Taming the Roast

John says…

A recent visit to a couple of well-known coffeeshops out of town got my mind thinking about a few things.

Coffeeshop A hit the scene first. They roast their own coffee. And they do a fantastic job. Coffeeshop B came about a few years later. They also roast their own coffee. But the word on the street, and from what I tasted from both shops, Coffeeshop B has the edge. (As coffeeshops, I would rate both very highly… in fact, I like the vibe at Coffeeshop A better.. but this post is not about that)

Why? It’s the roast.

I’ve been roasting coffee for our caffe for a little over five years now, and although constant improvement is necessary in this business, I’d like to think I’m pretty good at what I do. One thing that catches my attention is when I taste something in an espresso that I know is difficult to do.

Many of the progressive shops, for good or bad, have a “me too” thing going on. The current “me too” is bright and sweet espresso. Both of these shops do it. One is just better at it. In this case, I’ll call it “taming the roast”. And the reason this is important is that it carries through to all of their coffees. I don’t have to taste them all to know they will be good. The display of skill in the espresso says everything I need to know.

When roasting bright and sweet coffee or espresso, there seem to be three tiers of roasters.

The Third Tier roaster will make the mistake of roasting too fast and too short of time. This will leave the coffee underdeveloped and often have a sweet grass essence, or a best a tangy lemon acidity that manages to shroud everything else in the cup. I’ve tasted many of these. I’ve been there myself. It’s a great step to get past.

The Second Tier roaster has a better grasp on things and manages to concoct a very respectable citrus sweet espresso…that’s often one dimensional. And I have been there too. There are some coffee that aren’t kind to me if I try to roast them too light. So I don’t. I believe many coffees have multiple sweet spots. But not all coffees have multiple sweet spots. Trying to force a coffee to taste how you want it isn’t always the best idea. Taste it. It will tell you what it wants from you. Sweet and bright is often dull and boring. It’s like a Reisling that hasn’t matured. You’re sure there’s something magical, you can almost taste it. Almost.

The First Tier roaster understands how to coax the nuances out of the bean. They take the brightness just to the edge, and just when you think it’s too much, another subtle layer of flavor steps in and takes over. It’s an mesmerizing dance of roasting magic, and it transforms a single note offering into a symphony of flavors.

In my mind, the current roaster at Coffeeshop A has passed the Second Tier, but has not yet figured out how to consistently cross the threshold into the abode of the First Tier roaster. And this is actually the third time I’ve had their espresso. It’s always been good, but right now, there are subtleties that Coffeeshop B understands how to capture better.

The roaster at Coffeeshop B is several paces down the hall of the First Tier abode and is walking slowly but surely to the game room where play time is about to happen. Sometimes I stumble into this realm, and other times I stride with confidence. Like all roasters, it’s a matter of perfect practice. There’s plenty of room inside the First Tier Abode. But it takes consistency to stay there. To those who have mastered the taming of the roast, I enjoy and appreciate your craft.

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