No one was more surprised than I was when Starbucks won the coffee taste tests I conducted for John Stossel on the television show 20/20 last year. Not only did it prove to me that I'd conducted a truly impartial test, but it also proved that many consumers have been won over to the caramelized taste dark roasts impart over the winey, fragrant and earthy allure of the lighter ones.
Rather than waste your time and my ranting about what dark roasts are missing, I'm going to try to explain why dark roasts have gone from being a regional style to mainstream within just a few years.
In case you don't know the story of dark roasting, it begins, not in Italy or Yemen, but in the United States Old West. Prospectors in San Francisco would buy several months' provisions for their entrepreneurial venture into the mountains in search of gold. Roasters were under the misconception that if coffee was roasted to the point where oils appeared over the entire surface of the beans, this "coating" offered some preserving action, a kind of coffee shrink wrap.
And, it did make sense to the taste buds. Anyone who has bought dark roasts usually finds it harder to tell when the product gets old. A critic might say its because the more delicate flavors have been burned off in the roast. Let's just agree that dark roasts do seem to keep their flavors longer. Whether this really means the coffee stays fresher longer is subject to debate, but please let's save that for another time.
So, the American West Coast, roughly from San Francisco upwards, has a history of dark roasting, one that either inspired or accepted Alfred Peet's eccentric habit of roasting his beans beyond recognition. I meant this last bit literally. Peet's coffees are almost impossible for me to tell apart in standard brewing tests. The only exceptions are some of his aged coffees, which are so different and "take the roast" so exceptionally well, that they are easy to spot, even after the most careless brewing.
But, none of this really answers the question of consumer acceptance. It's too easy to just stand around with coffee snobs (my friends) as we brew for each other and play flavor tune detective, a game we all feel is spoiled when coffees are roasted too long. It's too lame to just blame the snake oil "marketers," nor do I want to credit them.
I've discovered an answer, and, as usual, it comes from observing other cooking arts. Grilling, for instance. Have you ever wondered why we all can't wait for those long summer weekends, bad Hawaiian shirts included, where we cook all manner of food on those charcoal grills? It's not just for the cold drinks and chance to see friends.
We all love to see our food with those "grill marks" on them. Those are so prized that a major fast food chain painted them onto their chicken pieces. Well those marks are really where the meat or vegetables came in contact with the grills' hottest part, the surface. That surface is so hot that it actually singes the food wherever it comes into contact.
That burning causes carmelization. Did you know that caramels are pieces of burnt sugar and milk? Carmelization results in a smoky sweetness.
Another analogy. The popularity of oaked wines, especially Chardonnay, is directly attributable to the sweetening effect of charred wood. It's basically another way of doing the same thing, to enhance the taste by adding sweetness.
Now, I'm not judging here, I'm actually trying to answer the question that plagues many a serious specialty coffee roaster. A lot of them were left scratching their collective heads when, following the return of some great single origin coffees, the public seemed to suddenly become entranced with coffees roasted to cover the very tastes that distinguish these coffees.
To them, and to me, I say, sweetness sells.
From a brewing standpoint, sweetness is also easier to extract. The caramelized flavors in coffee are almost brew-proof. I'm not saying that brewing doesn't matter, but I can back up what I'm saying with some simple brewing tests. If I vary the time, temperature or formulas with light roasts I find I get significant taste changes. When I do the same thing using dark roasts I find the results far more consistent.
I doubt Starbucks, Alfred Peet or anyone else predicted this side effect to dark roasting.
But as weve seen, dark roasting often makes brewed coffee sweeter. What it all comes down to is... Sweetness sells.