Until a few years ago, I thought beans and roast were one and the same. This misconception can be excused since beans and roast tend to be labeled interchangeably within the commercial realm, causing confusion to even the most discriminating coffee-lover. Bean bags labeled either ‘Sumatra, Aceh, French, Italian or Dark’ are the ones which routinely get freshly ground in my home coffee grinder for brewing each morning. Once the distinction is made between bean origin and type of roast, a greater understanding of coffee basics unfolds.
- Country of origin, where grown
- Conditions (levels of shade, soil, weather)
- Harvesting process (dry, semi-washed; chemical, organic)
- Drying procedures (1,2 or 3 step phase)
- Level of bean sort at exporters warehouse (by hand, machine)
- Light (light brown, for milder coffee varieties, no oil on surface of beans)
- Medium (medium brown, stronger flavor, non-oily surface; preferred in the USA)
- Medium-Dark (rich dark color, some oil on surface of beans, slight bittersweet aftertaste)
- Dark (shiny black beans, oily surface, pronounced bitterness, less acidity)
In the case of my personal preferences, Sumatra and Aceh refer to the origin of the beans (with Aceh a specific area in northern Sumatra) and French, Italian or Dark refer to the type of roast incurred upon beans of all sorts.
Sumatran character is basically ‘of the earth.’ Low in acidity, these beans offer a full-bodied, spicy flavor profile with a lingering dark chocolate finish. The distinctive earthy taste can be directly related to a unique aging process specific to Sumatran harvesting and drying techniques. The beans mildly ferment during their organically semi-washed harvesting process and three-step drying phase. Already labor intensive, the coffee beans are then hand sorted before export from Sumatra, guaranteeing a high level of ready-to-roast beans.
As in fine wine and food pairings, there are classic pairings of bean types to roasts. Sumatran beans lend themselves to the darker roasts. While I prefer a dark roast, I can appreciate a lighter roast when it presents a depth of flavor beyond that of colored water. Bottom line: I crave a roast which enhances the flavor of these beans rather than obscuring it through a generic burnt roast approach.
What we’re talking about here is the fine art of coffee roasting: the last step in a rather lengthy trip from coffee plant to coffee cup. Roasting is a technical skill requiring an intuitive and passionate approach in order to produce a superb product. Skilled roasters have learned to ‘read’ the beans during a roast. Indeed, the difference between perfectly roasted coffee and a ruined batch can be a matter of seconds; especially within the realm of the Darker Roasts.
The end product of all coffee roasting is a direct result of the roasters skill or lack thereof. Unskilled roasters tend to ‘burn-to-death’ beans in the name of creating a ‘Dark Roast.’ I posit that those claiming to dislike ‘French, Italian or Dark Roasts’ have only experienced ‘bad’ dark roasts. Case in point: It’s not how dark you roast the coffee, it’s how you roast it dark!
In the specific instance of Sumatra beans, it’s doubly important to be attuned to this process as the beans themselves have a reputation for being unpredictable during the roasting process. However, in the hands of a Master Roaster, Sumatra beans yield the best of the best; the gold standard from which all coffees should be measured.
Once upon a time, a coffee-crazed free spirit named Laura met a Master Roaster who understood her deepest desires. Upon hearing these desires, the Master Roaster went to work on making Laura’s coffee dreams come true.
Indeed, the efforts of the Master Roaster far exceeded Laura’s wildest expectations. ‘Laura’s Sumatra’ delivered ecstatic satisfaction on a level beyond her known realm of experience. Alas, when Laura sought out the Master Roaster to order more coffee dreams, the Master Roaster was nowhere to be found.