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Supermarket Medium-Roast Coffee

Decades after they convinced Americans to drink ultradark French and Italian roasts, the producers of blackened beans are coming out with lighter options. So how’s the coffee?

Published Mar. 1, 2013. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 14: From an Italian Bakery

UpdateJanuary 2019
We recently learned that Millstone Coffee, the maker of our favorite brightly flavored medium-roast coffee, has been discontinued. Peet’s Coffee Café Domingo, our overall favorite, is still available and we still recommend it.
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What You Need To Know

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?

Not-So-Dark Arts

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 vag...

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