Ahhh, my caffeinated, buzzing beloveds, this is one of the simplest coffee codes to crack once you dive in, but it’s the one I get the most questions about. Coffee companies do a good job marketing their perfect roasts and decadent blends, but they don’t do a great job of explaining what those things are, and what they mean for how a coffee tastes.
Roasts are easiest, so let’s start there after a quick refresher: coffee is a fruit, it grows like a cherry on a tree, you knock the fruit off and dry the seeds then a hop, skip and a jump later, you’ve got green coffee, which is essentially the raw seeds of the coffee fruit. This green coffee has to be cooked aka “roasted” and just like a steak, you can “cook” it on a spectrum from rare (light roast) to medium (medium roast) to well done (dark roast).
The roast level tells you a lot about how a coffee is going to taste. Lighter roasted coffees generally are going to have brighter flavors and a more acidic taste. Medium roast coffees often have a nice balance of acid and body, with round flavors that don’t get too sour or too sour or too sweet. Dark roasted coffees are the most popular, because many people prefer the sweeter, chocolatey taste.
So the roast is basically just how long the coffee was cooked. You might have heard things like “French roast” or “Italian roast,” classic terms which are quickly falling out of style. It’s a long story (you can read it here), but French roasts are generally darker and Italian roasts are a little more medium.
Now on to blends, which are a lot more complex. (It might help to read my previous post on single-origin coffees, which are the opposite of blends). So what is a blend? It’s a mix of two or more coffees from different farms, regions, countries, and even continents. The practice started as a taste thing, then further evolved out of the global coffee market’s fluctuations in price, availability, quality, etc.
Coffees from different regions taste wildly differently. If you usually sold your customers Kenyan coffee and suddenly a disease wiped out that year’s crop and you had to switch to a Brazilian coffee, your customers would notice, even if you roasted it the same. So coffee companies created blends, mixing coffees from different regions and roasting it medium-dark or very dark, so that the beans all start to taste more or less the same. (The lighter a coffee is roasted, the more regional flavors you’ll taste). Blends allow coffee companies to sort of mask the constant changes in the global coffee market, and provide their customers a consistent product to drink every morning.
Roasters will usually determine a taste profile for their blend and create a balance of regional ingredients that combine to create that taste. For example, a mild blend might have beans from Colombia or Peru mixed with beans from Ethiopia or Rwanda. The African coffees add brighter notes, while the South American coffees keep it balanced. Many blends are named specific to the region, such as Central American blends.
With the exception of regional blends, most coffee you buy in the store or shops is not going to have much information about the blend “ingredients,” or where the coffees in it come from. That’s because blends are often made up of commodity grade coffee that was available and cheap, then darker roasting covers up the quality difference. It’s generally harder to hide lower quality beans in medium- or light-roast blends, but I’m not saying that it’s all trickery: the art of blending coffee to taste consistent is very complex, and has a long history beginning at coffee’s commercial origin. (Read more on this and Mocha Java, arguably the world’s most famous blend, here.)
If you feel like this post was long and confusing, and like I gave you a lot of extra reading, you’re not wrong. Coffee companies further complicate things by combining blend and roast descriptors, such as a “Dark Blend,” or making up their own roast level descriptors (really, Starbucks, “Blonde” coffee?), and coming up with vague names like “Breakfast Blend.” Plus, each roaster generally has their own house blends which can carry any kind of name, such as Reanimator’s “Telemetry”.
Okay, wow, this is getting long and I’ve gone really far down the coffee hole. If you have further questions on roasts and blends, just email me! Or read all my links and keep Googling!