You know the scenario: It’s early on a Monday, you’re in line for your cuppa and you’re feeling groggy (hence why you’re in that hellish line at 7:45 a.m.) you realize you just want black coffee. Why? Because the world is a hard place on a Monday at 7:45 a.m., it’s a place that doesn’t sugarcoat it’s problems, so you decide neither will you: no mocha-frappe-latte for you: you’re fighting mean with mean. You stagger up to the counter, throw down your loyalty card, pull out a few bills and proclaim: I’ll have a large black coffee...please. (Your manners kick in at the last minute, which we baristas like to see.) The barista hands over a mammoth-looking cup and proclaims sweetly (because she’s already been caffeinated) “Today is our light roast Lady Liberty blend made with fair trade Arabica.” You mumble-grumble something incoherent and move toward the caffeine fix. After all, who cares what a something-blended-something-something-Arabia is, as long as it wakes you up, you got what you paid for. Right?
But wait, what if you’d listened? What does it mean that the coffee light roast? Would you still put in the same amount of cream and sugar? What does a blend mean? Lady Liberty blended with what? And Arabica, does that mean your coffee hails from Arabia? Let’s break this down:
The Hidden Meaning Behind Your Coffee’s Name:
Light vs. Dark
We covered a bit of this in the last post on light vs. dark roast caffeine content, (note, it’s the same) but what about light and dark flavor? The terms “light and dark” do not refer to different types of coffee beans or times of day they were harvested, but simply the length of time the coffee was roasted. Light and dark (with medium in the middle) are actually relative spans of coffee roasting. You see: there are two “cracks” of the bean the coffee roaster can pursue during the roasting process. You have the light roast spectrum spanning from very light brown (or city roast) which is marked from right after the bean cracks the first time to light medium brown (city plus roast) ending right before the bean cracks the 2nd time. Then is light medium brown after the 2nd crack (Full city roast) to medium brown (full city plus roast). Finally the bean continues to darken and darken which includes your dark roast spectrum of dark medium brown (Vienna/Light French Roast) to dark brown/black (Full French roast). Everything after that your coffee bean is now carbon. I know that’s confusing to follow, so check out this handy chart from Modern Caveman’s home coffee bean roasting tutorial:
Roast Level Listen For
City Roast 1st Crack finishes
City+Roast Between 1st crack and 2nd crack
Fully City Roast On verge of 2nd crack
Full City+ Roast First audible snaps of 2nd crack Vienna/Light French 2nd crack underway
Full French 2nd crack very rapid, near end
Fully Carbonized 2nd crack over, coffee is 25% ash/charcoal
I know, I know, now you’re saying “but what does that mean??” Well, here: when the bean begins roasting and is in the light roast phase it has the most acidity, brightest flavor, and the unique taste of the bean’s origin is most distinct. As the bean roasting progresses to medium roast, the acidity goes down, the flavor gain more body and the origin taste begins to become more ambiguous with the flavor of the roast heat. When the bean gets to dark roast, the origin flavor is least distinct, the body of the roast most strong and full and the bean has lost much of its acidity. Now terms like acidity and body should be understood as amoral, they are simply tastes that affect the coffee experience—it is not bad to have an acidic light roast or good to have a full-bodies dark roast.
Varietals and Blends
So, you’ve pumping a blended coffee from the airpot- what does that even mean? Well, every coffee is harvested from a specific, registered location; known as a Varietal. A coffee known as a Varietal means that all of the beans came from either the same area or the exact same plantation of origin. So a Varietal coffee known as Columbian all came from Columbia, same with Italian, French, etc. A Blend means that two varieties have been blended together in the mix. For instance that Lady Liberty blend, if it’s from Sacred Ground’s coffee suppliers Chicago Coffee Roaster, contains beans sourced from Columbia, Guatemala, and Tanzania.
Fair Trade vs. Unmentioned
Here’s one you probably already know: if your coffee is fair trade it means that it was sourced with economically ethical business practices. In a sentence: every level of the supply chain from harvester to CEO was paid a fair and honest living wage in relation to their area of origin. This does not mean the harvester and CEO were paid the same amount, the same type of money, or get the same benefits, but it means they were both assessed and paid a wage able to support themselves in fair relation to their amount of work.
If your coffee doesn’t say fair trade or you ask and the barista say it’s not, it means that the business practices have not been evaluated or that fair payment for all was not an important part of that coffee provider’s decision-making process. In a word: someone’s losing out (hint: it’s probably not the CEO.)
Arabica vs. Robusta
Oh praise the sweet ancestors of all the coffee that flows. Learn this, mortal, all coffee comes from two tribes: Arabica (Coffea Arabica) or Robusta (Coffea Canephora.) Arabica is the most widely-consumed kind of coffee with 70% of the world-wide coffee consumed being Arabica and 30% being Robusta. Robusta can grow in more variety of spaces than Arabica (including lower altitudes) and produces more fruit faster—Robustas often come from Africa and Indonesia. Arabica takes longer to produce fruit and is more picky about its location; it mostly comes from Latin America. So why is Arabica more widely consumed? Well it’s more expensive than Robusta for it’s pickiness, but the longer growing bean also produces a sweeter smoother flavor. But, here’s a fun fact: Robusta has twice as much caffeine as Arabica! Who’s your favorite now?
So, back to you. You’ve stumbled out of bed, into the coffee shop, over to that airpot and you’re trying to think about what the barista just barraged you with. So you’ve got a light roast on your hands- well that’ll make a more complex flavor, you’d kind of like to play coffee snob and see if you can discern any hints. You’ve got a blend, so you’ll be meeting three different varietals of coffee today, so you can’t be sure if you will be able to discern too much. The light roast will make it slightly more acidic, but the Arabica should be smooth and a softer taste. What do I say you do? You skip the cream today in order to enjoy the flavor, add a tiny splash of honey to combat the light roast acidity in the early morning and you let it cool for five minutes before downing it, that way the scalding will subside so you can get some hints of the unique varietals. But what do you actually do? Fill the cup, load in the cream; toss a few packs of sugar in your pocket and chug. After all, it’s a Monday at 7:45 a.m. Enough said.
Coffee knowledge compliments of: Moderncaveman.com, Zagat.com, Ilovecoffee.jp, chicagocoffeeroaster.com, and Life.
Origins: Great Lakes Tea and Spice Co.
March 23, 2014
May 1, 2013
Is There More Caffeine in Light or Dark Roast? (Hint: It’s Neither!)