Food & Drink: Smoke Signals

Reality check on Kona’s burnt coffee

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Many of the world’s finest coffees, including those from Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, are lightly roasted. Photo by Michael Allen Smith@INeedCoffee.

The Kona Coast of Hawaii grows some of the finest coffee on Earth. The trees, along with orchards of citrus, tropical fruit and macadamia nuts, have helped bring forest cover to what had been a barren lava-scape, and turned the Big Island’s west coast into an edible forest paradise. Coffee tourists drive through this paradise from plantation to plantation, paying upwards of $30 a pound.

 Alas, this Eden is burning. The smell of blackened toast hovers around the roasters scattered about the coast. It’s the smell of wonderful coffee beans being charred beyond recognition. Dark roast seems to be the norm in Kona. Medium can be sought out. Asking for light has exposed me to verbal abuse.

I suppose that if you take your coffee with enough cream and sugar, you can overpower any amount of burnt bitterness. A light or medium roast, meanwhile, can be sipped all day long. Most importantly, a mellow roast allows me to taste the differences from bean to bean, and to detect more notes in the flavor. The same is true with bread, meat or anything else that can be burned. I like just a note of that burnt flavor, not a pounding.  

This light roast thing is hardly a secret. Many of the world’s finest coffees, including those from Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, are lightly roasted, so that their nuance can be cleanly detected and enjoyed.

One Kona grower not on the blackened bandwagon, Jim Monk of Monk’s Delight Kona Coffee company, makes wry commentary on over-roasting in his play-by-play of the coffee roasting process. When it reaches the so-called “French Roast” stage, Monk notes, the body of the resulting cup will be thinner as the aromatic compounds, oils and soluble solids are burned out of the coffee.

The great-smelling smoke that results could also be called flavor that is no longer in the bean. And it turns out that more than flavor is roasted away in this process. In the transition between light and dark, caffeine is lost as well. This officially makes light coffee drinkers more caffeinated than dark, but there is, nonetheless, a popular case to be made in favor of dark roast. It was explained to me by Conner McCamant, 17, who recently started Creakin’ Crick coffee company in his parents’ basement in Missoula, Montana. While unabashedly on team light, McCamant was diplomatic in paying his respects to the dark side.

“There are flavors that come out in darker roasts like nuttiness, coca and bitterness,” he told me via text. “Some specialty roasters prefer coffee that is substantially darker than mine. I assume this makes them seek out beans that have flavors more compatible with that type to roast.

“I and the people around me don’t enjoy the bitter, less complex, sometimes burnt flavors of a darker bean,” McCamant says. “And when you focus on the dark flavors, it leaves the light ones behind. The fruity and acidic flavors are more pronounced on the lighter side of the spectrum; I look for beans that are either fruity or ones I can strike a good balance with between light and dark. I find light roasts are generally more complex and less bitter than beans that have mostly darker flavors. Honestly though what it comes down to is preference.”  

McCamant’s dad texted in a caveat. “Those volatile compounds that we like in the light-to-medium roasts are gone from the roasted beans after two-to-three weeks. Most coffee bought from a store has already lost those volatile compounds and their flavors.”

Beyond flavor, storage and the benefits of a small-scale agricultural industry, if we take an honest look at coffee and the roasting process, we should look at the health implications—because there are certainly some red flags. Of particular concern is the creation of carcinogens by browning, blackening and burning things. A lawsuit was recently filed against California coffee growers, alleging violation of California’s Proposition 65, which requires food companies to disclose if their products contain certain chemicals, including acrylamide, which is a byproduct of coffee roasting, among many other culinary processes.

Toast-burning, oven-browning, stir-frying, potato-chipping, rotisserie-chickening and many, many other culinary processes all create acrylamide. But coffee, burnt toast and a handful of other browned and blackened delicacies create the most. Ditto for another class of chemical, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). But repeated attempts to find them in charred foods have yielded non-scary results.

A recent Consumer Reports article on coffee and health found that—paraphrasing here—the more you drink, the longer you live. That’s good enough for me, even if it doesn’t answer the question of how dark to roast it. All I can say is, if you must drink it dark, don’t do it to beans you care about.

“Some coffees can be excellent at [a dark roast] stage,” Monk allows. But Kona, is  “ … not one of those.”

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