Roasting: Unique vs Universal

Last week, we covered the way choices – like a metal or paper filter – ultimately determine the possibilities of the cup. For example, how they can restrict perceived acidity or eliminate the body of a particular roast. I want to come at this same idea in a different way this week by asking: what are the points of no return in roasting? What qualities are universal or unique?

This is by no means a new topic for Ask Lee. Many times have I repeated: coffee is like pie. When baked well, pie showcases its ingredients – the sweetness of cherry or creaminess of custard. Yet regardless of fillings, all burnt pies taste identically of char. Allow me to piggyback on last week’s post to explore this dividing line in roast development through visual impression, aroma, taste, body, and finish.

So this fancy diagram above is the end result of years of roast journals and experiments. I do not want to over-represent my abilities and fully admit to veering into both those green and red sides. But at Cut, I continue to strive to operate from that ‘developed’ blue column. You may ask: why is it the goal? Well because of those question marks that stand in for the glorious potential and mystery provided by origin. The beautiful fill-in-the-blank supplied by growing conditions, soil, rainfall, varietal, picking, washing, fermentation, milling, and drying. The enigmatic subtly of terroir.

Underdevelopment is easy to identify. Crack a bean and the inside will have clearly different shades than the outer layers. Freshly ground, it smells sweet with the hazy, yeasty scent of bread. Sip a cup and you will have sourness followed with some dry bitterness and the brothy notes of umami. The flavours will be potentially grassy or vegetal, think peas or celery. It might be pushed slightly further meaning the bite of olives, citrus pith, savory tomato or tea.

Yes, tea. You might be thinking, “but I see it all the time”. Indeed, you do. But this is not an overstatement: it is a flavour that can be produced in any coffee. If you have access to a roaster, pull samples right as beans turn golden yellow. When cupped, it will taste like green tea. Pull another sample right in the midst of the ‘maillard’ phase and you get orange pekoe. Just before first crack, you will have citrus infused black tea. Part of the problem is tea notes teeter righhhhttt on the cusp of development, so it often co-mingles with elements originating from those question marks of the blue. In other words, it is close to development that it easily hitches a ride. It also appears on a multitude of bags from roasters buying excellent quality green. So, we have the clout of influence combing with the power of association, which conflates its universal quality with those otherwise unique ones.

Jumping to that “pushed too far” category, we have another set of sensory cues. Visually, there should be some texture on the bean. In the photo above, you see the transformation from matte surface with details to glossy sheen as we travel past the point of no return. Beyond sight, the other markers of ‘too dark’ are quite clear: the stinging smell of smoke alongside bitterness with a slight jab of sourness and salt. The flavours will be spice-forward with the char of overdone baking – think the bottom of burnt cookies or the edges of an ignored cake. It will be meaty and soupy with a long, harsh finish. Very, very bold.

Onward to that Goldilocks’ inspired perfect cup. There will be only slight differences in shade across the diameter. The outer bean will have the light luster of a succulent plant with no sheen, burn marks, or char in the center cut (the ridge of the bean). The smell will be a surprise! Maybe lemon cake in an Ethiopia, or plum in a Colombia, or milk chocolate in a Guatemala. The taste will be sweet, with a backing chorus of sour and bitter. The flavours are up to origin! The body will be buttery and full and the finish will be juicy and clean.

It is worth stressing the point that these realms overlap. I would call upon the very complex Venn diagram above, to argue you can have all three at the same time. A too hot drum combined with truncated development time will leave the outside over, the middle developed, and the core under. Simultaneously, tinging the cup with bitter char and sour vegetable. When striving for that blue area of development, it is possible to lean into one circle and avoid the other. Hence a lighter roast might have some tea but also a whole lot of sweet fruit, caramel, and chocolate. Equally, a well-developed coffee might have a haze of spice or hit of baker’s chocolate but lack any kick of pith or grass.

A long road but at its end, let us say this: under and over will be universal; developed will be unique. Tea and spice are examples of universal flavours. You can get them from a central American or East African coffee. They are not necessarily bad as they are just part of profiling. It is a matter of working towards unlocking all those question marks and celebrating the various routes roasters can take to reach the bountiful possibilities for the cup.

Next week: the universal and unique in extraction!