I received a couple of great follow-up questions about my “in defense of bitterness” post last week. To recap, I singled out a frequently harsh tone that I see in a lot of coffee circles. One that is especially amplified through social media. Bitterness is frequently brandished as a way to slight or discount a coffee. However, it is a strange affront because bitterness is a taste, not a flavour. Meaning it is a big part of many of our common ‘tasting notes’. Borrowing from the taste lexicon, you see bitterness featured prominently in orange, cherry, hazelnut, lime, grape, cocoa or grapefruit. Thus, if you have a fruity coffee, there is some element of bitterness at work.
I tried to contextualize the impulse to insult bitterness by charting how historically, bitterness was created by roasting dark for very nefarious commercial purposes. Bitterness in dark roasts continues to function as a way to hide the social injustices occurring at farm level by erasing origin (poor growing conditions) with the overwriting and overwhelming flavours of roasting. With the shifts towards specialty coffee, tasting the unique elements of origin become crucial. Consequently, this shift means bitterness continues to be haunted by the specter of dark roasting.
The first question means I might have overstated my point: “are you suggesting that we roast for bitterness?”. Not at all! The notion of a defense of bitterness was lighthearted and my motivation was mostly calling for less biting or myopic understanding of coffee. My main approach in roasting is to seek those unique elements of terroir. The route to this is seeking balance, sweetness, and clean acidity. Bitterness comes easy in coffee due to the fact you are caramelizing sugars. My message is more that bitterness is not a roast fault. Moreover, bitterness improves the perceived sweetness. I try to roast coffee with an outward facing approach to consider how taste and flavours work in a larger more shared sense, which means, I do not want to ignore bitterness.
Second question, “the point on taste makes sense but the bitterness of fruit seems different than the bitterness of a dark roast“. Poor phrasing on my part, not really a question but a statement. So let’s just ask, is it different? For sure! Every version of a taste that arises via flavours is different. Think of the sour, sweet, and bitter in lemon or lime or grapefruit: all distinct. I think the bitterness of dark roast is best described as acrid. To again borrow from the lexicon, acrid is “the sharp, pungent, bitter, acidic aromatic associated with products that are excessively roasted or browned”. The jab of a dark roast is such harsh bitterness. A lack of acridness is what I think most people mean when they say a coffee is ‘free of bitterness”. But again, I do not want to sound too harsh because … I am trying not to be bitter.