Tags:

Roasting for dummies: a comparison of styles

Before being roasted, coffee beans are green and have a grassy aroma. When we roast coffee, the beans develop and release 100 different aromatic compounds. In this article we’ll talk about two opposing roasting philosophies: the Italian one and the Nordic one.

Gianmarco Vassalli
Gianmarco Vassalli
chicchi di caffè tostati

The term “roasting” refers to the phase in which the coffee beans turn from green to brown. Roasting is what gives the coffee beans the flavor which we then find in the cup, both its smell and taste. It’s interesting to understand the relationship that exists between the degree of roasting and the aroma of the bean. In fact, through the various degrees/types of roasting, we can influence the aromatic compounds that exist in the coffee and therefore affect its taste.

There are basically three roasting phases: the drying phase, the browning phase, and the development phase. The first phase, drying, dries the coffee beans before the actual roasting begins; the second phase, browning, helps the beans to release their aromatic compounds (the Maillard reaction). During this stage, the roasting process naturally slows down and the beans turn more and more brown. This slowing down ensures that the flavor fully develops. This phase ends with the first “crack”, the sign that the third phase (that of development) has begun, during which the beans, having absorbed energy in the previous phase, break open. This is a delicate phase which serves to definitively establish the flavor which we want the coffee to have in the cup. Its duration is usually 15-25% of the total roasting time.

In the art of roasting, the degree of the roast is one of the most important indicators for exalting the scents and flavors which every bean has to offer according to its organoleptic qualities. Clearly, the degree of the roast depends on the roasting time of each of the three phases. This, in fact, has an enormous influence on the bean’s aromatic characteristics. In general, coffees that have been roasted for less time, and are therefore lighter in color, are more acidic, and coffees that have been roasted for more time, and are darker in color, are more bitter. Fruity flavors are more common in lighter roasts, while burnt flavors and flavors of wood and tobacco are more common in dark roasted coffee. 

Light roasted coffee is fruitier because it maintains more of its organic compounds, while in darker roasts these compounds break down into less fruity complexes, increasing the amount of sulfuric compounds and producing more of a burnt aroma. Overall, therefore, we could say that a lightly and more rapidly roasted coffee, better exalts the characteristics of the raw coffee. This is another reason why it’s easier to appreciate the complexity of a light roast as compared to a dark roast, because the first manages to maintain the beans’ natural complexity.

chicchi di caffè tostati

DIFFERENT ROASTS FOR DIFFERENT EXTRACTIONS

Before we take a closer look at the contrast between Italian style and Nordic style, it’s important to specify that the element which determines the various characteristics of a roast is the extraction method which is chosen for preparing the coffee. Espresso and moka are pressure extracted: they have more complex parameters to be considered and are more violent in their seepage. Meanwhile, the extraction of pour over coffee takes place manually through percolation and gravity and is easier to control, even if its seepage process is more delicate. 

In general, for filtered coffees, more aromatic, delicate, and acidic beans, of the 100% mono-origin Arabica variety are used. In this case we’re talking about coffee with a #Chill, #Cheerful, or #Adventurous character. For espresso and moka, blends are more frequently used, made up of Robusta varieties which have low acidity and are more bitter and full bodied. In this case we’re talking about coffee with a #Fascinating or #Vigorous character. 

Lightly roasted coffee tends to be fruitier, more floral, and more acidic, with a wide range of scents depending on the variety. A light roast exalts all of the aromatic qualities which the beans have to offer.  

Medium roasted coffee acquires a more distinct flavor and varies dramatically depending on the altitude at which the original coffee was grown. For a medium roast, coffee from too high of an altitude generally isn’t used because it’s spectrum of aromas is overly complex and floral, and therefore best exalted through a lighter roast.

A dark roast, Italian-style, has a bold and intense flavor, like tobacco, cocoa, wood, or toasted walnuts.  Blends of Robusta, grown at low altitudes and less complex and fruity, are often used for this.

FUN FACTS

Traditionally, espresso is a dark roasted coffee, especially in Southern Europe and in the Mediterranean. Only in Nordic/Scandinavian countries there is the tendency, as we’ll see, to use light roasted coffee for espresso as well. 

Pour-over coffee is roasted in different ways in various countries, but the degree of roasting is always lighter than that of espresso. In Asia, Africa, and America, the tendency is for pour-over coffee to be darker roasted than that in Scandinavian countries and in Central Europe.

ITALIAN-STYLE ROAST  

When we talk about Italian-style roasted coffee, we’re referring to a roasting style that produces very dark and oily beans, used to prepare espresso and moka. If you visit any bar in Italy, you’ll immediately notice that the beans are almost black and that the espresso grounds have a shiny consistency.

For Italians, coffee is always either espresso or moka, and, in sipping a cup at the bar, we’ve created a true lifestyle that has been exported around the world, even to those countries where they consume beans of a much higher organoleptic quality than our own. 

In almost all Italian bars and homes, a blend made up of more than 80% Robusta is used, of inferior quality to Arabica. Paradoxically, the Italian-style dark roast serves to hide the organoleptic defects of the beans used in our country. A very dark roast tends to burn all flavors. The coffee beans can therefore be old or of low quality, without consumers realizing it. Furthermore, if we add the “obsolete” nature of the first espresso machines, still very much in vogue, which have only one extraction method, and therefore don’t allow for the coffee to have many taste nuances, it’s easy to see how the quality of the bean becomes secondary. 

In the Italian style, roasting assumes a less important role, because there’s no need to exploit the aromatic potential of low quality coffee, especially if an entire nation is used to the typical burnt and bitter flavor that gives “character”, as we Italians call it, to Italian espresso. Often, in Italy, we don’t taste the flavor of the bean, but rather the flavor of its strong roast. This is a coffee that we call #Vigorous. In general, in Southern Europe and throughout the Mediterranean, people tend to drink coffee roasted in the Italian style, even though the world of “specialty” coffees is expanding every day. Barcelona, for example, with the “Nomad” and “Three Marks” roasters, is establishing itself as an avant-garde city in the region when it comes to light roasts which exalt high quality beans. 

NORDIC STYLE ROAST

At the start of the new millennium, in parallel with the rapidly growing popularity of specialty coffees, the concept of “Nordic roast” became more and more common. Twenty years ago, the pioneering Kaffa roaster in Oslo, Norway, surprised the coffee world by proposing a rapid and very light roast that, in the cup, exalted the acidity of the beans, something that was quite controversial at the time Specifically, these were coffees that we call #Chill, #Cheerful, and #Adventurous

It must be emphasized that the Nordic-style roast is only possible when roasting high quality, not commercial, beans, and Norway, thanks to its excellent bilateral relationship with Brazil since the 19th century, was able to obtain high quality coffee in exchange for fish. The Nordic palate, used to more acidic foods due to the cold climate, made it easier and more natural to accept acidity in coffee.

The coffee prepared in Norway has the same cultural value as espresso in Italy. Despite the fact that there are various roasting styles around the world, in Asia and America people tend to drink lighter roasts than in Sothern Europe and the Mediterranean, but no one comes close to the Nordic style, whose lightness is unmistakable. This is because the Nordic-style roast has, for twenty years now, taken into consideration all of the factors present in the coffee production chain, from the producer to the consumer. According to this roasting style, the bean can be fully exalted only if one is well aware of its origin, variety, altitude, drying process, and terroir. In this way it’s possible to differentiate the components of taste according to the production micro-lots, offering consumers a coffee which tastes like more than just coffee.

SO WHICH IS THE BEST ROAST?

It might thus seem logical and obvious that a coffee roasted specifically for espresso is unpleasant if prepared with a pour-over method and vice versa. Nevertheless, there’s a relatively new movement, which also originated in Scandinavian countries, that’s gaining ground in the world of specialty coffees: the Omni Roast. Due to a question of both time and money, some roasters prefer roasting coffee in just one way, or rather focusing on the bean and not on the extraction method. The objective is to find a middle ground in which the roasted bean is neither too light or too dark, so that the coffee is suitable for being consumed in any way.

As we’ve seen, there’s no perfect way to roast coffee. Roasting philosophies depend on the type of extraction and on the taste that one wishes to find in the cup, and reflect local traditions.

Ironically, one could say that the coffee that’s drunk in Italy and the Mediterranean actually goes against our traditional principle of eating and drinking, which gives priority to fresh, local, and small batch/artesan products. 

We could also say that in the countries of Northern Europe, where there’s greater purchasing power as compared to the southern part of the continent, coffee is taken very seriously. If we enter any supermarket in Sweden, Norway, or Denmark, we realize how hard it is to find quality fresh fruit and vegetables and, on the other hand, how easy it is to find coffee grinders and fine 100% Arabica coffee beans. 

De Gustibus. 

chicchi di caffè tostati