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The ABCs of Coffee

The Search for a Great Cup of Coffee Must Consider the Type of Bean, The Country of Origin and the Roast
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

(continued from page 5)

Once considered the source of one of the better aged coffees (sold as Monsooned Malabar), India has been scrambling to recover from its close ties with the former Soviet Union. Jim Reynolds of Peet's, who once bought a lot of Indian coffee (sold mostly as Mysore) hasn't seen any Indian beans worth buying for a dozen years.


Without roasting there ain't no coffee, just caffeinated water. Because coffee beans are a complex combination of components, what happens in the roasting process is not entirely understood. Essentially, roasting releases moisture in the beans and brings oils to the surface.

As roasting continues, more oil exudes from the beans, which is why dark-roasted beans look as if they've been lubricated with motor oil. Sugars are burned, making darker roasts more caramelized in flavor. Caffeine is burned up, too. As much as 15 percent of the caffeine in coffee beans goes up in smoke; the longer and darker the roast, the less caffeine.

Most roasting equipment is fairly primitive because the technology of coffee lags far behind that of wine. Dallis Brothers uses a drum roaster, circa 1940, that looks like a miniature steam locomotive. It heats the beans to about 500 degrees Fahrenheit and rotates them in a drum (not unlike a clothes dryer) so they don't roast unevenly or burn.

When to take the beans out depends on the style and skill of the roaster. West Coast roasters typically roast darker than those in the East. Peet's, the legendary San Francisco Bay Area roaster and retailer, probably roasts its beans darker than anyone in the country.

The names of the roasts may vary and can be as inconsistent and confusing as the labels butchers put on cuts of meat. Here are some general guidelines:

Light (also called New England, cinnamon, half city.) The color of the beans is light brown or pale cinnamon. No oil appears on the surface. The roasted flavor is very subtle, with minimal body and noticeable acidity, almost sourness. The roast most commercial coffees use.

Medium (also called full city, American, regular, breakfast, brown and medium high.) Here is where things start to get tricky. Though full city is a common term for medium roasts, interpretations of it are all over the map, from just above light to right up there with Viennese. The color is deeper, with little or no oil on the surface. There is a more pronounced roasted flavor, with a touch of sweetness and bright acidity.

Darker (also called light French, Viennese,* continental, New Orleans, high and light espresso.) The bittersweet tang of darker roasting begins here. There is a light sheen of oil on the surface. Acidity is considerably softened.

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