If you're new to gourmet coffee I have one top recommendation: try light- or medium- roasted coffee.
Why? Because the subtleties of coffee come out when it's light or medium roasted. /wp/wp-content/uploads/files/uploads/coffeecup_Ballistik_Coffee_Boy_crop380w.jpg" width="380" height="250" align="right" title="Photo by Ballistik_Coffee_Boy, courtesy of Creative Commons" alt="Photo by Ballistik_Coffee_Boy, courtesy of Creative Commons" />
The darker you roast beans from Indonesia, Africa, Central and South American -- from anywhere in the world -- the more they converge into burnt flavor. And many of us whose first experience with gourmet coffee is Starbuck or Seattle's Best associate coffee mostly with that dark flavor. So we have a pretty narrow flavor pallet.
Light and Medium roasted coffee will give us an education in all the great variety of coffee.
Probably 95% of the flavor elements in coffees can be tasted in light or medium roast. By the time a coffee is dark roasted, only 5% of the various flavors remain, in my experience.
For instance, dark coffees (think of a cup of Starbucks) converge in just a few flavors: dark chocolate, ashiness, earthy (sometimes), burnt (in a good way, actually). Kind of like cigarette smoke. Dark roasts are great, I'm not knocking them. I love them early in the day. Even dark-roasted Sumatrans that I've heard green bean buyers descirbe as the flavor of"jungle fungus." Just alldark coffees have a very narrow flavor profile. It's back office talk in the specialty coffee industry that when you have excess beans from any region that you can't sell, you sell them in a French Roast blend. To illustrate, one roaster might say in conversation "we purchased too much Guatemalan HueHuetenango (a premium coffee from a top region) and had to use it up so we poured it into our French Roast blend." Frowns all around from fellow roasters, as if you'd just betrayed a good friend. The point is that the Huehetenango can be mixed with coffee from other regions, french roasted, and taste like every other french roast blend.
But exclusive to light and medium roasts are flavors like fruit, citrus, floral, cream, winey, acidic (in a good way), sweet, light, tea-like, berry, stone fruit, juicy, melon, herbal and many subdivisions (i.e. lemon versus orange). These flavors come out in light and medium roasts only.
Imagine a flavor funnel. The widest part of the funnel is where all the flavors of light and medium roasts are The most narrow end of the funnel is dark roast. It contains the fewest flavors: dark, ashiness, burntness.
Starbucks (good coffee, I'm just sayingl) has a very narrow flavor pallete, perhaps for business reasons: it wants a distinctive signature flavor. It's dark. Maybe it evolved from the espresso culture in Seattle. Maybe this strategy allows coffee from anywhere in the world to be combined into a blend and have a similar flavor across 16,000 locations serving thousands of cups daily over years.
I've tried Starbucks Clover-brewed Papua New Guinea, Kona, Ethiopian Harrar, Kenya AA, Sumatran and Sulawesi -- and they almost tasted identical because they're all dark roasted to achieve Starbucks' signature flavor. Light or medium-roasted, these coffees would taste vastly different. The Kona would taste earthy, the Ethiopian Harrar would be hopping with blueberry aroma, the Kenya AA would have a tannin flavor of red wine. But it was all placed into a Hell's Kitchen of dark roastiness muting their individual flavors. I've looked at the Starbucks Reserve beans used in their Clovers at about 10 differnt locations (I chat with every Barista I can find) and they're always dark roasted.
I suggest that the first step towards enjoying gourmet coffee is to try a light or medium roasted coffee. They often taste bold and full of body just like a dark roast except with many more flavor elements.
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