FUNDAMENTAL #2 - Roasting


Courage  We knew before we even started the company or named it or bought coffee or really did anything substantive that if we were going to have a coffee company, we would roast coffee to taste like the coffee we grew to love early in our careers.  That means roasting the coffee darker than what is currently the norm among the new “Third Wave” coffee roasters garnering attention these days. 

Roasting the way we do isn’t courageous in the sense that running into traffic to save a kitten is courageous.  But it does take a degree of commitment to what we believe in, which is the necessity of balance in every cup that can only occur if we allow the roast to proceed longer than many of our competitors would. 

Precision  Our roaster (the machine) is not a precision instrument. In fact, it hadn’t been used in about 15 years at the time it was given to us by a dear old coffee friend of Scott’s.  As you can see from the pictures, it’s not even really fancy or shiny or even all that pretty.  But we like it, and our roaster (the person, principally Scott,) is where we get our precision.  Scott’s not a master roaster (whatever that is.)  He’s not a technician or a mechanic or some sort of coffee whisperer. He’s a seasoned coffee buyer, blender, and taster who is incredibly picky about just about everything.  He has mastered our little roaster, and you can count on our coffee to be both delicious and consistent. 


Notes on Roasting

The Coffee World Today

Roasting is in some ways incredibly complicated, and can be made more so by man and by machine.  In other ways, though, it’s simple, maybe even primal: heat applied over time turns little green seeds into delicious coffee.   Of course the roaster has to decide what he or she considers “delicious.” 

Because we’re part of the Peet’s /Starbucks family tree, we believe that many roasters are buying really good coffee and dramatically -- even tragically-- under-roasting it.  We say that because to our taste, much of it sits squarely in the tangy / tart / sour range.   

Even as many of these roasters have narrowed their focus of coffee buying to smaller and smaller geographic areas, such as a specific section of a coffee farm, they’ve also begun describing coffee using terminology that manages to be both specific and obscure.  A few examples, taken from their very own Web sites:

layered with vibrant blackberry and boysenberry notes that meld perfectly with the backbone of violet and rose

intense, buoyant, and well rounded, it offers complex tropical flavors of cantaloupe and kiwi up front, followed by decadent dark chocolate and plush chamomile

peanut butter, silky, red fruit, bright

It would be impolite to suggest that the authors of these descriptions cannot taste the exotic, esoteric flavors they ascribe to their coffees.  No doubt all are lovingly sourced, roasted, and served.  And they’re offered at prices ranging from $19 to $48 per pound.

Certainly taste – whether “sense of” or “personal preference” – is subjective and largely exists outside the realm of absolutes.   But it’s also true that saying a coffee exhibits this or that flavor note does not magically imbue it with that flavor.  Nor does it endow the purchaser with the ability to taste it -- though it can easily plant the idea of a flavor -- even one a person may never have experienced before and therefore render the drinker unable to verify, with certainty, its presence. 


Flavor Development

Just about any food undergoes a transformation as heat is applied to it.  In the case of coffee, the heat (how it’s applied and for how long) determines what’s possible in the cup.  And these possibilities are at the root of an awful lot of conversation about coffee.

In my early days at Starbucks (in the late 80s,) there were certain obvious differences about the coffee.  The biggest was that the coffee was fresh.  We’d order coffee on Monday, it would be roasted Tuesday and then delivered Wednesday, and that coffee would need to be sold or brewed by close of business the following Tuesday. 

Another thing we talked about (and that was true) was that the coffee was 100% Arabica; over time that became less a meaningful claim as competitors discovered that was a relatively easy claim to make. 

And then there was the roast.  “Deep chestnut brown” was the standard language used to describe the coffee.  And that’s an apt phrase; when we were testing our sweet little roaster, verifying that it could roast our Humbucker Blend the color we had in mind, those words came to my mind as we watched a load cooling.  Just as I was thinking about that phrase, Scott said “the chestnut brown color is what I’m looking for.  And the Sumatra needs to develop that almost orange-y color…I don’t like the mottled wrinkly look it has when the roast is too light.” 

But it’s not just about color, of course.  It’s about the cup.  We’ve been amazed and impressed by much of what has gone on in coffee since we started.  What some of the Third Wave roasters are doing is fantastic in terms of engaging with producers, helping consumers learn to pay good money for good coffee, and the sense of style they bring to the business.  It’s unclear what’s driving the roast to the far light end of the spectrum.  There’s historical precedent for it, especially in the Northeast.  But it’s likely that out west, when Starbucks’s growth really irritated the locals in many cities, coffee entrepreneurs very rationally decided that not being like Starbucks was the way to succeed.  That meant roasting light, slowing down, and quirking it up a bit.

Our perspective is that they’ve gone too far.  The light-roasted coffee we’re seeing now is so light as to be one-dimensional.  There may well be hints of everything from maple syrup to blackberries to peanut butter, but they are hints so subtle that they are utterly obscured by tartness.  The flavor simply isn’t developed enough to offset the coffee’s native acidity.   

So you’ll only see words like that in our descriptions if they really fit, because our Guatemala Antigua will taste like a fine Antigua, our Sumatra like a Sumatra.  Because we’ll roast them to bring out the distinctive flavors they are known for, prompting you to reach for a second cup rather than a dictionary. 

(We also promise that you will never have to Google any of the words we use to describe our coffee.  I recently saw “fernet,” which Microsoft Word’s spellcheck doesn’t even recognize, used as a coffee descriptor.  I’m a reasonably savvy person about food and drink, and Scott much more so than I, and neither of us knew what it was.) 


Roast Intonation in the Fundamental Coffee Lineup

While our coffee will be darker than a lot of what’s on the market now, that doesn’t mean that every coffee will be roasted exactly the same way, and its oversimplifying things to say all our coffees are “dark roasts”

The whole point of having different coffees is that not every coffee occasion is the same.  We like different things at different times, we brew using different methods, and sometimes we just crave variety. 

So we have a range.  Single Coil Blend is the lightest roasted blend we offer.  It’s not a light roast by any means, and it does see second pop. But we know the coffees that make up the blend have a story to tell, and it can’t really be told without there being a certain amount of brightness, or acidity, left in the coffee.  We want this coffee to be tangy – but deliciously so, not aggressively so.  Humbucker Blend, on the other hand, is meant to be  pretty huge cup of coffee.  Part of its hugeness comes from the coffees that comprise it, but part of it also comes from the roast, which is darker than Single Coil, because the roasting mutes the acidity somewhat and brings to the forefront the deeper flavors in the coffee.  Between the two is Stemwinder Blend which is blended and roasted to perform especially well in espresso machines.  (But it’s good lots of other ways too.)

Our single origin coffees are all darker than Single Coil but lighter than Humbucker.  Each is roasted to make obvious the signature characteristics it possesses.  

fundamentalsTim Kern1 Comment