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.
Hayden Kaye is our Master Roaster and head of the Say Interesting Stuff department.