Those two words cause a ruckus all too often in the coffee industry. A staple in the hard-working American's vocabulary for decades, this term has proved to be a standard unit of measurement for how tough you are and how much you need to get done in your day. Bitter, black, motor oil-like sludge that gives life in the wee hours of the morning. You like the harsh, burnt taste. It slaps you in the face, shouts at the neurons in your brain to start firing off faster and it gets the job done.
It is a topic of great stress for me.
Let's unpack, shall we?
When we talk about "roast" we are talking about the profile to which coffee is... well.. roasted. It refers to how the coffee is transformed from green, raw, byproduct of a plant into a more-or-less "cooked" product that we can then grind and brew and drink. It plays an incredible role in how the coffee you drink will taste. One coffee roasted three ways could taste light and grassy, citrusy and chocolaty, or burnt and ashy. If you asked most people, they would tell you a "dark roast" is generally synonymous with the latter of these flavor profiles. And while culturally we have associated a specific type of coffee, terms like "light," "medium" and "dark" are actually very loose terms of reference one coffee shop might use differently from one another. What one roaster may call their light roast might be another's medium - it generally comes down to the discernment of the individuals roasting the coffee and how those selling it want to market it.
When coffee is roasted hot enough to be burned and begin the process of transforming the beans to simple carbon ash, almost all discernible characteristics that coffee once had to distinguish itself from another origin of coffee has been lost. At this level of roast, it has been often described that what you are tasting is more the roast than the coffee itself. A Brazil will taste like a Guatemala will taste like a Rwanda. They will all taste dark, burnt, ashy and bitter. More often than not, this is what people mean when they ask for a cup of dark roast. It doesn't matter where the coffee came from.
If you ask me, it does matter.
If you ask me, coffee should not have any undesirable traits that include (but are not limited to) being bitter or burnt. A charged opinion for some, but without opinions like that I would not be working in the field I am, sharing my love for coffee with customers and nobody would be reading this blog right now. Coffee should be sweet and full of flavor. Flavors both simple and exotic, flavors that say more than just "coffee". A single origin coffee from one farm should shine brightly as a representation of a family's life work with whatever unique traits it has. A blend should tell a story of why its flavor profile was constructed the way it was - how was this flavor profile created and how was it meant to be consumed? When we take these coffees and throw them in for a dark roast, we eliminate the possibility for them to show us anything interesting. Any delicate acidity is taken away, sweet traits of fruit are turned acrid, and chocolate notes are scalded. Dark roasts have the possibility to turn an award-winning crop of coffee to something that tastes indistinguishable from the corner store coffee you can get for seventy cents.
But Hayden, you roast and sell a dark roast in Boxwood? Aren't you being kind of a jerk hypocrite right now?
As I mentioned earlier, the term "dark" is referential - it does not specifically have a distinguished definition other than what we accept as normal. By creating and selling our own version of a dark roast, we are attempting to change this idea of normal. We spent a lot of time and care to develop a blend with a roast profile that developed enough caramelized sugars and brown bits to show off some delicious chewy notes of good chocolate and molasses and toasted almonds. All of these we identify as "dark" flavors, but they still have enough voice to shine through in the cup we serve you. The coffee is not burnt, it is not bitter, it is not ashy. It is what we like to think of when we think about dark roast, and we hope that with time everyone will as well - rich and sweet and velvety.
Of course, this is my opinion as the roaster at Boxwood. There are many opinions about coffee and what it should taste like, and each one is valid. We have a mission to spread good coffee that speaks for itself, and for us that means roasting coffee that will best express what characteristics it has. Our dark roast has a voice, we think it deserves that.
A few weekends ago, NYC was buzzing a little more than usual as the annual New York Coffee Festival took over the floor of the Metropolitan Pavilion. Thousands of thirsty and caffeine craving attendees bombarded vendors looking for the coolest new grinders and gadgets and getting a taste for some stellar brews. Unfortunately, the Boxwood Gang wasn't able to take up a lot of time checking out this year's digs, as we've been having the time of our lives dealing with a water main break in our building and every hurdle that comes along with it (woo). Not to fret, however! We've busted our butts and pulled a lot of strings to ensure we delivered hot java to our lovely and patient customers, and we even found a few hours one night to catch a spin-off event of the festival!
On Friday evening we piled our tired and coffee-stained bodies into a few cars and trundled on over to Brooklyn where we found ourselves in the incredibly chic shop that is the Extraction Lab by Alpha Dominche. The crazy manufacturers of the Steampunk brewer and altogether mad team of coffee creators were hosting an event called Extracts! with the forces of Standart Magazine and Comandante pulling resources from Toby' Estate and Ally Coffee. We were welcomed to the floor with a selection of incredible African and South American coffees brewed on a super long and intimidating line of Steampunks, an overwhelming spread of charcuterie, cheese, and veggies waiting to be devoured, and some delicious complimentary wine to boot. After getting cozy and snapping a million pictures of every aesthetic of the shop, we huddled up to see what the night was really about.
It was an evening of community. We heard readings from the magazine, we listened to entrepreneurs share their stories of personal and professional growth in the industry, and we even partook in some friendly brewing competing. Folks from Comandante walked us through their story as a company and how through competitions they have tapped into a fantastic community of coffee lovers and competitors both professional and amateur. Displaying their own incredible product, a hand grinder that proves to be one of the easiest and most consistent in its current range, they pumped up the crowd and put on a pour over competition, the first ever Comandante Cup to be held in New York. Due to overwhelming peer pressure, yours truly as well as beloved Boxwood barista and shift leader Shiva Kiani stormed the floor to prove what we knew about pour overs. By some miraculous lining of the stars, I actually found myself brewing a pour over with professionals much more adequate than I in the final round of competition. I came in 4th overall, just shy of placing, but it was an incredibly fun and humbling experience to hang out with some amazing and talented coffee hotshots.
U.S Barista Champs Lem Butler and Kyle Ramage took to the mics and fed us even more coffee as they shared their own stories of struggle and success. Through a tangled web of stubbornness, trailblazing relationships and a lot of luck, the two barista celebrities have found themselves in a promising and energetic partnership in the form of Black & White Coffee Roasters, a venture that is allowing them to achieve much more than they ever expected when they first stepped into the coffee industry. Independence and experimentation are the freedoms most coffee folks dream of achieving, and these humble two have found themselves doing just that at an exceptional level of quality. The casual discussion and open Q&A was a great illustration at how accommodating, motivating and friendly the coffee community is. Even during competition, businesses urge each other to succeed, innovate and bring new ideas to customers and to the industry.
I usually count on customer interaction to give me gratification in my work, but it's moments like these that show me that a great deal of energy comes from my peers in industry that help me strive for success on a personal and professional level. Everyone is part of a big family, and there is a lot of love to go around. We ask questions, and when we find answers we share them with each other and the world. We love coffee, and our common goal is to spread that love for coffee, it's that simple.
Hayden Kaye is our Master Roaster and head of the Say Interesting Stuff department.