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FOOD AND DRINK

4 MIN

Light Roast Is Better than Dark, Say Coffee Geeks

Dark roasted beans may be all the rage on Main Street, but coffee connoisseurs prefer to keep it light. Includes a how-to for aspiring coffee appreciators

In early 2017, Tim Hortons launched a campaign called “Coming Back Stronger” in response to ongoing feedback from customers, who evidently wanted their beloved dark roast coffee – which Tim Hortons introduced in 2014 – even darker.

“Our dark roast has come back stronger, and we encourage our guests to come and taste the difference for themselves,” said Sami Siddiqui, President of Tim Hortons Canada in a press release back in March.

Light? Dark? What’s the difference? Many of us are likely going about our coffee-drinking days in the belief that dark roast is a stronger, more sophisticated kind of coffee. According to the experts, it’s not. Billy spoke with Toronto coffee geeks (who also double as well-respected coffee roasters) to get their take – and they say that the best coffee actually comes light.

Pat Rufino is director of coffee at Rufino Espresso (you’ll end up drinking Rufino coffee all over town in Toronto, from java joints like Jimmy’s Coffee to restaurants like Pizza Libretto). He believes consumers have acquired a taste for dark roast coffee because popular chains including Tim Hortons and Starbucks continue to push it. (Being fair, Starbucks also has a line of light roasts.)

To Rufino, the emphasis on darkness isn’t necessarily a good thing. “Dark roast is still quite popular for us,” he says. But Rufino doesn’t insist on it; people demand it.

LIGHT VERSUS DARK ROAST

The essential difference between a light, medium or dark roast is the end colour of the coffee beans, of course, as well as flavour: The longer coffee stays inside a roasting machine, the hotter and darker it gets, and the more of a toasted flavour it takes on.

Courtesy of Coast to Coast Coffee

Matthew Tanner of Coast to Coast Coffee beside a fresh roast

Since dark roast coffee is more robust in flavour, it’s easy to see why the casual coffee drinker might believe it contains more caffeine. Yet perhaps counterintuitively – and contrary to the use of the word “stronger” in the Tim Horton’s campaign – a dark roast has less caffeine than a light roast.  

(What actually dictates “strength” when you’re talking in terms of caffeine is simply the coffee-to-water ratio.)

Will Thorburn, director of coffee at Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, says that in general, coffee beans finish roasting when they reach anything from 410 degrees to 465 degrees.

Beans that finish at the lower end of the scale toast to a colour somewhere around chestnut brown, while coffee beans at the hot end of the range come out nearly black.

And while a hotter roast generally results in a darker bean, you can’t consistently tell the roasting temperature by the colour of the bean, because every bean is different, and so is every roaster.

TIM’S GOES DARK, WE GO LIGHT

Like many specialty coffee experts, Rufino drinks light roasts because they better reflect the essence of the bean. He’s especially keen on light roast when it comes to single origin coffee (that is, coffee made with beans that come from a single country).

“When we want to emphasize the terroir of a certain coffee, we’ll roast it to a light roast,” Rufino says.

Yes, coffee enthusiasts talk about terroir in much the same way wine lovers do. Some examples of terroir in coffee include the berry and citrus essence one might taste in coffee beans from the Ethiopia’s Yirgacheffe region, the tropical fruit and apricot notes found in beans from Costa Rica’s Tarrazu, or the cocoa and nut flavours in a Guatemalan Antigua.

Courtesy of Balzac's Coffee Roasters

“You lose a lot of what makes a coffee special when you dark roast a coffee; you taste more of the roast, and less of the actual characteristics of that coffee,” explains Matthew Tanner, roaster and owner of Coast to Coast Coffee, an e-commerce company that ships organic, fair trade coffee beans to homes across Canada.

The Canadian coffee scene has really blown up, Tanner says, “and with that comes light roasts exploding and people realizing that’s how you best taste coffees.”

HOW TO TRY SPECIALTY COFFEE AT HOME

With the help of Andrew Long, coffee educator at Pilot Coffee Roasters, here are some tips on how develop your palate for specialty coffee. Here he is in his own words.

When drinking single origin coffee, take it black – no dairy or sugar

We’re very delicate with our single origins because we want those distinct notes to come through. Single origins are mostly roasted light so you can really smell and taste [the] flavours. In terms of the “best way” to try coffee, it’s always going to be subjective, but to define your palate, try it black first.

Courtesy of Pilot Coffee Roasters

Choose a connoisseur-approved brewing method

If you want to be very purist, go for a brew method that is handcrafted: a pourover like a Chemex, or an Aeropress. The pourover and Chemex are paper filter, drip brew methods: The coffee goes on top of the paper filter, you pour water on top of it and it drips through. (Paper filters are good because they remove a lot of the oils, and other bitter parts of the extraction process, and you’re left with a very clean, crisp cup of coffee.)

The Aeropress is a little bit different: It uses air pressure and gravity to extract coffee with a plunging mechanism, but it’s not like a French press. You push down on a plunger, but there’s a tiny air pocket between the plunger and the brew water, and gravity pulls the liquid through.

Grind as you go

Keep your beans stored in the foil bag that they come in, out of direct light and away from other foods with strong odours, like bananas. If you want to get the best out of the coffee, it’s better to buy smaller quantities, and grind on demand. You can pick up a burr grinder now for around $50. I know that’s not always attainable, but it’s cheaper compared to what it used to be a couple of years ago. There’s a trend pointing towards more scientific methods of brewing coffee at home, which makes specialty coffee more accessible to everyone.

It’s all about knowing what you like

You can have all the scientific equipment available to you, but drinking coffee is all about your own taste buds. Tasting coffee is a subjective, sensory experience. It’s totally great to have expensive equipment, but my advice would be to taste as many coffees that are available to you, and get to know what you like.

Published Tuesday, April 11th 2017

Header image credit: Pilot Coffee Roasters

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