the 90 point roast

You may have seen the poll I recently posted to the blog asking you to make a choice between two hypothetical cups of coffee. In essence asking if you would prefer to drink an average coffee (ie rated on green quality) that was roasted to show it at it’s best, or a really excellent coffee that was given an average roast, showing it at less than it’s best. While a little confusion and debate lingered over what exactly a 90 point roast would be, in no small part fuelled by the honourable Mr Cho’s mischief (I love you really Nick), a clear winner emerged in the vote. You chose the average coffee that was given a really excellent roast.

So would I for what it’s worth.

I didn’t want to pad the question with too much detail, for fear of leading the answers, but when I was originally thinking about this question, I envisaged the average roast to be one that was certainly drinkable, though regardless of level perhaps had a discernible roast characteristic, perhaps was a little flat or muted, and in general didn’t highlight the best qualities of the coffee. The really great roast for me is most often the one that you don’t notice the roast, just the coffee. Sometimes I like to comment that these seems as if the beans had grown on the tree already roasted. I say this again without allusion to the level of roast (within reason).

Green quality is constantly improving due to advancements and refinements in growing, harvesting, processing and even shipping. One could argue that green quality has improved (when looked at quite broadly) at a rate exceeding that of roast quality. The ratio of 90+ point coffees to roasters of comparable quality seems to be dropping year on year.

In the discussion that followed the poll a theme emerged of the quality of roast being a personal choice or preference, or even a geographical trait. One man’s 90 point roast, might be another man’s 80 point roast. While this wasn’t in my original thoughts, I do accept that it would probably seem to be more difficult to come to a consensus on a roast score than on a coffee score. Unquestionably there will be many opinions on what the best roast of a certain coffee would be, but I would hope we can all identify a roast of high quality.

Roast level (as opposed to roast quality) can be looked at as having regional idiosyncrasies. We could look at the differences between a typical Norwegian roast and a typical US roast and maybe draw some conclusions, perhaps tainted by our personal preferences. We can paint with broad brush strokes saying that US roasters burn the arse out of their coffee, or that the Scandanavians merely leave the coffee out in the sun for a short period of time to reach their desired level. This is of course bollox of the highest order. Roast level only says so much, an Agtron machine cannot tell you how good a coffee tastes, whether it has been tipped, scorched, baked or otherwise befuddled.

I’m probably not ever going to be fan of coffees roasted past a certain level, but I can appreciate a good roast that spans a reasonably broad range. I could envisage there being several 90 point roast interpretations of a given coffee.

There will be more excellent coffees grown this year, than I could possibly drink, or will even have the opportunity to drink, and some of the most expensive, most coveted lots will be roasted carelessly. This happens, a lot, I’ve drank them. It sucks. I guess this was my point leading into the question. I’m glad to find myself in agreement with a majority. Kudos to you dear readers, kudos.


7 thoughts on “the 90 point roast

  1. Despite my “mischief,” I’m very excited by these poll results! With all of the attention paid to brewing excellence and green coffee quality, the craft of roasting often gets overlooked and overshadowed. I’ve had too many coffees from roasters who buy excellent-quality green coffee and employ world-class baristas… only to produce roasts of middling quality.

    All hail the impending roasting renaissance!!!

  2. I suppose the way I looked at it was like this:

    A mediocre coffee, with a great roast, is still a mediocre coffee. You can do anything you want to with an okay pulp natural Brazil, but the chances are that it’s still just going to be pretty dirty, with some hints of nuttiness.

    At the same time, a slightly over or under roasted coffee won’t betray the true characteristic of it. An amazing Kenya with a tint darker or lighter roast might still bring out amazing grapefruit acidity and currant notes.

    So it’s hard to judge it too, based on a case by case study. How bad is an 80 point roast? In my mind, not so bad. Not to discount roasters or the amazing stuff they do…

  3. Tyler Madden says:

    I didn’t answer the poll, because I take issue with the way that scoring standards are being used, but I enjoy the resultant discussion, and am very interested to see how people are answering.

    Without going on a complete tangent, I would prefer the coffee with the potential to score a 90 roasted at an “80 point roast” (still specialty caliber roast right?). To me, this is a simple answer, because this coffee, still would seemingly have the potential to score somewhere above 80, something you could never say of the coffee with the potential to score an 80. As I read things, the potential 80 point coffee with any roast short of a theoretical 100 would fall below the “specialty” line, whereas the potential 90 point coffee likely wouldn’t.

    • Hi Tyler. You are quite right, this application of the scoring standards is a bit ropey, but it was used merely to illustrate the point.

      We talk about 90 point / 95 point coffees regularly, but in the cup they are only 90/95 point coffees if they are treated in that manner in all the intermittant steps (roast / grind / brew etc).

      Perhaps shoehorning point scoring into roasting is a bit facetious, but the intention was just to draw the comparison, with something we are familiar with.

      By your logic the “score” can exceed the quality of the roast? I don’t think so. When I drink a coffee that has obviously been roasted without adequate care or attention all I can taste are the flaws. I can maybe appreciate what the coffee might have tasted like, but that only serves to compound the insult.

      I would much prefer to taste an ok coffee that has been handled as well as possible. Then I taste that coffee, not the flaws.

      Of course in an ideal circumstance, I would prefer the 90+ point coffee with a comparable roast, but where’s the fun in asking that question?

      • Tyler Madden says:

        It just occurred, that perhaps (and feel free to correct me if I am wrong), another way of getting at the question you are asking would be to ask whether someone would prefer an 80 point coffee that is such as the result of an immaculate roast, or one that is such because of a woefully underwhelming job of roasting a coffee that has potential to score far higher.

        If that is the case, then I have a far more comfortable understanding of what is being asked, though in some ways, it makes it a much more challenging hypothetical for me. The way the question was posed before, I exercised the logic that at its absolute best, an 80 point coffee could never be more than an 80 point coffee, regardless of how exceptionally it was roasted, but a 90 point coffee, even if roasted poorly could still (but wouldn’t necessarily) fall sufficiently above the 80 point mark, and that would be the gamble I’m willing to take.

        With a modified understanding (the choice between two coffees that would score an 80, but for different reasons) I suppose that I would definitely side with you in terms of what cup I would want to sit and drink or recommend a customer, as I agree with the notion that I’d rather present an ideal expression of a particular coffee than a coffee that has fallen victim to process.

        Thanks for taking the time to respond, and not taking offense to what may have seemed a harsh characterization of how you worded your question, I was merely frustrated by my inability to adequately quantify the grounds of the hypothetical.

  4. Great post — I love finding “coffee nuts” around the globe. We promote a number of global brands and roasts (currently from Italy, two from Canada, and a couple in the US), so we stand with those that pick an excellent coffee first and foremost. Hey… contact me if you’d like to write a guest post on our blog — we’ll reward you with a bag of beans from our store… maybe green beans so you can roast them to your liking.

  5. Pingback: Blogger apathy, the death of Bloglines and missing links « Sam Kinsley

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