Recently my eloquent colleague Matt Kramer noted that two of the nation’s coffee giants had introduced and promoted light roasts, and that this portends a shift toward more refined tastes by Americans. He argued passionately that this notion extended to wine and a turn toward more delicate, refined styles.
He might be right, but I see a very different picture. First of all, Starbucks and Peet’s are offering these light roasts in addition to their darker roasts, which remain far and away the most popular at these franchises. Also, these lighter beans are intended for drip-brewed coffee, not for espresso, which makes up the bulk of their business by a wide margin.
And not to put too fine a point on it, but if you stand in line at Starbucks awhile and listen to the orders, most of them involve sweet syrups, flavorings and foamy milk. Very few orders are for plain coffee or straight espresso. What that says to me is that the strong flavors of espresso and dark-roasted coffee can offend. The dynamic at play here is not a quest for delicacy or refinement. It’s so customers can avoid flavors they don’t like and lap up flavors they crave.
That’s the same impulse that makes mass-market wines so popular. It’s not that the wines are especially good (although they can be), it’s that they are easy to drink.
In that context, I’m pretty sure that Starbucks and Peet’s both realized that they were missing that segment of the market that prefers a straight cup of coffee made from lighter roasts. Some might really want to savor the delicacy. For most, I suspect, it’s that they like the idea of coffee but would rather not confront strong flavors.
Coffee roasters will tell you that beans from certain parts of the world do better as light roasts, others with dark, and all points in between. As with wine grapes, there is a sweet spot for each type.
For what it’s worth, my regular morning drink is espresso, for which I grind San Francisco’s own Graffeo beans. They come only in light and dark roast blends. I use one-third light and two-thirds dark, just as Luciano (the owner of Graffeo) taught me 35 years ago. I make a cappuccino or caffè latte in the morning, and might have a short espresso later in the day.
But I also like a nice cup of drip coffee from time to time. When I am in Hawaii I drink 100 percent Kona, which everyone agrees is best as a lighter roast. Darker roasting loses nuances and can bring out less appealing characteristics in Kona beans. On the other hand, good roasters know where to source the beans that will provide the most flavor and texture in darker roasts for espresso.
That’s the parallel to wine. It’s not a shift in taste, it’s a recognition that we all have different preferences. It’s all about diversity. More than ever, wine’s diversity gives us options to drink what we really like today. Coffee is merely catching up.