In Praise of Medium Roast

I love medium roast coffee. It is roasted so that it does not burn, but still releases enough chemical synthesis that the flavor and chemical content is transformed the way we like to taste it. It is unlike dark roast in that there is no burning. While roasting a full roast the person doing it needs to keep the burned overtones to a minimum but they are activating chemical reactions that cause production of a strong set of aromatic and flavor chemicals. Medium roasts produce these chemicals also, but in much smaller proportions.

Medium roasting also creates and preserves chemicals that would be destroyed in a fuller roast. To me this extra roasting reduces the variety of aromatics that we can taste. Medium roast offers a wide range of aromatics, where proportion and strength can be linked to the original coffee beans themselves. That’s important. Being able to faithfully and somewhat consistently map a coffee plant’s beans’ chemical profiles to the new set of chemical profiles that come from roasting, we create a palette that can be grouped for comparison, and that we name, like Guatemalan, Colombian, Mexican, etc. There is enough constraint to the variables in the process that we can begin comparing how various suppliers handle their version of it, and separate those effects from the effects of variation introduced by the person preparing and service the coffee at the very end of the process.

With coffee roasts a critical set of decisions are made along the way in its lifecycle, from cultivation, harvesting, cleaning and shipping, roasting, distribution, and finally preparation. The customers themselves are part of the process at the end, in final serving. I like that. I like it when people compliment me on the coffee I give them.

All of this is a round about way of explaining that I disagree with the decision of the coffee roaster when they decide to make a full roast. I simply can’t stand burned coffee. In medium roast there’s a tiny burned overtone, but much less is quantity and proportion.

I’m sure that one of the major reasons why a company like Starbucks was so slow to take of real medium roasting is that it is very very hard for roasters to judge when to pull the vat from the heat during roasting. The roaster has to decide whether the lot has roasted enough, knowing that it will continue to cook after they’ve removed the heat. There’s risk to under-roast in this too, and what does one do with a vat of partially roasted beans?

So really, there is so little choice for roast levels at a place like Starbucks because it is hard to train thousands of people on roasting their coffee. It takes experience for them to understand the cooling rates for each batch of beans. There are rumors that some proportion of base level green beans are moldy which a high roast will obscure, burning up the mold too, but really I think the training element leads as a cause. I’ve noticed that over recent years Starbucks started offering medium roast on some of their premium coffees. This implies to me that they may be getting some depth to their ranks of coffee roasters as they gained experience.

So consider this post as a first shot at me trying to articulate the beauty and utility of being “in the middle”, not just for coffee though. The “middle way” is really the only way that we can actually make good personal and group choices. We need to filter out the extreme thinking because it is very rare that extreme opinions have that much attachment to reality, instead they align with mob-think processes. The same kind of processes are going on today online, but the thinking and idiocy that we see today is actually a broader application of the same kind of reasoning that went on among people who used to populate lynch mobs in our nation’s history. Mob thinking, the same thing as herd behaviors among cattle and other herd animals.

So be sure your coffee is a medium roast as your first step in recovering the powerful reality of the “middle way”.