The Black Heart of Roasting Coffee

I would like to explain a little more about roasting coffee and why exactly it is that when you receive our coffee it looks so much different than the coffee most people are used to seeing. There are a lot of historical factors that play in to this, and I will touch on some of them slightly, but I will try to focus mostly on the roasting itself and why we roast the way we do.

To start off with, I will reference some stock photos and descriptions from a great small batch roasting company, Sweet Maria's. They do a fantastic job showing high res pictures of the beans and explaining what is happening with the bean. 

I'll skip through the early stages of the coffee roast and get right to the final roast stages

This is called "City" roast. It's the lightest roast anyone will do. It's just at the tail end of what is called "first crack". When your beans get to a certain temperature, the moisture is evaporating and the bean is physically expanding from the heat. The bean has already started browning through the Maillard reaction (like browning meat), and caramelization of sugars has started. This is the crucial phase because it's the caramelization of sugars that starts to bring out the unique flavors of the bean. So depending on how much caramelization you allow, the resulting flavor will be different. Some beans, like most Ethiopian beans, reach peak flavor during this early stage. The light, fruitier flavors are more pronounced in this early stage of caramelization. So for those styles of coffee, this is where you want to stop roasting. It honestly results in more of a very dark tea tasting beverage than what most people think of for coffee, with the right bean origin.

The next stage is aptly called "City+". You can tell from the pictures, the bean is slightly darker. But you'll also notice that it's expanded a little more, looking fuller. As you can imagine, this is similar to a City roast in that it's still very light, but we've allowed a little more caramelization to occur. This means that some of the fruity flavors will have become slightly less prominent, but still very present and dominant. But there will be a slightly deeper flavor finish being developed here that gives it a hint of richness. This is one of our more common roast levels, because we feel that for most people the City roast is just too light for a full-flavored coffee. This gives a little more hint of that "roasted" flavor and brings out some of the caramel and chocolate flavor notes in most coffees.

Here we have the next level, which is called "Full City". This is the final stage of the true "Origin flavor" roast. The internal temperature of the bean is rising and caramelization of the sugars is reaching it's peak. You still will get lots of the flavors of the bean origin here, but you will get far less of the lighter flavors and far more of the heavier, richer flavors often associated with "dark roasts". These are your chocolate notes, caramel flavors, and nutty aromas. Beans from places like Sumatra are well known for these flavor profiles. You can take Ethiopian coffees to this level, but they just do not have the flavor characteristics that stand out at this roast level, so you are losing out on what they have to offer. We do roast many coffees to this level, as there are many great origins that taste fantastic in the profile range, and they are some of our most popular coffees.

This stage is called, you guessed it, "Full City+". There are times that we will roast a coffee into this stage, but that is very rare. At this stage you are entering what is called "second crack". This stage, unlike first crack, isn't from the bean expanding. It's from the actual cellulose matrix of the coffee bean breaking down. This is why the beans roasted past this point start to get oily. And also why beans roasted past this point start to lose their aroma much more quickly. They are only "fresh" for easily half the time of lighter roasted coffees. Most people won't even get a chance to experience the original aroma of the bean by the time they get it from the roaster. But what you do start to really get is that "roasted" flavor instead of the bean's origin flavor. Much like people tend to prefer lighter cooked steak, lighter roasted beans will have more actual bean flavor. Some people, however, like "well-done" steak and darkly roasted coffee. There is a flavor profile here that is distinct, but it just isn't the flavor of the bean. It's the flavor of all the caramelized sugars turning into carbon. You still will get more origin flavor than roast flavor at this stage, but the decline has begun.

This stage is called "Vienna" or "Light-French". You really start to see the darkness in the bean here, and this is probably much closer to the kind of bean people are used to buying. This is closer to Starbuck's lightest roast. Although, recently, Starbucks has started introducing a "blonde" roast that is probably somewhere around Full City. I'll get in to this more later. At this roast point, the "roast flavor" starts to overpower the origin flavors of the bean. There still are hints of the origin, which is why they still taste different, but it is vastly muted from what it started out as. If you like the charred roast flavor of coffee, then this is going to be your favorite roast level. But if you are drinking coffee at this roast point, then spending money on premium small batch single origin beans is a waste of money. You are paying Kobe Beef prices for something that will just cook the flavor out of it anyway.

This is the final stage I will address, and it is called "French". It really is a disservice to French coffee to call it that, but that is what the popular nomenclature has become. At this point all you taste is the roast flavor. Sugars have all caramelized into carbon. The oils are rapidly seeping out, and there is no aroma left except burnt coffee. Sure, some people might like this flavor. But it really doesn't even matter what your beans started out as at this point. It will all mostly taste the same. Burnt.


So now that you understand the differences in roast levels I'll briefly give a little history on coffee beans. Companies like Folgers and Starbucks have revolutionized the face of coffee in America. This is great, and has been a huge cultural impact for almost everyone. But, as with most things, an efficient large corporate structure has to make compromises for profitability over quality. Large franchise coffee chains often rely heavily on the darker roast levels for many reasons:

1. For storefront coffee companies their profits are in their mixed coffee drinks, so dark roasted coffee encourages people to add sugar, cream, and flavorings.

2. Small family run coffee farms have been taken over by corporations and they have replaced heirloom coffee varietals with new hybrids that maximize production efficiency at the expense of bean flavor. So their beans wouldn't taste as good at lighter roasts anyway. But that's how they keep prices low for their beans.

3. Since light roasted premium coffee only maintains maximum flavor for about 14 days, they can't afford to keep fresh coffee on the shelves from a purely logistical standpoint. So darker roasted coffee maximizes that "roasted" flavor that will hold almost indefinitely, giving them more shelf life for their massive inventories.

So now you can see the landscape of coffee and why what we do here at the Jolly Roger Roasting Company is so different from what you might get elsewhere. But the more you look in to this world of premium small batch coffee, the more you will see how unique our offering is. Our company is one of the few roasting companies out there that are trying to provide you with that specialty premium experience at a reasonable cost. Our coffee isn't much more expensive than other brand name coffees that don't follow our highly selective bean sourcing program or have our focus on maximizing the origin characteristics of these premium beans. We don't think that great coffee should only be available to high end customers. Everyone deserves the chance to drink great coffee and reasonable prices.

No gimmicks, no tricks, just great coffee.