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Coffee Roasting Terms

Roasting coffee is a subject that inspires endless debate, but really isn't all that difficult to do. What is hard is explaining to customers who ask for a French, Italian or Vienna roast that "there really ain't no such thing!"

All these roast descriptions were invented by American marketers to more or less describe particularly dark roast levels. The actual meaning of the descriptions reverses when you move between the East and West coasts of the USA, and in any case the roasts are FAR darker than you get in Italy, Austria and France.

Then we get the more recently invented descriptions, stuff like "City" and "Full City" roasts. These were invented by George Howell, who founded "The Coffee Connection" chain in Boston and subsequently sold it to Starbucks for US$23 million. Originally Full City wasn't a particularly dark roast, but Starbucks have made it a term for a charcoal roast.

Coffee starts out as hard little green beans. During the first stage of roasting, water is driven out and the coffee bean "pops", just like popcorn, and doubles in size. This is first crack, and at this stage the bean is a light, cinnamon brown colour, with floral and acidy flavours predominating.

As roasting continues the beans expand slightly more and become a rich, deep brown. They reach a point where they start to give little crackling pops again, and some oil (and lots of smoke) appear. This is second crack, and just at this point is usually where body, acid and flavour are at their best balance. This was George Howell's original Full City roast. Of course, some beans don't have much acidity, some don't have much body, so not all coffees are perfect at this roast.

Further roasting drives off the acid, brings out the oil and lets body predominate. Sugars in the beans caramelise, and oil coats the surface of the beans. Second crack is the most difficult part of the roast to handle, because a few seconds more or less roast at this point can make big differences to final coffee taste.

Beyond this point carbonisation sets in, all varietal character disappears and body and charcoal tastes reach a maximum. This is the sort of thing called Italian, French and Vienna roast, or the "Full City" espresso roast by Starbucks. In my personal opinion, it's not a nice thing to do to a specialty grade coffee.

There is actually an official system of roast colour measurement, called the Agtron system, but few consumers are aware of it, so the confusion in roast names will be around for a long time yet!

This month's special is just a lovely coffee, with a beautiful smooth taste. It's also one of the best certified (by Natureland) organic coffees I've tried.

Organic Peru Villa Rica $35.00/kg

A "Second Crack" roast gives a smooth, rich flavour with balanced acidity and a hint of smoke in the aftertaste. Best for filter and plunger brewing, or milk based espressos.

In other news, Bodum has taken over all distribution of their products in Australia, but have yet to import all the necessary stock. There will probably be a couple of weeks wait for the next lot of syphons, but when they arrive they'll come with (finally!) a funnel stand in the box. They'll also be more expensive, but prices are not yet finalized.

The latest Imat and Rancilio shipments have arrived and are awaiting Customs clearance as I type. I expect to be back up to full espresso stocks by mid next week, for the first time in exactly 12 months. Again, prices will be up on the website as soon as I get them, since the Imat II machines will be a bit more expensive than the 1's. Due to the remarkable stability of the Euro vs. the Aust. Dollar there will be no change in the Rancilio prices.

There WILL be increases in both postage and local courier charges next month, but neither Australia Post nor Fastway can tell me how much. As always, I'll try to keep the actual costs of getting the coffees to you to a minimum.

Finally, following a whole lot of fairly nasty emails from people who didn't like me criticising the "Choice" Domestic Espresso Machine Review, and then seeing almost the same lack of rigour in a recent "Crema" magazine, I've done a new Coffeegeek article on "How to Review Domestic Espresso Machines."

Hopefully some of the people who are doing this sort of thing will read it before they go into publication next time!