Of Dark Roasts and Oaky Wines

It used to be the morning ritual. One cup, never more. Usually Peet’s—or the darkest, and strongest option available. My philosophy was, “I like it strong with plenty of cream,” and it held up through over 15 years of passionate coffee drinking.

During those same years, I was studying and tasting a lot of other foods and beverages. In the wine business, I tasted anywhere from 15-50 wines each week.  The philosophy that guided our approach was that what makes a wine great is the character of the grape—where its from, the nature of the soil, climate, how it was vinified. Balance, character and terroir were words used there before I heard them frequently as buzzwords in the broader wine industry, and represented irreplaceable elements to any wine worthy of praise.

But back to coffee… as a new face at Coffee Bean International, I’ve jumped on the chance to leave my desk and join our buyers and roasters any chance I can in the cupping room. Almost instantly after I got here, my approach to coffee drinking changed dramatically.
After a few conversations, and opportunities to taste and explore through the experts’ palates, I completely changed my ways. Now, I drink my coffee black.

Everyone knows Peet’s built their reputation on a signature style featuring some of the darkest roasts out there. Peet’s influence on Starbucks’ roasting style is well documented. 11,000 Starbucks locations later, that influence has reached pretty much everyone.

Nowadays, more and more roasters talk about lighter roasts. With the increasingly widespread availability of high quality single origins, lighter roasts are favored. Light roasts allow the coffee to express where its from and the unique character of where and how it was grown. Joachim Eichner in Roast Magazine’s “Leaving the Dark Side: The Forgotten Art of Light Roasting” argues “excellent beans deserve to be appreciated in their complex subtlety, and light roasting with extreme care is the best complement to superb green coffees.” Not everyone takes this approach.

The Starbucks’ blog on their Italian Roast expresses a contrasting opinion that I’ve heard in both coffee and wine, “As your coffee palate develops, Italian Roast is a natural progression for coffee lovers and definitely not a coffee for wimps!” (http://assets.starbucks.com/blog/5966/my-favorite-bold-coffee-2-italian-roast). So who’s right?

The Answer Might be in Wine

When I started tasting, I heard of a similar attitude in wine. During a tasting in Napa—where  “bigger is better” is not an uncommon theme for California Cabernets—it came through when I told a group how much I liked a particular Pinot Noir in a tasting. I was told “I started with Pinots too,” and “You’ll grow out of that.” (Now knowing the Grand Cru Pinots of Burgundy’s Cote de Nuits I wish I’d replied, “Have you heard of Romanee-Conti?”) Believing that power, depth and complexity do not come from big flavors alone seems a distinct approach to tasting. It can be referred in wine as the “iron fist in a velvet glove,” usually referred to as a very good thing.
I see the presence of roast characteristics in coffee as mirroring the presence of oak in wine. Consider this…

The wines that I knew—family-owned, handcrafted, and artisanal in their approach (like specialty coffee) —often worked to achieve the flavor profiles I mentioned before – balance and character and terroir—often with judicious use of oak. If oak stood out as a flavor component on its own, rather than as an “ingredient” designed to enhance the flavor of the fruit itself, a wine would be considered too “oaky.”

As soon as you become sensitive to this oak flavor—the creamy, butteriness in whites, and the spiciness and tongue-coating tannins that appear in reds—you notice that very often, the oak stands out. A lot. And fruit often takes a back seat. In my mind, the dominant oak flavor can work when it is counter balanced by another dominant flavor in the meal. For example, I can’t imagine a bottle of Pacific Northwest darling Owen Roe ever being consumed without a nice juicy steak to round out the new oak tannin.

Similar for coffee, as all of us here at Coffee Bean International have been tasting shot after shot for our new downtown Portland coffee shop, Public Domain, I’ve been captivated by a small batch of Burundi Bwayi Paul found, which I find full of rich tropical flavor. I drink it black. ”It’s balanced.”

If ever there was an over-used word to describe a good coffee—or wine, for that matter—it’s “balanced.” But achieving it is easier said than done. In an article on coffeegeek.com, Ken Davids and John Weaver of Peet’s tasted 23 reputable dark roasted coffees. They reported disappointment that only 7 out of 23 scored above 80. Their conclusion is that achieving the optimal dark roast has a smaller margin for error than with light roasts. I would agree, and extend the argument.

Several factors go into what makes the optimal amount of either oak or roast.  The quality of the fruit is a big one. With both products, the best fruit tends to grow in certain areas at higher elevations, where cooler temperatures slow ripening, allowing more complex sugars to develop, yielding deeper, more interesting flavors. Better drainage on hills mean less presence of water in the fruit, and further concentration of flavors. Fruit of this quality has a better chance of integrating with oak – or roast – and not being overwhelmed by it.

But still, coffee, like wine, can be easily overwhelmed. Wines at least have the chance to benefit from time, as aging them can give flavors a chance to meld and mellow, like a stew. It’s no guarantee—only better wines seem to benefit from this treatment, and they can certainly go downhill just as easily as they improve. This is not the case with coffee. Once roasted, the clock is ticking, and you have a matter of days, not months or years to enjoy it. But when right, the result is worth the search.

So, now I no longer add milk to my morning coffee—except to my favorite dark roasts—when strong with plenty of cream still feels just right.

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