Thursday, August 13, 2015

Full City Roasts: An Endangered Species?

I just returned from a trip to Northern California and Western Washington to see friends and family. We were in our old hometown of Boulder, Colorado on both ends of the trip where I had occasion to try to find coffee worth drinking at the local Whole Foods (with no success despite - or rather because of? - it being the home of Allegro Coffee). 

Everywhere I traveled this trip the coffee choices seemed to be either screamingly acidic, underdeveloped cinnamon-city roasts from Third Wavers or carbonized stuff from Peet's. Thankfully there was finally an exception when we got to Seattle: Cafe Carmelita from Tony's in Bellingham, which is not only advertised as a medium roast but comes complete with an Agtron number (67) to prove it. It's a lovely blend. 

Sweet Maria's has an excellent roast color chart (I'll post the photo below, but the detailed description is well worth reading. 

What I'm seeing in the hipster places are mostly roasts in the #8-10 range, and of course Peet's and Charbucks, with the exception of their token (and silly) new medium and light roast efforts are all in the #14-16 range. That leaves the entire world of balanced, nuanced, fully-but-not-overly developed coffees pretty much unrepresented at retail, unless you're lucky enough to stumble on just the right, rare Blue Bottle, Counter Culture or Tony's offering or, on the darker end of the spectrum, an old-school Northern Italian espresso blend (~#'s13-14) from the likes of Mr. Espresso or Illycaffe. Of course there are other regional roasters (Broadway Café and Roasting in Kansas City comes to mind immediately) still offering balanced coffees, but based on the Agtron numbers I'm seeing in Coffee Review for every such roast that's out there there's either a new player doting on the "tea like" flavors of their cinnamon-roasted direct-trade Yirgacheffe or an old-line roaster like the aforementioned Allegro abandoning balance in favor of trendiness. 

I noted with interest that Tom at Sweet Maria's (as reliable and unbiased a guide to roasting and to coffee in general as I've ever read) lists the bean temperature correlates to Full City (#11) and FC+ (12) as 444 and 454 degrees F. respectively, and it reminded me of a roasting seminar taught by Agtron's Carl Staub I attended many years ago, during which he referred to 450 degrees as "the death of fruit." 

I think that's accurate for coffees intended for drip or vacuum pot brewing, but espresso extraction reawakens and emphasizes acidity so strongly that optimal roasts - at least if the blend contains a fair amount of dense, high-acid coffees - can go slightly darker. What goes unsaid though is that cinnamon-to-city roasts are underdeveloped and just as imbalanced as the murky Starbucks stuff everyone is so determined to rebel against. 

It seems like much of what's going on these days is that a roast that's only fit for evaluation purposes (#9) is not only being offered for sale and brewed in pour over bars but also routinely finds itself into espresso machine doser-grinder hoppers. This is something truly unprecedented, and it's unprecedented for good reason: drinking such coffee is an exercise in masochism. We've arrived at a retail landscape that, in fruit terms, offers nothing but green bananas or black ones useful only for banana bread: fully ripe has disappeared. 

With bland and burnt now thoroughly explored, it will be interesting to see if the next (Fourth?) wave brings an interest in nuance and balance...the very things the best second wave companies, from Schapira's to Kobos to Freed Teller to Illy - tried to teach us about so deliciously decades ago. Here's hoping there's more to progress than applying a Folger's roast to good green coffee. 


  1. Completely agreed on your experiences.
    There remain a handful of roasters who fully develop their coffees while still preserving strong origin characteristics, and it's a delicate balance. But by and large retail coffee today is dominated by two overly restrictive camps that present coffee lovers a sort of 7-10 split, in Midwestern bowlingspeak.

  2. Kevin, the next time you're in the San Francisco area, head up to Berkeley, and try Cole Coffee. It's formerly Royal Coffee's cafe, and was taken over by their cafe manager when they wanted to be an importer only. Their roasts appear to be between 11 and 14 on the Sweet Maria's chart, and they offer a wide range of coffees from around the world.

    Even better, they offer no-fuss pourovers (and have been doing so years before it was hip) for around $2.50 for a small cup. Compare that to the $5-6 cups at the 3rd wave places.

    I recently had an excellent Sidamo ($16/lbs!) which really sings through an Aeropress. It's not listed on their website, but you can get an idea of the breadth of their offerings:

    While you're there, check out the new Philz across the street. Their building was so corporate-looking that I thought it was a Panera bread or some other national chain, rather than the funky coffee shop I knew from the Mission district. I can't believe the kind of consolidation that's going on in the coffee world now: who would have thought that there was that kind of money in it!

  3. Thanks guys for your comments!

    Andre I'll put Cole Coffee on my East Bay wish list - thanks for the head's up! I certainly remember that place when it was the Royal Coffee store - legendary for roasting so dark they made Peet's look like lightweights.

    I share your wonderment at all of the consolidation going on, but it seems to me a lot of it is speculative venture capital plays by people who don't really understand the coffee business. And a lot of the justifications given for the major investments in, say, Stumptown or Blue Bottle have to do with their cold brew products - the least distinctiive, most easily scalable and replicable coffee beverages there are.

  4. This is such a good post, and so true! As a corollary, low-acidity coffees like Indian Arabicas, which otherwise have beautiful subtle notes and good balance don't get their due - even though they taste great at a full city, and make great espressos. Hope the trend gets more inclusive!

  5. This is such a good post, and so true! As a corollary, low-acidity coffees like Indian Arabicas, which otherwise have beautiful subtle notes and good balance don't get their due - even though they taste great at a full city, and make great espressos. Hope the trend gets more inclusive!

  6. It seems an like an awful big leap there from 13 to 14. There is a point that I really like for many coffees where there is a nice ruddy brown shade. Especially with Indonesians where a tad darker than Full City is in order but not black French.

  7. Thanks very much Divya for you comments. I agree with you completely about the Indian coffees, and had much good experience with them during my years at Allegro, where I used them often in blends in exactly that sweet full city to full city+ and light Vienna range.

    And Mark, than you very much for taking the time to post! I agree with you and in my experience it's particularly difficult to get the exact right roast intonation in that 11-14 range. For the classic full city you don't want any second pop at all, but you want to get close. Then, once second pop happens it tends to do so quite explosively and so stopping the roast on a dime is tricky.

    Indonesians as you say are particularly delicious in this range, but you can't go by color since they lack the chestnut to walnut pigmentation of Centrals and acquire a strong dark roast character while still appearing fairly pale. It's much easier to hit these spots with a drum roaster with a trier in a reasonably quiet warehouse where you can roast by sound as much as by sight or bean temperature. More difficult with a fluid bed roaster, but as you know on the plus side more brightness and arguably more consistency of roast with the latter.

  8. Excellent article. From your lips to God's ear, I hope. This is one of the reasons I still roast my own at home - all I can find out in the world is bad commodity coffee from the commercial houses or fire or ice from the 2nd and 3rd wavers. FC is my go-to roast for both drip and espresso, with an occasional FC+ with the right beans for espresso.

  9. Where does one go to learn to roast? To me that seems like the biggest problem because I think light roasts can be done well there is just so much inconsistency from roast to roast from these people that I can't imagine them having any more training than I do as a hobbyist.

    Personally I don't want to be these roasters angel investor buying their bad coffee while the figure out which way is up. Or at least I hope they figure it out and are not just tasting the unroasted flavor in the same way you taste burnt flavor in Starbucks. No way should my Guat taste like Ethiopian.

    So what do you think is it their lack of skill or lack or palate?

  10. Great question!

    Most roaster manufacturers offer training in the use of their machines, and within SCAA the Roaster's Guild certainly offers a wealth of information. Traditionally though the way one learns not just to roast but also to formally taste ("cup") coffee is through apprenticing at a firm that employs highly experienced people. That's what I did, and it's also the path I've seen most of the really knowledgeable buyers pursue.

    In general the folks running today's Third Wave roasteries come from a barista culture. They learned espresso preparation through apprenticeship, but their knowledge of roasting and sourcing is mostly through association with peers, hanging out with importers, maybe attending a seminar here and there. That's entirely different than having someone show you, coffee by coffee over a period of years, the possible range of roast intonations and what each degree of roast highlights and hides and how that in turn relates to the intended brewing method, local water conditions, straight vs. blended final use - and - last not least - customer preference.

    To answer your other question, I think it's a combination of a lack of skill and very uneducated palates. In the rush to rebel against Starbucks and Peets there seems to be a lemming-like rush to see just how lightly one can roast, and the possibiilty that underdevelopment might be just as real a hazard as over-roasting never crosses their minds.

  11. Hi Kevin. I always learn so much from your posts. So you've covered the rationale behind light roasts from the 3rd wavers but what about Starbucks and Peet's? Why do they roast so darkly? You've said before that Starbucks conversion to Scolari roasters made the roasts darker but why? With all the computer controls on high-tech roasters it would seem like a Starbucks roaster could stop the roast right at second crack. Even still, Starbucks Kenya is way better than a "direct-trade" single origin Kenya from the likes of Blue Bottle or Verve. Full disclosure: I am a Starbucks partner.

  12. Hi David.

    Yes in theory the process control on a Scolari roaster ought to be at least as good as what they replaced: someone with many years of experience roasting manually on a Probat. But it turns out monitoring the roast via video from a room far removed from the roaster isn't as precise.

    More importantly, what happened and continues to happen at Starbucks is that very dark roasts are being applied to coffees that are overall of much lower quality, and certainly lower-grown, than those the company's roast style was based on. And of course with global warming we're seeing coffees grown at 4000-5000 feet starting to cup like those grown at lower altitudes: less acidity and less physical density, meaning that the old Starbucks mantra ("our roast requires our green coffees and our coffees require our roasts") is not reflected in the coffees anymore, or the roasts would have lightened up considerably (as they have, ironically, at the Reserve Roastery but nowhere else!).

    I just drank some Starbucks Kenya about a week ago and it was a decent mid-range AB, undoubtedly purchased from Dorman, that had been roasted way too dark - to the point that the only way to have gotten any varietal character out of it would have been to brew it as espresso. So the green coffee was okay and the roast was totally inappropriate. When I was working in the green coffee department we bid on the top AA lots and were fully prepared to outbid anybody, but if you want that kind of Kenya today you'll need to buy it from George Howell or one of the few Third Wave places that does employ skilled cuppers and has the resources to pay up for quality.

    The only way to even catch a glimpse of the kind of coffees Starbucks used to buy as its ONLY offerings today is to pay the obscene (2x or more Third Wave prices) for the Reserve offerings online or pay even more at the Roastery. Peets on the other hand has done a much better job of maintaining its green coffee buying standards, though the same points about the roasts not matching the quality of green coffee available still apply, to a lesser degree.

    1. Find myself feeling much like all of you here. Can't say how to approach that perfect cup by buying and roasting beans but have my hand in the "hobby" and do ok sometimes. Have purchased Sweet Maria beans and used the advised popcorn popper on the patio. Can't describe what makes a great cup but my taste knows when I have one. Agree with all the sentiments on 3rd wave etc as I try roasted beans here and there. Hey, I used to go to Café Du Monde back in the 70's before I knew there was a culture and enjoyed it. Then came out here and working with ex hippies who grew up with Peet's and shared coffee with me and now in the middle of this mess we are all in and trying to discern between progress and the waves of coffee trends that only lead to confusion and distraction. Thanks for all the good reads here, they make me realize I'm somewhere on the right path to understanding and enjoying a quality coffee experience. Drink up.

  13. Totally agree with you.

    My families roasted coffee for 46 years now. I'm currently a 2nd generation roaster going on 15 years at our company.

    There is an unfortunate nature people have (especially in regards to espresso blends) to think that dark is the only way to go.

    Our Espresso Blend has always been at #11 on the chart, yet all it takes is some uneducated or misinformed person to insist that espresso has to be 12-14.

    I'm sorry if I sound negative, it just becomes frustrating trying to educate people on how roasting dark destroys the origin characteristics of many of the various coffee's around the world only to have the remark "well coffee is coffee" come out.

    It actually is a disservice to alot of the micro lots out there that are being abused by bad roasting habits.

    Why bother buying a washed Ethiopian limu that should cup on the light spectrum to taste like kefir lime if your going to burn all of that unique taste and end up with the typical dark roast taste, aka licking an ash tray....

    Not to say there aren't coffee's that perform well dark, but that is few and far between...

    My biggest stress in the industry is the constant comparison to the ________ brand from Italy vs locally fresh roasted product.

    Some times I believe it would be easier explaining quantum physics than it would be to explain the timing in which one should be purchasing/drinking coffee.

    I cannot for the life of me figure out (aside from being brainwashed by branding) how anyone could drink stale imported coffee vs locally roasted.

    Anyway, I hope you the same good luck and good journey/fortune as a fellow keeper of the flame.