Underdeveloped 'Specialty' Coffee


(Shawn Thacker) #1

Hi hustlers,

Okay, I wan’t to bring up something in the most diplomatic way possible without offending or implying offense to anyone.

I’ve been drinking + preparing what would be considered 3W specialty coffee now for well over 5 years. I’ve competed in competition, I’ve judged Regional barista competitions, read + watched anything I can get my hands + eyes on, I’m a member of the National Chapter of the SCA where I live, and most recently started home roasting. In my experience, albeit limited compared to some of you, I’ve found that the consistency of roasted coffee from specialty roasters is something that is missing the mark more often than not. Instead of finding some familiar and desirable coffee flavours (chocolate, caramel, nuts, soft fruits, berries, vanilla, spices, etc.), I’m finding more savoury flavours and brothiness that seems to have become more and more prevalent in ‘specialty’ coffee as of late.

As a coffee nerd, I’ll never ask for too much. I love coffee too much, I love preparing it, I love sharing it, and I love the story of it. I willingly spend $20+ for a 12 oz. bag, I pay for brewing gear + scales, support any number of crowd-funding campaigns for new products, etc., and with that, I think I’m entitled to a reasonable expectation of an even and adequately developed roast when I give my money away. Now I share a bit of my backstory here, because I’m still willing to pay the price for specialty coffee and give the roaster the benefit of the doubt, and I like adjusting parameters to try and pull different flavours out of a coffee because I understand this better than your average coffee drinker. In the end, the roaster wins with me because they’re selling retail, and I’m always going to buy more.

So, here’s my thoughts… Trying to roast lighter to follow the current roasting trend is causing lots (more than we’d care to admit…) of specialty coffee to be underdeveloped. It’s hard to roast coffee, it’s harder to roast well-developed coffee, and it’s even more difficult to roast lightly and develop it well. I think it can be done, and I’m sure there’s lots of roasters out there who do. In fact, one of the best coffees I had all year was a lightly roasted washed Rwandan. Secondly, what role does roasting software play in this…? Are we repeating bad profiles, are we scared to roast a little darker because we think the sweetness will disappear? Are we afraid of blending because it’s not ‘the best expression of a 1origin coffee’…? While this may be true, sometimes a 1origin coffee isn’t the best expression of specialty coffee either. #justsayin #amiright

I don’t know what the cause and/or answer is on a commercial-scale, but I do know that I’ve been able to roast some amazing coffee for drip/filter brewing at home. I can monitor + graph temperatures, drum speed, etc. manually to some degree and it gives me a little more control on the roasting side so I don’t feel like I need to tinker as much during brewing and can achieve great, repeatable results. To be honest, roasting for espresso is proving to be more difficult and is still a work in progress…

Again, don’t send me hate mail, don’t troll me. I’m looking for good discussion and honest feedback from the BH community here.

Regards,
S.


(Jasmine Segura) #2

@shawnthacker, this is a great question, I’m looking forward to seeing the discussion that come from this!


(Kor Kiley) #3

Just to give some perspective, I’m 72, started drinking coffee about five years ago but had been making lattes for my wife and roasting for a few years before that. Except for four months in New Zealand a couple of years ago and in Thailand a couple of years before that, most of the coffee I’ve drunken has been of my own making, using beans of my own roasting. Also, I drink espresso only.

When I first started roasting with a homemade device, I always roasted just past second crack. But now I aim for a City+ roast and I generally dump at around 412°F-418°F with about 18% to 25% development.

Anyway, this summer, I spent a week in New York City where I had a few espressos from a few of the big names there, and bought some of their beans to take home with me. The first thing I noticed was that all of the beans had quite a sweet aroma if I didn’t put my nose right up to them. Another thing I noticed was that the beans were quite hard compared to those of my own roasts. I must say that I could detect quite a few pleasant flavors in my espresso-- definitely not roasty–but at the expense of some pretty unpleasant acidity. And, as you would expect, they required a much finer grind than almost all of the beans I was roasting myself. I wondered if the hardness of the beans, the acidity and the need to grind them so fine, might be signs of underdevelopment.

I liked some of the flavors I was tasting and that sweet aroma that wafted from the bag as I opened it. But I detest the acidity. Since this experience I’ve gradually stretched out the development phase of my roasts and been trying to dump them a bit earlier. I have been surprised to experience that same sweet aroma from most of my recent roasts. At the same time, I seem to have managed to keep the acidity way down.

I was roasting on a Huky 500 this summer but as the weather has turned, I’ve gone back to my Hottop. I was sort of dreading returning to the Hottop but have found that my roasts are actually a bit better with it than with the Huky.

Anyway, from my very non expert experience I think I can agree with you judging from the little 3W coffee I’ve experienced. And by the way, I had a lot of very decent espresso in New Zealand and even in Thailand and never was there any of this very acidic stuff.


(yaboi) #4

Hey Shawn, thanks for the topic man. I think this is a really important issue to be discussed, no doubt. I’ll throw my background out there - I worked 3 years as a barista in the specialty coffee industry before moving into a lead roasting position for a small company in the midwest. I had very little roasting training before taking the position as roaster, thus everything I’ve learned (and continue to learn) is all through trial and error. I am now about 7 months into my career as a roaster, and I love it more and more every single day. One thing that I have learned is that each and each day is a learning experience in one way or another. Undoubedly, roasting is an insanely humbling job, and it is not for everyone.

So, as for undeveloped roasts being the trend, I would have to agree, and yet disagree at the same time. I’ll explain: recently my roommates have bought coffees from several third-wave roasters who have gained a lot of notoriety on social media platforms. I inspected the beans before brewing them up and noticed that the roasts were really, really light, boardering on a cinnamon roast. I brewed each up on a V60 and each roast was a huge bummer. There was a lot of florals on the nose, but the body was non-existent (not tea-like, but water), and the flavor was as you say very “savory” instead of actually being fruity or lively. I was pretty upset to know that they hold such sway in their respective coffee communities while so obviously underdeveloping beans.

On the flipside, I’ve also had a couple of stupid light roasts that have blown my mind. One in particular was a Colombia that at first looked really underdeveloped, and I was nervous to brew it, but upon tasting it I found a lot of great floral flavors and some very sweet and bright berry notes while retaining a tea-like body. Definitely not underdeveloped at all.

In my own experiences, I’ve found that it is absolutely absurd to take a “moral” stance on roasting light. Some coffees are perfectly suited to take on a light and bright profile, while other coffees will just taste badly, and they may need some more development to highlight the instrinsic qualities present. Overall, I think this boils down to an issue of knowing the knowing the green coffee to a greater extent, and making decisions from this point. Personally at this current time I am dropping coffees at temperatures from 406-416 on a Diedrich (take those numbers or leave it, you know how bean probes work). I have tried to take some coffees lighter, and a lot of the delicious flavors I found a couple degrees further were lost in translation, while with other coffees I found some rad stuff hidden in the lighter profiles.

I’ll end by saying this, light roasts can be amazing and totally highlight the various qualities in a given origin, but this should not be done to the detriment of development. I think there are some third-wave roasters absolutely killing the game, and some are falling embarrassingly flat.

Hope this conversation blows up. I think undevelopment is a thorn in the side of specialty coffee.


(Shawn Thacker) #5

…thanks for the comments and the first-hand experience @theroastyboy. I agree in that a well developed light roast can be a great coffee experience ‘if’ you can find it. Some roasters accomplish this amazingly well (1 in particular comes to mind, DM me if you want to know who I’m thinking of…) and I’m starting to think that these are also the ones who like to challenge convention and not fall into ‘current’ trends.

Regards,
S.


(Wesley Griffin) #6

Hey! Like anyone, I can only offer my own opinion based on my experience and research. There are a couple of approaches I’ve noticed that I think hold many coffees’ potential back. I may be totally wrong here, but I’ll jump in on the conversation.

Approach #1: Lighter = More transparent
I think a lot of people assume that if they roast any darker or longer than they already do they will obscure a coffee’s unique flavours and hurt transparency. While this is certainly true if one roasts too dark/long, I think a reactionary style (to traditional, dark-roasting) has emerged that assumes that roasting coffee lighter automatically displays more origin characteristics. This would incentivize people to roast lighter. Rather than developing the coffee’s potential, I think people try to “preserve” it, which unfortunately leaves generic/green/underdeveloped-bitter flavours in the coffee.

Approach #2: Development = Darker
I also think that people frequently try to develop coffee simply by roasting darker. In this case, temperature and time become linked. Rather than extending time to develop the coffee while keeping end temp the same (or alternatively finding more efficient ways to increase development or evenness), some people seem to simply roast darker and, as a result, longer. This can contribute to development but also isn’t necessarily helpful. This sucks if a coffee isn’t evenly developed, because then you end up with ashy flavours, pleasant flavours, and underdeveloped flavours all at the same time. On the flip side, at the same rate of rise you will hit a lower (maybe even ideal?) end temp with a shorter time, but perhaps the time is too short to develop the coffee well. And if we’re assuming that temp/time are linked together, and we don’t want to roast darker, then we won’t roast longer either.

As you said, roasting is hard. I’m pretty sure most roasters are trying to make the most of their coffee. But it certainly is frustrating to read tasting notes along the lines of “lemon, raspberry, & caramel” and then taste something like grass, wheat, & red pepper. There are some well-roasted coffees that are ripe, sweet, complex, and unique, and I think it’s beneficial to try figuring out who’s roasting those coffees and how. It seems like a lot of roasters get into a bubble with their own coffees and don’t frequently try other peoples’ coffees for context or inspiration. Most of the world’s best roasteries are very accessible online, so it’s pretty silly not to try the top-notch stuff, in my opinion.

There’s also the cupping method to consider, and the water that roasters are roasting to. Perhaps some roasters are simply using high KH water that flattens out their coffee, making it taste roasty on the cupping table. The response here might be to roast lighter, when really the coffee was just being flattened out by the water.

Anyone agree/disagree?


(Wesley Griffin) #7

Also, if my language wasn’t clear: I think people equate development with colour (light/dark), and when people talk about roasting lighter, they often mean shorter. In the first approach I mentioned, people may be roasting lighter in colour, but they also may be roasting shorter for the same goal of trying to “preserve” flavour and using the term “lighter” to describe that (as I did).

Lighter isn’t necessarily a problem. Light and developed is usually my favourite combination and I think tends to display a coffee’s unique characteristics best, when done well.


(David Clark) #8

Approach #1: Lighter = More transparent
Approach #2: Development = Darker

This is definitely the consensus, it seems.

I’m also seeing a lot of really fast roasts. Like, as fast as my sample roasts. I know of several roasters that keep production batches under 10 minutes. That is simply not enough time to properly develop the coffee, in my opinion.

Along with that, something that tends to get lost is that there is a difference between under-developed and light roast and between over-developed and dark roasts.

For instance, I currently have a coffee that I drop at 12:30 / 395ºF BT, while I have another that I drop at 13:00 / 418ºF BT. Obviously, they’re following roasting curves that are pretty different from the other.

There’s a lot to coffee, and I can only assume that folks aren’t taking the appropriate amount of time to get to know that coffee before putting it into production. I know I’ve been guilty as such when I first started production roasting, because it’s not my business, so I can’t just make decisions like that on my own.

BTW, I’d love a link to information on water and its effect on final product. We have two shops and the roastery, and there are some taste differences. I already know where I stand, but I’d like to get some info to share with my managers.


(Shawn Thacker) #9

…this raises a whole new level of discussion with respect to ‘evenness’ of the roast. Similar to brewing (over + underextraction within the same brew), I suppose the same could be said for roasting (more + less developed), especially with blends…?

You also raise a good point with respect to differentiating roast colour, time, weight loss, etc. from development. While DTR, and weight loss are somewhat indicators of roast development, colour and time are less so, if at all. What I mean is, you could drop a roast into a hot roaster with the burner @ 100% for 5 mins. and your coffee would ‘look’ roasted, but would likely be severely underdeveloped. On the other hand, you could charge the same batch into a much cooler roaster and keep the temperature very low for 60 mins. Although this would be baked and not necessarily roasted, would it also have the best balance of inner + outer bean consistency…? (I’m intentionally not using the word ‘developed’ in this scenario…).

BTW, what’s wrong with grass, wheat, and red pepper…? :joy:

Regards,
S.


(Shawn Thacker) #10

Hi @david_does,

Generally, I’m in agreement with most of what you say here with the exception of the term ‘over-developed’… Is this possible (regardless of roast colour, time, etc.)?

Agree though in that roast colour and development are different entities. It’s possible to have well developed light roast just the same as it’s possible to have a well-developed dark roast or any range in between. I feel like we’re just barely scratching the surface here as a community and about to head down a rabbit hole…

Regards,
S.


(Dave Choi) #11

Hey Shawn,

I really agree with a lot of what you’ve said. For the last 2-3 years, I’ve been experiencing over 50% of my specialty coffee purchases have turned out to be underdeveloped for my palate.

What I concluded was that there are two major factors that influence this reality:

  1. Contrasting coffee philosophy: For example, some roasters don’t mind a little bit of “roast flavors” aka caramels and chocolate in their coffee, perhaps even prefer a bit of it. So they will balance the origin character and fruits with caramelization to balance the flavor. Onyx Coffee Labs is a big example of this from my perspective. The other camp really doesn’t like roast flavors and would rather live with some woodiness/underdevelopment as long as much of the unique, desirable origin characters shine through. I find a lot of Nordic roasters lean on this very thin line. When the roast and extraction are on point, it’s incredible in its clarity and sweetness, but sometimes it goes slightly off mark and it’s not the most pleasant.

  2. Water, gear, extraction measurement: I’ve heard Rob Hoos talk about this, but roasters tend to roast for their specific water, gear, and preferred extraction level. It’s so important to account for this as a consumer. All things that impact extraction and flavor will determine how the consumer will taste the coffee. And it’s really important to take this factor into account. However, this is less important for those roasters who really excel at their craft - namely that they are able to produce roasts that taste great across a wider range of situations, but honestly not enough roasters do this at the QC level in my opinion.

It’s too bad that many roasters who call themselves specialty don’t quite hit the mark, but I think it’s somewhat nitpicky for us to do this. Many of the consumers who are converting to specialty are still experiencing something much better than what they’re used to. Of course, as specialty roasters all those in the industry should strive for even better, yet we know how difficult this can be and we’re all on a learning curve. :slight_smile:


A tip for espresso roasting: try aiming for a longer roast rather than longer development. That extra time during dry and yellow could yield you big increases in body and solubility with the addition of a more mellow acidity. I found this approach more preferable than simply increasing development time with the same profile as a filter roast. Also, bean selection is critical because some coffees are simply so acidic that the acidity can’t be tamed enough for espresso.


(Tio Nico) #12

Some years back, the Stumptown of old began roasting super light and lemony sour. It became a rage, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. I strongly disliked it, and eventually refused to drink any of their coffees. Over time, quite a few of the “super light” crowd pulled back, began to play on the margins and toward darker and more deveoped. NOW we’re getting somewhere… As a self taught home roaster (NO ONE would talk to me back then) I began to learn where the two “ditches” on either side the road were, I hated lemon sour, and I hated black and bitter. It took a while, but I eventualy learned some things. Then I came into contact with some serious professionals who began to HELP me. I learned about develeopment, building flavour with the roast, etc.

You are correct, too light seems to still be a trend infecting the industry. I still do not like the sour, thin, characterless superlights, or efen a few notches darker but still thin and lacking character. I began to graph my roasts, a time temp point every thirty seconds. Just got a pad of quarter inch graph paper, a pen, my roaster (gas fired drum with all the controls) has the bean probe readout. A three dollar timer from Ikea, and that was all I needed. NOW I could taste, consider the profile, change it, roast it again, traste it again… NOW I began to get somewhere.

Probably the main thing happened that drove me that direction was getting involved in the Roaster’s GUild, and meeding some seriously good roasters who are masters of their craft,

You said this, in your origial question:
“and it’s even more difficult to roast lightly and develop it well. I think it can be done,”

Yes, indeed, it can, and IS done reliably by a very few roasters. There is one who does trhis consistently… VERY light in colour, even throughout the bean, NO citrus sour, but a wonderful malic brightness, sweet, aromatic, pleasant body, and with complex flavours, every time. He does it with just about any origin, has done it for a few years, reliably, so I have to think he’s not just throwing darts at the wall and seeing where they poke a hole. EVERY TIME I have one of his coffees, I am thinking “this will be sour and thin …” but it never is. Doesn’t matter the brew method… French press, pourover, espresso… even blends. (post-blend is the order for these… roast ech to perfection as singles, then blend. You’ve kept control over the entire process, unable to do when preblended, most times. )He has been kind enough to sample and evaluate some of MY work, then given me specific complaints and asked me to “fix it” and bring a new batch to him. Until thse who KNOW begin to impart their knowledge to others who are humble enough to listen, consider, thn change, I believe we will continue to see unpleasantly underdeveloped, sour, roasts. Or the other way… the legendary but unsavoury Charbux style… My friend has given me some green stocks of some tha the has roasted to perfection and shared with me, so I know HIS style on them. Over some time I have been pretty well able to duplicate his style on that same bean. More mentoring will have to happen, worldwide, before sweeping change can come along. But I think it needs to happen… I’ve heard some refer to what my friend and his other equivalents, as the FOURTH wave… adding in the control steps to being cultivation, harvest, process, storage/transport, then on to the roasting, brewing, presentation… every step of the way safeguarded to best standards consistently. Why settle for less? This is slowly catching on… as I travel a bit I do come across places that do everything well, consistently. It can be done. The questions are WILL IT be done HERE, and why/why not?


(Chuck Nigash) #13

Great responses, around the table. I have a short point to make — and it brings me back to my days as a journalist, where our editors in news meetings preached nonstop about our audience.

  1. We should not strive to roast / brew for 8th-grade educated (that’s the newsroom quote) audience. Low level approach (no vendors need slandering) to an unsuspecting consumer.
  2. We should try to deliver product that resonates with taste receptor’s surprise. Silky, aromatic, soulful.
  3. Nuance is probably 5% of your audience UNLESS price is among the 95% — do your own math.

As a creative, I found that writing, editing, art directing was appreciated at a professional level exclusively. As a different creative, I’m learning the same. Foodies can barely detect the cupping notes I talk about (mentioned above in this thread). But they get the general texture and generics of feel-good sugars.

Specifically — and I wish we could flat-out share times + temps + names of varietals — I aim for RORs in a general 8- to 9:30 range, 395 to 410 degrees at the top, and at first crack cut the temps by half, cruising to a drop in 90-120 seconds depending on experience with that bean. (That’s a big If). Softer beans tend to like less heat, harder beans at elevations 6,000 and up generally take it hot and quick. The next point for me is careful soaking and zero heat input after my 90-120 seconds are up. I might go up to 30 seconds and increase air flow.

But this is STILL general. I rested a pretty MorMora 24 hours and it was not what I thought it should be, thin & acidic. Maybe tomorrow, better. And I know if I grind it tight or more coarsely, I can get it to dance. All said, there are so many (fricking) variables that dial in flavor — and many you cannot control, when audience walks away with a bag. My goal is more like non-stop body and unforgettable finish and complexity —where peaches, chocolate, oranges tend to lock you into promise that many won’t find.

Thanks for the thread guys. Good reading.


(Wesley Griffin) #14

Yeah, I think it is important to distinguish between development and darkness. There really seems to be a time component to roasting (for the sake of “development”), although I imagine that the time it takes to develop a bean thoroughly/far-enough can be shortened through more even roasting and/or more efficient roasting.

As far as water resources go, if you haven’t checked it out already, the book Water For Coffee by Christopher Hendon and Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood is probably your best bet. They have both done presentations on the topic as well that summarize the book and other concepts succinctly, so you can always reference those, although the book gets into more detail about how water influences roasting. Here is a presentation from Hendon, in which the first part deals with water: http://www.scanews.coffee/2017/12/12/sca-lectures-podcast-11-chemical-physics-and-coffee

@shawnthacker you can definitely roast a batch of coffee unevenly. You can get varying levels of darkness/lightness and development/underdevelopment within the same bean. You are correct that it is similar to unevenly extracting, but instead of tasting, say, salty & drying, an evenly extracted but unevenly roasted coffee may taste, say, vegetal and ashy. Pre-blending green coffees would likely be a great way to get an uneven roast in many cases.

If you like coffee that tastes like grass, wheat, and red pepper that’s fine! If you like to find the unique flavours in a coffee, then that’s something else entirely :wink:


(joe ) #15

it just struck me that home roasting may offer a higher potential for consistency and control than commercial roasting, due to the more focused and simplified task. it just seems it may be easier to control the outcome of one kilo of beans, over say 30 kilos. any input on this theory?


(joe ) #16

care to share which equipment you are using to roast at home? batch size?


(Shawn Thacker) #17

…I can’t say for sure, but I would imagine that a larger, commercial roaster would be much more consistent (more mass, larger bean pile, higher heat output) than even a good home roaster (less heat, plastic + aluminium parts, relatively low heat output). That said, a poor roast on a larger roaster results in a lot more ‘bad’ coffee. :joy: While a home roaster such as myself might stumble into a good roast partly with some good planning, knowledge, and luck; it’s pretty hard to replicate a roast without proper roasting software and adequate probes.

I’m curious about the Aillio roaster for home use though. It’s a little more expensive (~$3,000) but from what I’ve seen online on YouTube and various forums, it looks to be somewhat of a pro-sumer type roaster with some decent software and repeat capabilities.

Regards,
S.


(Shawn Thacker) #18

@joe, I have a Behmor 1600+ at home that I got several months ago. I’ve put ~50 roasts through it with much more consistent (…and tasty) roasts over the past 20 or so. I use a simple spreadsheet and take a chamber temp. reading every 30 secs. which gives me a bit of a ‘pseudo’ RoR graph. It’s definitely not exact, but I can adjust a handful of parameters that give me pretty good results.

Early on, I was roasting different size batches, but lately the sweet spot for me has been ~275 g. batch size (60% of capacity) which yields ~8 oz. (225 g.) depending on weight loss. Here’s a picture of a batch I did on it in which DTR was ~21.8% but I think it could’ve used a little more heat around 1C and stretched out on the back end just a little longer.

Regards,
S.