There’s two kinds of people in this world. Those of us who spring out of the bed in the morning, wide awake, energized, and eager to tackle the day; and, people who hit snooze as many times as an iPhone allows then slink begrudgingly from under the covers hunched over like Quasimodo. The ‘springers’ can usually start a detailed conversation within ten minutes after waking, while the ‘Quasimodo’s’ are lucky if their bodies are even on auto-pilot just to navigate themselves to the bathroom without bumping a big toe on the doorframe and dress themselves without falling over. I’m one of the latter.
Every single one of us has a morning ritual. Upon waking, we move like marionettes following a choreographed dance around the house while we begin a new day. This is when routine is friend and surprise the enemy. For millions of people, the first mission of the day is a cup of coffee that we either make ourselves or rely on a barista to serve us.
My coffee ritual begins at work. (Yes, I operate a vehicle un-caffeinated). At this point, I’m not interested in quality. I don’t really prefer a method. Roast date is irrelevant. Within seconds of entering the building I’m boiling water for a French Press that I split with my boss. It has been noted that I don’t utter a single word or I mumble at a fifth grade level until I’ve had my coffee. With one eye open I dump some scoops of coffee beans in a blade grinder and shatter the morning silence. Chopped up grounds go into the beaker and sometimes boiling water is sloshed on top. Occasionally I allow for a bloom… depending on the coffee.
Which brings me to the coffee; I unashamedly drink dark roast in the morning. There, I’ve said it. (Suddenly I feel like I’m having that one nightmare when you accidentally go to school in your underwear.) I think my thirst for dark roast harkens to my days as a Starbucks barista. I really enjoy a heavy bodied, chocolatey, roasty cup while I wake up and make sense of the world around me. As I reflect upon why I like a stout brew, I think there’s more to it than ritual.
First of all, a French Press is a pretty forgiving way to make coffee in general. It’s mechanically simple to operate; add water to grounds and plunge. (Waiting 4 minutes is optional before 6am). During the winter in the Pacific Northwest the sun sleeps-in like a teenager on vacation. Therefore, at 5:50am I’m making coffee in a very dark room; but, my muscle memory is so advanced that my hands instinctively know what to do. In fact, my hands are so adept at making coffee in the dark that if the World Barista Championship were to add a ninja round where baristas had to make coffee blindfolded, I bet I’d at least be runner-up. Even in my Quasimodo-like state I can master the art of the French Press.
Another reason I like dark roast in a French Press is because you don’t really have to weigh anything out. Most of the time, an under-extracted dark roast is still drinkable to the slightly less alert. And as far as a French Press is concerned, there’s no such thing as an over-extracted dark roast. Have you ever had an under or over-extracted light roasted coffee in a French Press? Remember how I said surprise is the enemy? Without weighing out your coffee to water ratio, you’re in for a sour morning.
But what about caffeine; doesn’t a light roast have more caffeine than a dark roast? I know people who only drink light roast in the morning because they think caffeine crystals are destroyed the longer you roast the beans. This is a topic for it’s own article but simply, the caffeine levels only differ on a molecular level – not enough for us to notice or greatly impact our morning.
Finally, I drink dark roast because I like the signature roasted coffee flavor. I enjoy the roasty component in many foods. Take campfire s’mores for example, I prefer the marshmallows momentarily on fire before I sandwich them in chocolate and graham. Phenyl acids are a result of the caramelization process and contribute to the overall flavor profile of food. Sometimes phenyls can be too strong and give off aromatics reminiscent of smoked fish. No thanks.
Dark roast is just as tricky to roast as light roast, maybe even trickier because there’s less room for error. You can always keep the roast going if you plan to dump the beans just after first crack; but time speeds up after second crack. The Maillard reaction, the caramelization process, happens after first crack and up until second crack. It’s true that the sugars are browning and floral notes are unlocked and coffees exhibit their tea-like flavors on either side of first crack. But if I wanted to drink tea I would drink tea.
Furthermore, just because a roaster goes to second crack doesn’t mean the coffee caught fire and tastes like an ashtray. It just means new flavors have been unlocked. As some chemicals in the bean fiber are depleted through heat application, new chemicals are formed. Sweet stone fruit becomes cranberry-like, caramel becomes molasses, milk chocolate turns to baker’s cocoa, and so on. Lovely flavors to wake the senses.
On one of my early days in the coffee industry, I drank a coffee that changed my life. It was the first coffee I ever had that didn’t need cream & sugar… and it was a dark roast. I remember the moment when the cedar and earthiness mingled on my palate. The 2004 Starbucks Black Apron Exclusives single origin Aged Sumatra. Aged in burlap sacks for 3-5 years for balance and smoothness. It changed the way I thought about coffee because before that I had been drinking swill out of a styrofoam cup. I’ve come a long way since then and it started with that one sip of spicy Aged Sumatra.
Perhaps my dark roast ritual before the sun rises is an imitation of that experience. There’s something familiar and comforting we all do at the start of the day that makes us human and connects us. That coffee magic is one of the reasons I love working in this industry and something I enjoy sharing with people. It doesn’t matter what the coffee is or how it’s prepared. What matters is the sacred act itself. What does your morning ritual say about you?