"An Epidemic of Underdevelopment"

Anyone who pays attention to coffee will have noticed the (welcome) trend away from darker roasted coffee in the high end ("craft") segment of the speciality market.

It's incredibly nice to be able to taste the coffee - rather than just tasting the roast. It's incredibly nice to be able to experience more of the full range of flavours the coffee can represent (rather than tiny permutations on a roast flavour profile).

But all is not rosy in the world.

I've been quietly talking to various folks in the coffee industry for a bit about some of the negative experiences I've been having with coffee recently. I tweeted about this a little while back when I noted that there seems to be an "epidemic" of underdeveloped coffees.

Now Vince (the genius behind ExtractMojo) has shared his own (scientific) insights into this topic. In this (fantastic) post, Vince clearly illustrates that the (sensory) perception that I (and many others) have noted can be quantified and measured. We now have evidence to back up opinion.

Given this... here are some quick observations and opinions on the topic (in no particular order).

  1. While underdevelopment is in no way tied to light roast degrees, roasting light is harder than roasting dark. I've had underdeveloped coffees roasted to a Full City+ roast degree - and I've had coffees that were roasted to a Cinnamon degree and were wonderfully and fully developed. But it does seem like a lot of the underdeveloped coffees come from folks who are (bluntly) still learning how to roast to a light degree.
  2. That being said, there are even more underdeveloped coffees coming out of roasters who only think in terms of roast degree and have a black and white simplistic view of coffee (light roast degree == good; darker == bad). These roasters do not seem to have "development" on their list of things to care about.
  3. There is a large segment of the coffee industry that follows short-term trends. These folks seem to be following the over-simplified "light roast degree == good" roasters without really thinking about the implications.
  4. A huge challenge is that there is a somewhat large (and vocal) group who are unquestioning cheerleaders of the "light == good" school. I've had folks defend severely underdeveloped coffees with statements like "grassy can be good - like fresh cut lawns" and "well that coffee just tastes like lemon and artificial sweetener."
  5. And of course - perhaps the largest challenge is the (never-ending) culture in speciality coffee of not airing dirty laundry in public (and never speaking ill of your competitors). This lack of honesty continues to do immeasurable damage to the entire industry.

I'm really glad that Vince wrote this piece.
Given the credibility he has in the industry - I honestly believe that the simple "that's just your opinion" knee jerk response can now be dispensed with.

It's time for us to address this issue.
It's a real, legitimate, problem.
And we need to be honest about it.


onocoffee said...

I admittedly know very little about roasting, but does one really need a mojo to determine whether or not a coffee is underdeveloped?

While an agtron reading will not tell us about underdevelopment, I've always thought that simply cutting a cross section of the bean will tell us a great deal about the speed of roast and the roast development. Que no?

Or are we simply talking about end-user evaluation? Otherwise, I would think that a roaster would have roasting logs and other traceable accountings of the roast to determine whether or not a roast was up to standard.

Then again, perhaps it's the standard that's the problem...

chris said...

You are right.
You don't need ExtractMojo to know this.
But in the past - when the issue was mentioned - the response was invariably "that's just your own opinion" (or "you like dark roasted coffee").
Vince's post demonstrates the issue is, in fact, an objective one (rather than merely a subjective one).

Personally, I would always push people to trust their taste and validate / calibrate through measurement.

Thompson Owen said...

I have always believed that underdevelopment should be evident by comparing color of the surface of the bean and the ground sample. It is not easy but you can get used to certain differences between the bean and ground that are from processing and such, and something grossly out of whack should jump out at you. But I think Vince points out how variable that can be, and that the Mojo can confirm what you might already suspect. My issue is this: I keep finding people who think mild astringency and under-roasted flavors are brightness and acidity! I think correcting that taste perception is where the Mojo can be very useful. I am still not convinced I get the best results from mine or am using it to best effect, but I will definitely keep trying. Something else I hear a lot lately is "I don't want to taste roast, I want to taste coffee." I really don't get this at all. Over-roast, yes, ugly roast flavors, yes ... I get it. But you are tasting roast when you taste coffee because ... it is roasted! We cook coffee, and chemically and physically it is transformed by roast. Maybe it is just a trivial thing and basically we all agree. But I think using "roast" as some sort of pejorative taste term is a bit sketchy, maybe even dangerous - any comment on that Chris?

J. Croston said...

I have two comments. First, if we are going to criticize the practice of not airing our dirty laundry, then we should go ahead and air it. I would like to know which roasters you feel are guilty of spreading this so called epidemic so that we as a community can have a good honest debate about the coffees in question. Otherwise, we have to simply accept your opinion of flavor which doesn't usually work very well.

Second, I can't help notice your praise for Portland in it's maverick attitude and days later your criticism of roasters who are trying to push the boundaries of their craft by dismissing their efforts as them having a lack of experience. I would have to agree with onocoffee in that our standards might be a little too rigid. Saying coffee shouldn't taste grassy is like saying steak shouldn't be bloody. It really depends on preference and the acceptance that grassy to you might be floral and aromatic to someone else. Before we start assigning right and wrong to areas of the craft, we should keep a slightly more open mind about perception.

This is a great article that was in the NY times about how language can actually affect our ability to perceive things as concretely accepted as color. I'm sure the same applies for taste and aroma.


caffe d'bolla said...

I think rather than speaking of roasted coffee as "dark" or "light", a term such as "flavorful" would be more appropriate. If a coffee isn't flavorful, I really don't care how it was roasted.

chris said...

I think we're seeing a knee jerk (unthinking) trend which is (as you say Tom) "anti roast."

The parallel I draw is to Alice Waters' cooking (a couple lovely figs on a plate). At the end of the day, truly great food comes from the combination of great ingredients and creative (alchemical) technique.

Truly great coffee is the same. By ignoring the creativity and transformational nature of roasting, we are cheating ourselves.

I don't want to taste "roast" and I don't want to taste "green coffee." I want to taste the end result of a dialogue between a gifted roaster and a lovely green coffee.