From Season 7: Lighter Cheesecake
Well into the late 1990s, most of the coffee consumed in this country was a medium roast. This was the classic American cup: lighter and more acidic than today’s espresso-dark brew. Lighter coffees prevailed in part because they maximized yield: The less coffee companies roasted the beans the more weight they retained and turned into profit. It took West Coast coffeehouse roasters like Peet’s and Starbucks to show us another side of coffee flavor. They began roasting coffee dark—so dark that practically all you taste is the smoky depth of the roast versus the beans’ individual flavors. That profile appealed to many coffee drinkers; when they jumped on board, sales of dark beans shot up in supermarkets.
But all along, fans of medium-roast coffee resisted, insisting that überdark French and Italian roasts tasted charred. These holdouts helped ensure that lighter coffee continued to do a brisk business in stores. And lately, it’s not just ordinary coffee drinkers who think these roasts have merit. An increasing number of mail-order roasters are now specializing in lighter roasts, extolling their broader spectrum of flavors. “The objective is to protect the volatile aromas and fleeting flavors that dissipate with darker roasting,” explained Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. These attributes can include floral, fruity notes and bright, lively acidity.
Perhaps in response to this mini-movement, some of the big-name dark-roast pioneers have also thrown their hats into the lighter-roast ring. A year ago in January, Starbucks came out with its “blonde” roasts, two blends of lighter-roasted beans now sold in all of its outlets and in grocery stores. Peet’s Coffee & Tea answered with two blends roasted more lightly than its other offerings. We decided it was time to give medium roasts a closer look. We selected a new lighter roast from Peet’s and one from Starbucks, along with the medium roasts of five other top-selling supermarket brands. Which would do a better job? And, most important, would we even like the coffee?
Despite the fact that these coffees were the lightest roasts available at the supermarket, the colors of the beans told another story. To find out exactly what we were dealing with, we gave samples to a lab to measure their Agtron scores. The Agtron is an instrument that analyzes how much light the beans reflect; the more light reflected the lighter the roast and the higher the Agtron number. Our samples ranged from 57 (a solid medium roast according to industry standards) to 39 (a dark roast by a hair), demonstrating that “medium roast” is a pretty vague term.
As we sampled all seven coffees without milk or sweeteners in a blind tasting, it appeared that most of us weren’t ready to switch our allegiance to the lighter side of flavor. Our favorite brew was the one with the significantly lower Agtron score, making it the darkest roast of the bunch by far. Tasters lauded this coffee’s “toasty” earthiness and hints of “chocolate.” By and large, super-bright, acidic flavors—hallmarks of lighter roasts—didn’t rate well. The lightest roast in our lineup was panned for having the most markedly acidic taste and fell to second-to-last place. In fact, only one brew with the recognizably bright notes of a medium-roast flavor profile made it into the “recommended” category.
But as we analyzed taster comments more closely, we realized that when tasters didn’t love a brew, it often had nothing to do with light- or dark-roast preferences. In our least favorite sample, tasters ferreted out “sour,” “fermented” flavors that were simply out of place in coffee. The most acidic brand hinted of “cherry/almond” notes that were also jarring. And some brands simply lacked oomph, tasting “flat.” Although the coffees we brewed were well within the expiration dates printed on the bags, a few samples tasted stale—even old. Given this, could it be that some of these brews were just mediocre coffee?
A Good Bean for a Good Brew
Countless variables can influence coffee flavor, from varietal; to origin; to growing conditions; to how the beans are fermented, dried, and stored; to the age of the beans when they arrive at a roaster; to how many of the wrinkled, underripened beans known as “quakers” slip through in a shipment. Quakers can have a surprisingly significant impact on coffee flavor. While almost all coffee contains a few of these bad beans, more than three per pound can impart unpleasant nut- and cereal-like tastes to the brewed cup. And sure enough, when we sent samples of our coffees to the lab to weed out the underripened beans (which don’t darken during roasting), we found a direct correlation between number of quakers and our tasters’ preferences: Our least favorite coffee had 14 bad beans; our next least favorite had 7; our top finisher, 1.
All of the above factors affect coffee before it reaches the roaster, and the best brands are very selective in how they source beans. But another critical factor influencing quality happens during roasting: regulating moisture level. Green beans typically contain about 10 percent moisture; after roasting, that level should remain between 0.5 percent and 3 percent. Some specialty roasters are even more precise. George Howell, of George Howell Coffee Company, in Acton, Massachusetts, aims for a moisture level of 1.7 to 2.5 percent. Why is the amount of moisture in beans so important? The best coffee, regardless of roast color, should taste full-bodied with a flavor that lingers pleasantly. But if the beans are too dry, they won’t extract properly when brewed, which in turn affects the coffee’s body and richness.
Curious how the beans in our lineup would rate when it came to moisture, we sent samples back to the lab. This measurement also strongly correlated with how tasters experienced a coffee. The two brands we recommend were the only coffees to be solidly within the optimal moisture range. Three brands tested well below the ideal target—unsurprisingly, they were the same ones that tasters downgraded for having “flat” or “cardboard” tastes. And there is also such a thing as coffee that is too moist: The bottom-ranking sample, with a moisture level almost a full percentage point above the ideal cutoff, was the one marred by “sour,” “fermented” flavors.
Roast to Taste
If the beans’ moisture level is so important, why didn’t more brands in our lineup fall within the ideal range? Sourcing cheaper, lower-quality beans is one way for a roaster to control costs—but so is streamlining the roasting process. Roasters typically evaluate bean moisture at the start of roasting and then set time and temperature monitors that will help determine when a batch is done. But for the most discriminating roasters, sensory cues are even more crucial: the first crack of the beans popping as they roast; their aroma as they develop; the way they look, feel, and taste. These roasters taste, or “cup,” the batches continually to determine precisely when the beans have hit their sweet spot. Though this step slows the overall process, it’s critical, the experts we talked to told us, since every batch of beans behaves differently. Limiting how often beans are cupped can help a roaster economize. And so can “quenching,” whereby the roaster douses the beans with water to cool them before bagging. Specialty roasters favor slower air drying, which also doesn’t introduce unwanted moisture.
The roasters of our winning coffee go to particularly great lengths to achieve optimal results, tasting batches about 50 times in a typical shift—an unusually high amount. Tasters praised our winner not only for its “bold,” “burnt caramel” flavors that were not so far from those of dark roasts but also for its “smooth, full-bodied taste”—a quality that belongs to any good cup of coffee.
Our other winner was closer to a true medium roast. Though its producer wouldn’t reveal details of its sourcing or roasting processes to us, the company is also clearly doing many things right. Tasters lauded this brew for a “satiny,” “lemony” taste that was “a good compromise between acidity and earthiness.” The numbers lined up, too: These beans were in the ideal moisture range and just two were defective. For those seeking the brighter flavors of medium-roast coffee, it's a good choice.
Columela Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its big olive aroma, big olive taste with a buttery flavor that is sweet and full, with a peppery finish. One taster said: Its very green and freshlike a squeezed olive. Another simply wrote: Fantastic.
|$19 for 17 oz|
Lucini Italia Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Tasters noted this oils flavor was much deeper than the other samples, describing it as fruity, with a slight peppery finish, buttery undertones, and a clean, green taste that was aromatic, with a good balance. It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have, said one admiring taster.
|$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed round and buttery, with a light body and flavor that was briny and fruity, very fine and smooth, and almost herbal, with great balance. Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it, approved one taster. In a word, pleasant.
|$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted overall mild flavor and very little aroma, with only a hint of green olive and a hint of spiciness at the end. In pasta, it was initially not complex, but gradually bloomed in your mouth. Overall, it was worthy of a second bite.
|$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oil
While some tasters found this oil sweet and buttery with medium body and slight spice at the end, others complained that it had zero olive flavor and was so floral its almost like eating perfume; still others noted a bitter aftertaste. In pasta, it was extremely mild to the point of being boring.
|$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Goya Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were mild and neutral. Some liked it on pasta (though one called it Snoozeville), but complaints were myriad: metallic, soapy, briny, hints of dirt. Carped one taster, I cant imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.
|$13.99 for 1 liter|
Pompeian Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Comments: While some tasters called this oil mild and smooth, others found it thin, greasy and not very interesting. I bet the cooking water had more olive flavor, speculated one taster; could be canolait is so bland, mused another. A few noted an objectionable aftertaste that was soapy, chemical or mentholthink
|$9.99 for 473 ml ($21.12 per liter)|
Botticelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
While a few tasters liked this potent oil, others said they detected mushroom, rotten walnuts, a Band-Aid wrapped in a cherry blossom, and a quality that was downright medicinalTriaminic, anyone? Several deemed it overpowering and musky, with a rank, off-flavor. Tastes not like olives but like the armpits of olive laborers, shuddered one.
|$10.99 for 1 liter|
Carapelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Italy, Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey, Cyprus, Morocco, and Syria Comments: Nothing remarkable herejust greasy, no flavor, summarized one taster. Where did the olive go? said another. This oil was judged to have a kind of rancid aftertaste that was reminiscent of not only soil, tree resin, and ammonia and grass, but even kitty litter smells and a set of sweaty hockey pads.
|$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
DaVinci Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Although this oil won top place in a previous tasting, because olive oil is an agricultural product, it can differ from year to year. This time, tasters found it washed out and muted, if nice, in a totally bland and unremarkable way. Tasted plain, objections ranged from insipid, with no real complexity to tastes like EVOO mixed with vegetable oil.
|$17.99 for 1 liter|
Star Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Origin: Spain, Italy, Greece, and Tunisia Comments: Boring and not very complex, this oil came across as plastic-y and industrial; some hint of olives, but it fades quickly. Tasters identified off-flavors that were unpleasant, dirty, like rubber and metal, with a sour aftertaste, or at least a bit funky, with a strange taste that was spicy, but in a motor oil kind of way. One simply wrote, Blech.
|$11.99 for 750 ml ($15.99 per liter)|