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A Matter of Taste (part 4): The Roast

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A Matter of Taste (part 4): The Roast

Carrie Masek

Even the best coffee beans in the world need to be roasted. Raw coffee beans taste like grass with a vaguely herbal note, not something you'd want to taste first thing in the morning. Roasting the beans brings out the coffee flavors we love. The trick is, we don't all agree on which flavors we like best, Different coffee beans need to be roasted at different levels, and different levels have a huge impact on the flavor in your cup. There's a chart on our Roasting Coffee page that summarizes the different roast levels' impact on flavor.

What the chart doesn't show is how different beans take the different roast levels. It's basically a question of altitude. The higher up a coffee is grown, the harder the bean. The harder the bean, the darker it can be roasted. As a result, coffee grown near the tops of high mountain ranges (the Andes, for instance) can take a great deal of heat without burning. Coffee grown on at a lower altitude (like island coffees) are more delicate and may burn at the darkest roast levels.

The size of the bean can also affect how it roasts. Large beans like a Colombia Supremo or Kenya AA can often be roasted darker than smaller beans or peaberries. Over all, the bigger and higher grown the coffee bean, the more flexibility a roaster has when it comes to roasting it.

Which brings us back to flavor. Generally speaking, folks who like a bright and lively note in their coffee prefer their beans lightly roasted. Those who are looking for richness in the cup prefer medium roast levels and those who want a full-bodied, bold coffee look for a dark roast. Let's go back to our Colombia Traditional, a coffee that shines at every roast level, and see how its flavor changes as the roasts get darker.

Cinnamon: This is the lightest roast level that converts the coffee's flavor away the grassy, herbal taste of green coffee. The beans will be golden brown in color. The brewed coffee will have a lovely, tropical flower aroma, but it will also seem a bit thin and taste very bright, with an almost aggressive grapefruit note. The finish will be very clean, but without much sweetness or richness. A Cinnamon roast level often highlights a coffee's flaws, but Colombia Traditional Los Narajos de San Agustin is an excellent coffee, with few, if any flaws to reveal. Still, for most Americans, the coffee would taste under-roasted, which is why you won't see Cinnamon as a roast level option on our website. Don't worry, though, if you'd like to try any of our coffees at a Cinnamon roast level. All you have to do is ask.

City: This is the lightest roast level we have as an option on the website. The beans will be a light brown color. The brewed coffee will have a medium-light body with lively grapefruit notes and a sweet, floral aroma. The flavor will be sweeter and more rich The finish will be clean with a hint of sweetness. If you like your coffee light, lively and a little rich, this is the roast level for you.

Full City: One roast level darker brings out the richness. The beans are darker, a medium brown, and you may notice they're larger. The brewed coffee has more body. The flavor starts with a lively spritz of grapefruit, but the flavor is sweeter, (it reminded us of bubblegum) and much richer. The finish will be clean and sweet with a lingering richness. A little lively, a little sweet, rich and balanced, Colombia Traditional at a Full City tastes like most American's ideal cup of coffee.  That's why a Full City roast level is the Roaster's Choice for this coffee.

Vienna: The beans are definitely bigger now, and a lovely medium-dark brown color. The coffee will have more body and sweetness and you'll really smell those flowers in the aroma. The lively notes will be softer, but still strong enough to give the cup some balance. Colombian coffee at a Vienna roast level is a wonderful after dinner coffee and goes well with chocolate and rich desserts.

Northern Italian: At the lighter of our two espresso roast levels, the beans turn dark brown. They are also bigger and may show a hint of shine. The brewed coffee will have a rich body and the flavor will be very sweet, though you may lose some of the aroma and all the bright notes. If you like your coffee sweet and bold, Northern Italian is the roast level for you.

Southern Italian: The beans are even darker, now, bigger and shinier. The body won't be as full as it was with the lighter espresso roast level, and the coffee won't be quite as sweet. At a Southern Italian roast level, we've roasted away most of the aspects that make our Colombian Traditional special, but the bold, deep, dark-roasted flavors will be stronger and the finish is still clean and sweet. Many people enjoy this roast level for coffees they use to make Cafe au Lait.

French: If you fell in love with the coffee at a French Bistro, French roast may be the roast level for you. Colombia Traditional Los Narajos is grown high enough in the Andes mountains to handle a French roast. The beans will be so dark brown they look black. They will be huge and shiny, but since this is a very high grown coffee, they won't be burned. The coffee will be sweet and clean with very pronounced dark notes. French roast level is the darkest we show as an option on our website.

Spanish: Please don't ask us to roast your coffee this dark. At a Spanish roast level, most of the flavor has been burned away, even with very high grown beans. If you really want a cup of char, we'll roast it for you, but it would be a terrible waste of a good coffee.

You've learned about the roast. You've learned about the bean. Next time on A Matter of Taste: How to put them together to find YOUR perfect coffee.