Let’s think of roasting coffee as an elusive art. Like with cooking or baking, it requires a combination of high-quality ingredients, expert technique, and the right equipment to produce a delicious cup of brewed coffee. Also similar to music, there is a balance of top notes and base notes and all those in between that can be accentuated or muted depending on how the conductor wants the symphony to sound.
Our roastmaster Don and roast apprentice Kelly take green coffee beans through a carefully controlled process to transform them into that desired rich and flavorful brew we all love and chase after we’ve had a taste. To understand this process as a non-roaster, here’s a quick breakdown of the steps and science that coffee beans go through from green to the optimum shade of golden brown and beyond.
What to know when understanding Roast Levels 101:
Green coffee beans, really the seeds of coffee cherries, come to the warehouse as a dried product. However, there is still some moisture in there that starts getting roasted out at the very beginning. This is known as the “drying phase” and it is important as a springboard for the rest - and more interesting parts - of the roast. What decisions are made here when it comes to applying heat to the beans will largely lay out how the rest of the roast will go.
Next major marker for a roaster is “color change," when the color starts to change from green to yellow. Some call this the boring part but it is necessary for the next major mile marker that is known as Maillard which is named after the chemical reaction of starches turning into sugars (when heat is applied). To simplify this idea, think of toast and the degrees and flavors you get depending on how long you set that toaster dial to. The amount of time spent in Maillard denotes when fruit notes turn into more caramelly notes and where bright notes start to lean more on the chocolaty spectrum.
Around 8-9:30 minutes into the roasting process, the beans will reach what is known as "first crack." At this point the energy stored inside the beans is released. Think of it like boiling water trapped in the middle of the bean that creates a crevice when it bursts and breaks on a cellular level. When this happens, there is a lot of volatility in terms of temperature happening inside the barrel of the roaster. And let’s not forget to mention that comforting, accomplished audible cracking sound, that happens at this point.
After “first crack” is over, the roast is now considered in “development time” which may be a misnomer but is crucial for the final modulation of flavors to come through. Time spent here adds to whether the taste comes out more bright and fruity or smooth and chocolaty, and all the beautiful degrees in between.
Light roasted coffees have perceived higher acidity, also known as brightness and a lighter body. Think citrus and fruit as the top, introductory note. Lighter roasts illuminate the fragile flavors of some coffee that can easily be roasted out, such as fruit and floral notes. Perfect for those who enjoy uncovering unique and complex flavors of different types and regions of coffees. We typically roast our limited releases lighter - to highlight their uniqueness. But never too light where it’s underdeveloped or perceived as sour. Striving to hit that sweet spot, of detailed grace instead of lazy bastardization, is what drives us to roast each individual coffee to its proper potential.
Medium roasts are roasted for a tad bit longer and retain some fruit flavor notes. The result is a more perceived smoothness and sweetness in the cup because the beans have a chance to caramelize. This style of roast is approachable and safe for most coffee drinkers especially those who enjoy a cup of coffee that has those wonderful chocolaty flavor notes and just enough chorus of fruit complexity to keep it interesting. Our Clayton’s Blend, Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, and Java, fall into this category - perfect medium roasted blends for easy drinking.
Dark roasts are stretched to the longest and hottest degree. These toastier, roast-ier coffees will have even less acidity than medium roasts and finish with a strong smoky, almost leathery (think expensive car leather) dark chocolate essence. Very rich with a lingering finish and usually enjoyed by the cream and sugar crowd. Here we find hearty breakfast coffees or just a trip through time to how coffee was most commonly roasted with a classic cult following, like our French and Italian roasts.
With all this said, we do play with the profiles. Sometimes a coffee will be light-medium, while other times medium-dark. That is the fun of roasting. Coffee origin species and subspecies, terroir, types of bean and processing all help determine what flavors come out in the cup and ultimately how we choose to roast it. At Clayton Coffee & Tea we’ve got this handled for you! Easily explainable, vast and an expertly curated amount of options we love to offer our customers a wide variety of choices - because you can have it all here. We consistently work at every level to provide you with that balanced, sweet cup of coffee that will bring you the most joy in your morning, afternoon or wild night red-eye cup.
If you need any help going down the rabbit hole of all things coffee just ask! We are here for you, for questions, comments, conversations and of course all and everything coffee.