Photo courtesy of Ria Puskas / Unsplash
When I (Dan) was roasting back in the early 90s, I roasted for a café in San Francisco that was owned by a nice Iranian man who went by the name of, “Fred.” Internally, we referred to Fred as “More Smokey.” No matter how blackly we burned the coffee for him, he’d always say, “yes, it’s very nice, but I like it more smoky.”
While roasting has come a long way since then, dark roasts still have their fans. But creating good dark roasts requires forethought. Here are three tips to keep in mind: Read, Aim, Fire.
Ready – Choose the right beans. Not every coffee is suitable for dark roasting—nor worth the expense. Dark roasting a soft, florally geisha will only give you a front row seat to watch those delicate flavors (and dollars) waft up the exhaust vent of your roaster. Choose something with high acid and good density (from high elevations) that will stand up to an extended roast and present some unique character when finished. Classic examples are Sumatra, Ethiopia Colombia and Guatemala.
Aim - Know What You’re After. Back in the “days” noted above, oily, dark roasted coffee was an acquired taste...of carbon. Quite literally. But that does not need to be the case. Good dark roasts can demonstrate dried fruit, chocolate, sugar cane, molasses and tobacco in the cup. Choose beans that are known for such characteristics and endeavor to coax out those flavors and aromas.
Fire – Time your Discharge. As you roast coffee, heat radically modifies the physical and chemical structure of the beans. Yes, you know this. But imagine a roast cycle as an inverted “U.” The early part of the cycle is developing the coffee from something undrinkable toward the apex of roasted perfection for that particular bean. Once that apex is reached, the beans start to molecularly devolve toward pure carbon as everything worthwhile blows up the chimney, ultimately leaving you with the harsh, acrid taste of carbon. We always suggest discharging dark roasted coffee just around the beginning of second crack. Once you get to this stage, things start to run away pretty quickly and you’ll be left with cinders before you know it, so be careful.
Final Reminder. when you roast coffee, you’re converting bean mass into smoke. And, because dark roasted coffees have less mass than light roasts, they’re not going to stay fresh as long. Plan accordingly.
As I think back on old, Fred, I can’t help but feel badly that the “more smoky” he was looking for had gone up the roaster flu. Had I been more experienced, I would have roasted less, not more, and probably delivered what he was looking for!