briquettes.

    Still, there is a broad latitude for personal taste in roasting style. Just as some people prefer oaky, tannic monster wines, some coffee drinkers like the smoky roasty flavors of a dark roast. Others favor the bright, spicy floral flavors of a lighter roast. Even expert tasters disagree about the optimum level of roast, though nearly all acknowledge that dark roasts obscure the subtleties of most beans.

    Top-grade coffee beans can be skillfully roasted to a dark chocolate brown color and still exhibit discernable flavor variations due to geographic origin, but when the beans are roasted all the way to a black color, little varietal distinction remains. They all taste pretty much the same: bitter, smoky, acrid and carbony.

    For this reason, many professional coffee tasters use a light to medium roast (roughly the color of milk chocolate) to evaluate the flavor and aromatic profile of a coffee sample. But that doesn't necessarily mean medium roasts are best. For instance, some dense acidic beans lend themselves to darker roasting and reveal their sweetness and fullest body at a dark chocolate-brown color. Other lighter, more delicate beans would be destroyed by such treatment, and reveal their peak flavor at a lesser degree of roast.

    Geographical origin also has a vital impact on coffee flavor. The soil, climate and altitude all profoundly influence the character of the coffee flavor. Expert roasting can highlight these variations, while inept roasting can obscure them. Even more significant may be the species and botanical variety of bean, and the techniques used to harvest and process it after picking.

    The factors contributing to the flavor qualities of coffee are varied and complex. And after roasting, there's packaging, storing, grinding, brewing and serving! Each step in the process is crucial, and each must be properly carried out in order to get maximum enjoyment from the brew.

    In the end, it's these intertwining variables that make fine coffee an adventure.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Luwak

      This is such an insightful information Luwak, thank you...
      If you do home roasting; could I ask you if I would want to roast beans at home as a complete beginner, which method would you recommend without making a huge investment? I want to see if I will enjoy it, and then decide if I need to invest first to a good grinder or a home roasting kit?

      1. re: Nuray

        Luwak has done an excellent job in summing up the variables. I started roasting my own beans about 3 years ago, and have no regrets, except that we're never satisfied with diner coffee anymore :( In the shadow of Luwak's post, I think I can answer your last question. I'd suggest you invest in a good grinder first, and buy some good beans from a local coffee roaster. A quality grinder requires little skill, will give you instant improvement in your coffee, and will continue working whether you roast your own beans, or buy them. If you notice a big difference between the beans from a local roaster, and those purchased at the growcery, you can move up to roasting your own. BTW, I highly recommend http://www.sweetmarias.com for your purchases, both grinder, roaster, and green beans. We're not into expresso or dark roasts, so we always buy the Mexican Organic Oaxaca which fits our tastes. :)

        1. re: UnConundrum

          Thank you so much for your post UnConundrum. I will go with your suggestion and get a grinder first. Would you have any recommendations, if you don't mind me asking?

          1. re: Nuray

            Here's a recent grinder topic on the Cookware board:

            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

            And a Home cooking board topic about grinding:

            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

            1. re: Nuray

              You should glance through the postings as suggested, and there's another forum out there that specializes in coffee and coffee gear. Beside quality of grinding there are some other issues such as the weight and size of the grinder, the noise it makes, price, etc. We went with the Rocky by Rancilio, which we purchased from Sweet Marias (http://www.sweetmarias.com/prod.elect...) They have a pretty extensive review of all the mills they offer. The Rocky is large and very heavy, but we have the room for it, and it never moves. I find it to be slightly quieter than previous mills, and it's built to last a very long time. Only complaint is that it was designed more for expresso, and has that stainless holder that we removed. Other than that, we're tickled with it (say's he as he sips his coffee).

      2. Peet's roasts everything so dark that some people complain it's overroasted and tastes burnt, but I can easily tell the different coffees and blends apart.

        1. Definitely get a good grinder. It’s an excellent investment if you love great coffee. The make and model you buy depends on how you brew your coffee. No single grinder, especially a home model, does a perfect job across the full range of grinds, from Turkish to Coarse. There are several that do a reasonably good job in the espresso to drip range, including the Solis Maestro Plus and the Krups burr grinder.

          The next question becomes which setting to use when grinding your coffee beans. There are analytical methods of measuring the particle size range and distribution of ground coffee, but the most practical techniques to use at home are steeping time and cup quality. Four minutes is about the optimum time for most standard brewing methods. Assuming you have good fresh coffee beans, always start with the recommended strength: two level tablespoons (about 14 grams or half an ounce) of beans per 6 fluid ounces of brew water. Confirm the volume of your pot by filling it with water and measuring its contents, if you’re in doubt.

          If you’re using a French Press, try a coarse grind setting and plunge it four minutes after pouring hot water over the grounds. If the coffee tastes insipid and watery, try a finer grind. If it tastes bitter and harsh, try a coarser grind setting. Find the setting that produces the richest, sweetest-tasting coffee.

          If you’re using a drip method, time the number of minutes it takes for most of the water to finish dripping through the filter. If it takes less than three minutes, use a finer grind. More than five minutes, try a coarser setting. Find the setting that gets closest to the four minute mark. Then you can adjust the strength (coffee to water ratio) to your personal taste, if you prefer.

          Regarding home roasting, I wouldn’t really recommend it, unless you consider yourself a seriously obsessed coffee fanatic. For one thing, coffee roasting generates a remarkable amount of odor, and, if you like dark roasts, smoke. I love the smell of fresh-roasted coffee, but roasting coffee creates a powerful roasty-toasty smell that permeates the house for hours after finishing a batch. It may set off your smoke alarm as well.

          If you live in a warm climate you might be able to do your roasting outdoors or in your garage. Ambient temperatures definitely affect the performance of most home roasters, however, and many of them just won’t work properly if it’s too cold out.

          There are a number of home roasters on the market these days. Check out coffeegeek.com for the latest reviews. Of the ones I’ve used, I like the Caffe Rosto the best. It works like a hot-air popcorn popper, and has a cooling cycle built in. Get Ken Davids’ book on the subject and try your hand, if the idea appeals to you.

          Roasting can be tricky, but it can also be rewarding. The wine analogy works here too. You can make your own wine at home, and some do. You must get the appropriate equipment, good-quality raw materials, study and experiment. You’ll never produce a Lafite or Latour, but you may create a delicious product you’ll enjoy sharing with your family and friends. You have to be pretty serious about the endeavor to make it worthwhile, however. If you have a really good local coffee purveyor, you might want to leave the roasting to them.

          1. Quite so, Rancilio's Rocky is an excellent home espresso grinder that has proved itself over many years of popularity. It does have a built-in doser however, which makes it somewhat awkward for use with drip and open pot brewers. Not so great on the coarse end of the grind spectrum, but then few home grinders are.

            Noise level is indeed an important factor as well. The Krups burr grinder makes quite an alarming noise when it's in use. The Solis Maestro is a quieter, although not as quiet as the Rocky.

            1. Wow, that's amazing information... I usually use French Press and would like to make Turkish coffee more often(since I am one).. I live in NYC and have a small apt; after hearing the pros and cons of home roasting, I feel it will definitely be better to hold off on the home roaster... I am going to have a look at the Solis and Krups then and check out sweetmarias.
              Thanks so much to all!!!