Maintaining Beans’ Twitches & Squeaks

“The Whole Bean” will be a dedicated series of posts from Metropolis co-owner Jeff Dreyfuss dealing with the esoteric and intellectual side of coffee. With a Ph.D. in linguistics, Jeff takes the discussion of hot beverages to strange–and strangely logical–places.

This is just my take on the coffee bean from beginning to end, not an absolute truth. To me, authenticity and uniqueness (singularity or particularity) are mostly overlapping terms–and not always necessary. At Metropolis Coffee, we want to roast in a way that lets the bean speaks for itself. Our roasting style depends on what is unique or particular to a bean varietal, micro-lot or micro-area should not be overshadowed by the roast.

Coffee beans are scaled by volume and, as is often the case, on an arbitrary value scale based on degree of ripeness, the development (on the tree) of about numerous sugars, as well as oils, carbs, etc. When picking ripe beans, a skilled picker may very well pick two different beans of the same cherry color off the same bunch, thinking they’re the same.

In fact, there ARE slight differences that if you had enough clones of each of the two beans, and you processed each batch, and eventually roasted each batch, a skilled cupper would be able to distinguish one batch from another.

General characteristics like variety, micro-region, processing, etc. make for a kind of sameness umbrella for the two batches and would yield some difference, but not enough difference in the cup to make a difference in representing the two batches as authentically the same.

Let’s assume that every part of the coffee chain, from planting the seedlings to getting a mix of the two batches of green beans (above discussion) to the roaster, is done well. Take two different roasters or roasting company roasting profiles to be applied to what we’ll call the “batch.” One company believes that a darker roast (but not too dark) tastes great for the batch and customers and everybody around her agrees. The other roaster believes that because the batch is from Kenya, and that because coffee from Kenya has a particularity, a uniqueness that is best represented by a somewhat lighter roast, where the unique-to-Kenya fruitiness can be fully tasted, that a lighter roast is more authentic given the particular beans.

The implications of our take on authenticity, the bean and roasting are many. For example, roasting a Mexican, Central American, or East African coffee as single origins/varietals or as a blend on the darker side would result in many of the beans’ voices/unique characteristics to be lost, burned off and replaced with more of the taste of the roast; the roast will have trumped the bean, in our opinion.

Now, it’s fairly well known that the French imported coffee from colonies with low-altitude plantations in West Africa in order to get rid of the unique grassy, fermented, yucky particularities of the bean. They found out, through trial and error, that roasting crappy coffee dark (French Roast) would get rid of the bad flavor characteristics that a lighter roast would produce, so French Roast was born, and many coffee drinkers still like the burnt taste of an oily way-dark (and often flavoured) French Roast.

It should be noted that there are some beans from high altitudes that have very little fruitiness and lots of darker flavors (chocolate, earthiness, etc.), and with this type of bean, a darker roast–not to the point of burning–can produce a full-bodied, highly caramelized uniqueness that is authentic to that bean, as the best cup from that bean would not have fruity characteristics, but would have more full-bodied flavors.

So many words here. What to make of them and the subject of authenticity as it relates to real-world specialty coffee as it tastes in the cup is up to each of us.

Our belief at Metropolis is that uniqueness or particularity of a great green bean is best served by roasting in a way that lets the twitches and squeaks stand out. In other words, the particularities or full nuances of the bean need to speak in the end.

Thus, if we were to French roast a Mexican bean because some customer owning an otherwise great Mexican restaurant wanted a dark roast of a Mexican coffee to pair with the heaviness of the food, we would not be roasting in a way that respects the bean’s best attributes; the roast would be what is tasted, not the Mexican bean. We would have created an oxymoron, in terms of our roasting philosophy.

Now, “authenticity” is also relevant with regard to green beans of one varietal over time. As green beans wait for months to be roasted, moisture levels diminish little by little. Flavor profiles of the roasted coffee will get a bit old-tasting if the initial roast profile is used over when the green that is left is 4+ months after harvest.

At Metropolis, we continually cup our production roasts to see how the green bean is holding up. As the bean loses a bit of its initial freshness, we will make adjustments to the roast profile in order to keep the green taste as close to the original new-crop freshness as possible.

We’re doing our best to let the bean speak for itself by adjusting the roast profile for the continually-changing “present-tense” state of the green bean. So, authenticity is not a static notion. If we say that we want the bean to speak for itself in our roasting style and we include the whole period of time for a single harvest to be roasted, we will change our roasting style/profile a bit for the same harvest over time.

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