How to Brew Dark Roast Coffee

How to Brew Dark Roast CoffeeI recently bought a bag of coffee from one of my favorite European roasters. When I opened the bag I was surprised to discover the coffee was quite a bit darker than I expected. Brewing the coffee revealed a flavor profile to match the color: bitter chocolate, roasted nuts, and — dare I say — ash.

Even though many specialty coffee drinkers prefer a light to medium roast, there’s still a significant number of people who prefer something darker. For them, coffee should taste like, well, “coffee.”  And though I will admit my personal preference is for a coffee dropped closer to first crack than second, a good dark roast can be enjoyable if prepared properly. But dark roasted coffee needs to be brewed differently than light or medium roast coffee to get the best results.

Defining Dark Roast 

Part of the problem of talking about roast levels is that there is no universally recognized standard as to what constitutes a dark roast. I discovered when I moved to Europe that one barista’s light roast is another barista’s French roast. If anything, coffee professionals use the term “dark roast” to mean “darker than I prefer”– whatever that might be.

Perhaps the most objective way of measuring roast degree is the Agtron scale. Agtron’s digital color analyzers use a 100 point scale to quantify color– the higher the number, the lighter the color. (The Agtron scale is also used to measure the maturity of tomatoes, amongst other agricultural products). The Agtron scale is widely used by larger coffee companies, but the high cost of the machine makes it less practical for smaller, boutique roasters, let alone consumers.

More widely used is the somewhat cumbersome “city” scale popularized by Sweet Marias. This scale uses the different stages of the roasting process (drying, color change, first crack, second crack) as a reference point, but with the rather curious designators “city,” “city plus,” and “full city”. To be honest, whenever a roaster tells me they “took this coffee to city plus” I just nod and try to pretend I know what they’re talking about.

For the purposes of this little article, we’ll simply define dark roast as coffee that is roasted until the beginning of second crack or later.

Different Grind Size

Brew a light roast and dark roast side-by-side and you’ll notice they behave very differently. Given the same grind setting, the dark roast will likely brew much faster.

During roasting, as the coffee approaches second crack, the cellulose begins to break down. In the case of very darkly roasted coffee, you’ll even see visible oils on the outside of the beans due to the damaged structure. This makes the coffee a lot more soluble as it’s easier for the hot water to move through dark roasted coffee, extracting the soluble compounds in the process.

But only if it were so simple. Dark roast is also more brittle and less dense, which means that it behaves differently when you grind it. Generally speaking, dark roast will produce more fine, dust-like particles. Depending on your grinder, this abundance of fine might clog your brewer, slowing down the flow rate.

As such, be prepared to experiment with different grind sizes. But in general, you can achieve a higher extraction with dark roasts compared to lighter roasts, so don’t be afraid of a coarser, faster-moving grind setting.

How to Brew Dark Roast Coffee

Lower Water Temperature

When brewing light roast coffee, it’s almost impossible for your brew water to be too hot. SCA standard is for the water to be between 195-205F. If I’m brewing a light roast I want that to be as close to 205 as possible, but if I’m brewing a dark roast, I will let the water cool down to 195F to minimize the bitter, astringent flavors that tend to dominate the finish of over-extracted dark roast.

The older SCA flavor wheel referred to those burnt, ashy flavors, perhaps inaccurately, as “dry distillates.” Those flavors dissolve after the organic acids and sugars, which take less energy to extract. As such, I find the “ideal” extraction for dark roast is lower than lighter roasts. While I might aim for a 20-21% solubles yield with a light roast, most dark roasts are going to taste their best in the 18-19% range.

Faster Brew Times

As an authorized trainer of the Specialty Coffee Association, I teach the standard SCA curriculum in my courses. When brewing coffee for myself, however, I find I prefer longer brew times with light roast coffee– typically around four minute brews, but up to five minutes for East African coffees. I find these longer brew times offer more sweetness and complexity in the cup.

With dark roast, however, I know that brews above three minutes are going to be overly astringent and dry; less chocolate and nuts and more ash and tobacco. As such, I aim for a 2:30-3:00 total brew time when brewing dark roast.

Conclusion

In short, if you’re brewing dark roast, use water on the cooler side of SCA standards, keep your brew times between two to three minutes, and be prepared to try a few grind sizes to optimize extraction. And if you’re inviting me over, it doesn’t hurt to have some cream around.

2 thoughts on “How to Brew Dark Roast Coffee

  1. Michael, You crack me up! Your statement, “…coffee professionals use the term “dark roast” to mean “darker than I prefer” is 100% right on. As a professional coffee roaster, I prefer medium roast, therefore my dark roast is…. well… darker than my medium roast.

    As a medium roast lover, roasting dark roast is tough as hell. How dark is too dark or not dark enough? Too dark to me could be perfect for some folks.

    Part of the problem with dark roast is getting the bean very dark brown and still preserving the beans’ oils. If I see oil on the outside of my dark roast beans, then I know that I’ve blown it by roasting too hot for too long. It’s better to sneak up on the dark color by roasting lower-n-slower .

    Here’s what your readers are looking for. 90% Dark brown, 10% barely black, no oil on the outside, and when crushing the bean between thumb and index finger, the inside should be brown, not black, and definitely not bone dry. Those precious oils on the inside are where all the antioxidants, bioflavonoids, caffeine, and taste reside. Look for dark roast like that, and you have yourself the potential of a killer dark roast cup of coffee.

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