I've done a fair amount of chronicling good coffee roasters out there, but to find a good coffee roaster, you have to wade through the bad ones. I don't plan on naming names, because I'm not out to harm folks that are trying and getting better. I'm simply going to describe those traits that bad coffee roasters all seem to have in common. Luckily, there aren't many, if any, here on Roaste.com.
The first issue I often come across is the coffee roaster that uses a fluid bed roaster, usually a Sivetz. These machines operate like humungous popcorn poppers, and share many of the same pitfalls. A lot of folks champion this method of roasting because it cuts down on smokiness and supposedly creates a cleaner taste. I often find that it does, in fact, create a cleaner, more distinct taste, but it's usually very one note. That note is usually overly bright and acidic. From what I've read, this occurs when coffee is roasted too quickly (as is often the case with fluid bed roasters) and the sugars in the bean have not had enough time to caramelize properly. If I had to choose, I'd pick smokey and sweet over bright and acidic any day of the week. A coffee varietal roasted in the traditional drum method stands a much better chance at slow roasting and developing unique characteristics.
Another more common issue is over-roasting. I know there are people out there that enjoy darker roasts, and I completely respect that. I recently had the Paradise Roaster's Espresso Nuevo blend, roasted nice and dark, and loved it. Unfortunately, there are some roasters out there that think a dark roast should be oily and leave a tar-like residue in the cup. I respectfully disagree. Of course, some roasters use dark roasts to cover up poor quality coffee, but that's a different story. A good dark roast requires a bit more precision (like knowing to roast right up until the second crack) and the right beans (certain beans, like most East African varietals, do well when roasted full city +). When done right, it will taste like the description Starbucks puts on its one pound bag of espresso- "Rich, dense and caramelly sweet." I feel as though most people should trust their instincts with dark roasts... If it tastes burnt and ashy, then it is burnt and ashy.
Finally, I really hate dated coffee. Freshly roasted coffee has a shelf life of about 3 weeks, 2 weeks for espresso. A lot of roasters out there put expiration dates on their coffee when they really should be putting roast dates on there. There have been countless times that I've brewed coffee purchased on the same day, and it has tasted like stale wood. It's even worse for espresso. I'll bet that some of these coffees were actually pretty delicious a couple of days post-roast. For a lot of commercial roasters, there's an obvious profit interest at stake by always offering up freshly roasted coffee. In my experiences, the only solution is to avoid them (although some very nice baristas at both Starbucks and Caribou have given me some of the freshly roasted stash that they use in their brewing). Anyway, beware of the coffee roaster that refuses to give you a roast date.
To summarize, avoid coffees that are air-roasted, over-roasted, or without a roast date.
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