If you’ve ever read a review on coffeereview.com, you’ve most likely noticed a pair of Agtron numbers listed below the attribute scores. Unless you work in the coffee industry, you probably don’t have a clear idea what these numbers represent. The inquisitive have undoubtedly copied and pasted the term Agtron into search engines to yield information about the Nevada based company of the same name that manufactures roast color readers. Color readers are used in a wide variety of industries, from paving stones to pharmaceuticals, wherever consistency of color is important in a given product.
Color can be determined a number of different ways, Agtron uses “near-infrared abridged Spectrophotometers” to reflect light on a sample of coffee in order to assign a specific value, which we read as a number. The smaller the number, the darker the roast. There are other companies out there that manufacture color readers such as Javalytics, Hunter Lab and Photovolt, as well as Probat’s Colorette and Fresh Roast’s Color Track, but the king of the heap, at least in coffee industry nomenclature, remains Agtron. In fact, even when companies use another brand of machine they still may refer to Agtron numbers, sometimes converting their numbers to one of the Agtron scales. Many in the coffee industry are just as likely to use the word Agtron as a noun, in reference to the popular spectrophotometer, as well as a verb, to describe the process of taking a color reading on one of these machines.
In consulting work, we find it necessary to calibrate our M-Basic Agtron machine, which reads on the so-called Gourmet Scale, with the color reader that is being used by the companies we work with. The color reader may be a different brand, different model type (such as Agtron’s E-20, which reads on their Commercial Scale) or even the same model we use. Although each machine is consistent to itself, we find there may be a variance in the numbers generated by different color readers.
But I digress. The questions remains, why two numbers? The two numbers represent the whole bean and ground color value for each coffee. We gain additional insight about the roast of a coffee when we note the delta between the readings of whole bean compared to ground coffee. In general, the darker the roast, the narrower the delta, while lighter roasts tend to show a wider range. We do not take roast color into consideration when undertaking sensory assessment of coffee; we take Agtron readings only after the evaluation process of the coffee is complete. This added information will often corroborate the characteristics we noticed in the cup. For example, a narrow delta on a light roast may explain the limited aromatic range of the coffee.
Why should consumers care about the numbers? Well, they shouldn’t, as long as they know that small groupings of number ranges represent a color that can be seen with the naked eye. Roast color has an impact on flavor and you might know, for example, that you really like medium-dark roasted coffee, coffee that has been roasted right before or just at second crack. If you know that, and you know that when a coffee has a whole bean Agtron reading between 50-40, then it is probably going to be more to your linking than a darker roasted coffee in the 40-35 range. To that end, reviews always include a translation from the numerical readings into terms most coffee drinkers understand – light, medium, medium-dark, dark and so on. If you’re interested in the breakdown of Agtron numbers and corresponding color terminology, see this table: http://bit.ly/h57AZb.
Pawel, in a recent response to my blog “Boomeranging to Super Light Roasts,” asks whether he should order his favorite coffee, a Sumatra Takengon Gayo Organic from the Aceh region, at “City+” or a somewhat darker “Full City.” He answers his own question, quite correctly I think, by writing that there is only one way to find out, and that is by trying both versions.
But his response reminded me of another theme in the complicated discussions around roast color, and one that seems to cause newcomers to specialty coffee in particular considerable confusion. This is the question of names for color of roast (or more properly, degree of roast).
In the early days of American specialty coffee there was some consistency in roast color terminology. The linguistic representation of roast color ran: light or cinnamon / medium / city (slightly darker than medium) / full-city (slightly darker still), then going European with Viennese (just into the second crack) / Light French / Espresso / Italian, and at the ultimate dark end, dark French. There were variations, but the sequence was more or less clear.
Then came Starbucks, and things got a whole lot darker everywhere, particularly on the West Coast. So much so that a few years back we received a sample from a West Coast roaster that was labeled “Light Roast.” Quite literally, this coffee was – as measured by machine – darker than the Starbucks House Blend. If Starbucks was light, what was “medium” for this roaster? A dark roast, of course, a very dark roast. In other words, the entire roast color nomenclature had been moved decisively toward the dark end of the spectrum. In those days, the old dark was the new light.
As I suggested in my last blog, the move from darker to still darker has reversed directions, and we are in the throes of a reaction back toward true light roasts and true medium roasts. In the process of this roast color thesis and antithesis, however, the old specialty language for roast color has pretty much been left in meaningless chaos. What will replace the old language? Will it be revived? Does it need to be revived? Pawel’s favorite roast company’s use of the traditional terms City and Full City appears to be pretty much in calibration with the old specialty roasters’ use of these two terms.
Many of the new paradigm roasters avoid describing roast color at all, I suppose implying that the degree to which they have roasted a coffee is simply the “right” roast for the green coffee and the brewing platform. As it often is. They are essentially saying that they are letting the green coffee lead them. Or they may use a graphic representation, a sort of sliding “light to dark” roast color thermometer, which is a good communications solution, I think, given the confusion of the old descriptive language.
At Coffee Review, we long ago gave up on romantic or traditional names for roast color, and opted for a version of the stodgy but reasonable Specialty Coffee Association of America naming sequence, which runs: Light / Medium / Medium Dark / Dark / Very Dark, to which we added “Black-Brown” as a name for those dark-beyond-dark roasts we ran into when we first started reviewing coffees fourteen years ago.
Today some companies have more or less invented their own languages. George Howell, one of the pioneers of the back-to-medium roast movement, calls his subtly modulated range of medium roasts collectively “Full Flavor Roast.” Starbucks, of course, has gone to its own language: Starbucks’ “Mild” is by traditional standards a medium roast and the Starbucks “Medium” is medium-dark by traditional standards, but “Bold” matches up well with traditional definitions of a dark roast, and “Extra Bold” to traditional standards of an ultra-dark roast.
We have run into at least one roasting company that has tried to jump on the medium-roasting bandwagon without medium roasting. Despite put-downs of Starbucks for dark roasting and proclamations of adherence to the new taste for medium roasting, this company’s coffees (some of them outstanding) continue to come in at a roast color almost exactly the same as Starbucks’ house blend.
But this sort of linguistic waffling may be inevitable, given that many established roasting companies are faced with a substantial consumer base that still prefers darker roast styles, while the trend-setters are heading for the land of light – or at least medium.
It occurred to me again as we were cupping five beautiful single-origin samples from two of the leading new-paradigm roasting companies (call them third wave , fourth wave – whatever wave we’re on now) that some of these exciting, ground-breaking roasting companies may be edging toward, well, too light a roast.
What an irony – even five years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live you – literally – could not buy a medium roast coffee of any distinction, aside from a few selections at Whole Foods Markets. You could of course buy dark roasts, good ones. And you could buy even darker roasts – some of which were good – and you could buy a whole lot of really dark roasts, most of which were not good at all.
But it almost seems as though some of the new paradigm roasters are doing the same thing the dark roasters did, but in reverse. Perhaps they are allowing their roasts to creep lighter as their palates grow accustomed to the lighter style. When the trier is hopping and they are at the edge of doubt, perhaps they get in the habit of erring on the light side rather than on the dark.
At any rate, getting back to these five splendid coffees (none from a San Francisco Bay Area roaster by the way): The green coffees were so fine, so distinctive in character, that light-roasted, medium roasted, or almost any roasted except French they would impress and attract a high rating.
Nevertheless, I had the feeling that at least two of them would have shown better at a just slightly darker roast. By slightly darker, I mean slightly – just enough to round and consolidate the flavors a bit more and eliminate any grassy edge to the flowers or grainy edge to the sweetness.
They still were terrific coffees just as they were – all the fresh, honeyish sweetness and complex aromatics intact. But I wonder whether they would have been even more exciting had the roaster hovered over the trier just a few seconds longer.
Portland, my home town, is a great place to drink just about anything. We have outstanding local craft beers, micro-distillers, world-class pinot noir from nearby Willamette Valley, and, yes, some amazing coffee roasters and coffee shops. Stumptown, Portland Roasting, and Kobos come to mind. If you’re looking for a place to grab a quality cup, both Stumptown and Kobos coffee shops will deliver.
However, if you want try something new, in one case, and different in the other, try Barista, in the Pearl neighborhood, and Anna Banana’s on NW 21st. Anna Banana’s is quirky (they’re open EVERY day and have been since sometime in the 1900′s) and hip (in a Portland no-umbrella-in-the-rain, wool-hat-in-summer sort of way). Democrats and Independents will enjoy it more than Republicans, for sure. They serve Cafe D’Arte coffee, from Washington, but it’s excellent coffee nonetheless.
Billy Wilson, founder of Barista, has won numerous awards in international barista competitions. So, it’s not surprising that there is quite a bit of local hype about his cafe in the Pearl, a new, upscale urban neighborhood in Portland. Some people claim the coffee doesn’t live up to the hype. That might be true but the coffees and preparation are outstanding. Billy and his staff are friendly and helpful, and not because I’m one of the founders of the Coffee Review. They either don’t know or don’t care. It’s all about the coffee.