There was a time when I used to like the taste of dark roasted coffee, but over the years that roasty bold flavor that I used to enjoy began to taste bitter and ashy. This summer I decided to revisit my old dark roasted friend to see if we could improve our relationship.
I wanted to solve the riddle on why I used to like dark roasted coffee, but now considered it vile. At first I thought it was that I had developed a better palate. Maybe my flavor expectations for coffee were now much higher? That would explain why I strongly prefer medium and light roasted coffee, but not why I actually grew to dislike dark roasted coffee.
It was an interesting journey and I discovered a lot. Here are some the tricks I learned on how to hack a better dark roast coffee.
#1 Freshness is More Important
One of the most common questions asked in coffee is: How long will these beans stay fresh? You might hear a week, two weeks or more. Coffees roasted dark enough to be labeled French Roast, Italian Roast or Spanish Roast tend to go stale very rapidly. Not weeks, but days.
When coffee is roasted well into and even beyond the second crack, the structure of the coffee bean is more fragile and porous. This greatly shortens the window of freshness. I talked with one Seattle roaster that told me a dark French roast coffee might start to taste flat in as little as four days. That is four days from roast. You can try and seal the coffee as best as you can to preserve and extend freshness, but a heavily roasted coffee will age faster.
If you enjoy coffee on the dark side then hack #1 is to buy smaller volumes of coffee more frequently from a local roaster. If you buy from a grocery store, look for a recent roast date on the bag. Grocery stores will put the old bags in front of the fresh ones, so you may need to reach back for the fresh stuff. Never buy a dark roasted coffee without a roast date on the bag. Assume it is stale. If you can’t find super fresh dark roast at the grocery store, go for a medium dark coffee. It will keep longer and still have enough body to please your dark side.
The time of my life when I most enjoyed dark roasted coffee was when I first started home roasting. I’d roast up something dark, let it sit for one day and then start brewing with that coffee. What I discovered after many years of home coffee roasting was that the darker roasted coffees tasted better on days 2-5. Then I noticed a quality drop off. By day 8, if there was any coffee left, I would throw it away. If you are a true dark roast coffee fan, I highly recommend exploring home coffee roasting. We have many home coffee roasting articles here on INeedCoffee to get you started. By roasting yourself, you can ensure that your coffee is always fresh and that you roast just enough for your needs, so there is little or no waste.
#2 Reduce Brewing Temperature
The standard advice when it comes to brewing temperatures is to brew just off boil, usually between 195-205 F (or 90.5-96.1 C). The implication with this advice is that as long as you are in the range, your coffee will taste good. But there is more to the story. Lighter roasted coffees do well at the higher end of that range and darker roasted coffees do better at the lower end.
I performed a few brewing tests using the same dark roasted coffee brewed at 195 F and 205 F. At 205 F, the coffee had every attribute that I dislike about dark roast. It tasted bitter and ashy. At 195 F, the coffee was smoother and was no longer bitter.
At 195 F, the coffee may taste slightly weaker to you. This problem can be solved by increasing the amount of coffee used in the brew. If you are using a 17-1 ratio (17 parts water to 1 part coffee), experiment with a 16-1 or 15-1 ratio. Another path is to extend the brew time by 30-60 seconds. This works for brewing methods where you can control the brew time, such as a French Press, Clever or Aeropress.
Bonavita 1-Liter Variable Temperature Digital Electric Gooseneck Kettle – With the Bonavita you can dial in the exact temperature you want to brew your coffee. This is a great tool to have not only for coffee, but for tea, which is even more temperature sensitive.
#3 Pour a Smaller Amount of Coffee
A few years ago I noticed that I drink coffee at different speeds depending upon how the coffee initially tastes. If the coffee is on the lighter roasted end with more delicate flavors, I drink the coffee slower, because I know as the coffee cools, it will continue to evolve and taste great. With the darker roasted coffees that push the body and chocolate notes, I will drink the coffee faster. The reason is those flavor characteristics taste better when the coffee is hotter. As the coffee cools, those notes often get lost.
I learned that the quality declines if I spend too much time drinking a heavily roasted coffee.
The solution here is to drink smaller amounts of coffee. Back when I was brewing 16 oz mugs of dark roasted coffee, I would rarely be able to finish the last few ounces as the quality was no where near as good as the first few ounces. If you are brewing one cup at a time, brew less. If you are brewing larger amounts and storing in a carafe, pour less.
#4 Air Roasters vs Drum Roasters
This next idea is debatable, but I believe it has merit. Roasting dark coffee on a fluid bed air roaster will result in a cleaner less burnt taste than a drum roaster. When coffee roasts, chaff separates from the bean. In an air roaster, the chaff is blown out of the roasting chamber. With a rotating drum roaster, some of the chaff remains on the bean. At a lighter roast this is not an issue, but with darker roasts the chaff can impart a burnt flavor onto the beans.
Reduced air flow during roasting may be a cause for some of the bitter notes in dark roasted coffee. Here is a comment by donlp37 regarding air roasting on CoffeeForums:
Not only is it (air roasting) a more even roast, but I also know that much less smoke is circulated around the roasting beans. This way darker roasts can be achieved without a real charcoal or overly smokey taste.
I’m not a professional roaster, but I have been home roasting coffee since 1998. The best dark roast coffees I have had all came from air roasters, be it a popcorn popper or the now gone Hearthware line. The drum roasters that I have used did an outstanding job with medium and light roasts, but were uneven with darker coffee.
Putting it All Together
To hack the best dark roast coffee, I will use fresh coffee beans that are just a few days off roast. I will only buy or roast enough beans that I plan on consuming that week. I will grind my coffee just prior to brewing. I will use a lower brewing temperature and brew/pour just enough for a small or medium sized mug. If I want more coffee, I will brew/pour again. If I can’t home roast, I will find a local roaster and time my visits for optimal freshness.
So far I haven’t discussed brewing method. I could do a bunch of tests to determine which is best, but I doubt there will be consensus across all coffee drinkers. For me the best option is going to be the AeroPress. The Aeropress design allows it to brew great coffee at lower temperatures. This is covered in the The Upside Down AeroPress Coffee Brewing Tutorial. Another excellent brewing option would be cold brew coffee.
Although I don’t consider myself a dark roast coffee fan, I now know a few tricks to use when I want to reach for something darker.
Making coffee with the Aeropress. Photo by Joseph Robertson of Coffee Lovers Magazine.