Kona Roasta Reality Check

by Ari LeVaux

Photo by Michael Allen Smith@INeedCoffee
Photo by Michael Allen Smith@INeedCoffee

The Kona Coast of Hawaii grows some of the finest coffee on earth. The trees, along with orchards of citrus, tropical fruit and macadamia nuts, have helped bring forest cover to what had been a barren lava-scape, and turned the Big Island’s west coast into an edible forest paradise, with a view. Even the wild animals, like chickens and pigs, are edible. Coffee tourists, meanwhile, drive through this paradise from plantation to plantation, like wine enthusiasts do in Napa, paying upwards of $30 a pound. 

Alas, this Eden is burning. The smell of blackened toast hovers around the roasters scattered about the coast. It’s the smell of wonderful coffee beens being charred beyond recognition. Dark roast seems to be the norm in Kona. Medium can be sought out. Asking for light has exposed me to verbal abuse. 

I suppose if you take your coffee with enough cream and sugar you can overpower any amount of burnt bitterness, but when you drink as much coffee as I do, that would be way too much cream and sugar. A light or medium roast, meanwhile, can be sipped all day long. Most importantly, a mellow roast allows me to taste the differences from bean to bean, and to detect more notes in the flavor. The same is true with bread, meat, or anything else that can be burned. I like just a note of that burnt flavor, not a pounding.  

This light roast thing is hardly a secret. Many of the world’s finest coffees, including those from Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, are lightly roasted, so that their nuance can be cleanly detected and enjoyed. 

One Kona grower not on the blackened bandwagon, Jim Monk of Monk’s Delight coffee company, makes wry commentary on over roasting in his play-by-play of the coffee roasting process.  When it reaches the so-called “French Roast” stage, Monk notes, the body of the resulting cup will be thinner as the aromatic compounds, oils and soluble solids are burned out of the coffee, “...and rising up as really great smelling smoke.”

The great smelling smoke could also be called flavor that is no longer in the bean. And it turns out that more than flavor is roasted away in this process. In the transition between light and dark, caffeine is lost as well. This officially makes light coffee drinkers more caffeinated than dark, but there is, nonetheless, a popular case to be made in favor of dark roast. It was explained to me by Connor McCamant, 17, who recently started Creakin’ Crick coffee company in his parents’ basement in Missoula, Mont. While unabashedly on team light, McCamant was diplomatic in paying his respects to the dark side. 

“There are flavors that come out in darker roasts like nuttiness, coca and bitterness,” he told me via text. “Some specialty roasters prefer coffee that is substantially darker than mine. I assume this makes them seek out beans that have flavors more compatible with that type to roast.”

“I and the people around me don’t enjoy the bitter, less complex, sometimes burnt flavors of a darker bean. And when you focus on the dark flavors it leaves the light ones behind,” McCamant says.  

 “The fruity and acidic flavors are more pronounced on the lighter side of the spectrum; I look for beans that are either fruity or ones I can strike a good balance with between light and dark. I find light roasts are generally more complex and less bitter than beans that have mostly darker flavors. Honestly though what it comes down to is preference.”  

Connor’s dad, who grows fine peaches for a living, texted in a caveat. “Those volatile compounds that we like in the light to medium roasts are gone from the roasted beans after two-to-three weeks. Most coffee bought from a store has already lost those volatile compounds and their flavors.”

Beyond flavor, storage, and the benefits of a small-scale agricultural industry, if we take an honest look at coffee and the roasting process, we should look at the health implications. Because there are certainly some red flags. Of particular concern is the creation of carcinogens by browning, blackening and burning things. 

A lawsuit was recently filed against California coffee growers, alleging violation of California’s Proposition 65, which requires food companies to disclose if their products contain certain chemicals, including acrylamide, which is a byproduct of coffee roasting, among many other culinary processes. 

Toast burning, oven-browning, stir-frying, potato chipping, rotisserie chickening, and many, many other culinary processes all create acrylamide. But coffee, burnt toast, and a handful of other browned and blackened delicacies create the most. Ditto for another class of chemical, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), of which benzo(a)pyrene is the most notorious. But with both acrylamide and all PAHs, repeated attempts to find them in charred foods have yielded non-scary results. A little char is OK. Even 160 times the char of an average diet, a recent study concluded, would be OK based on tumor studies in mice. 

Thus, grill and pan lovers can crank the fire to their hearts’ content, and rejoice in some blackened crisp. Lovers of coffee, burnt or not, may continue to enjoy as well. And perhaps they will be healthier because of it. A recent Consumer Reports article on coffee and health found that--paraphrasing here--the more you drink the longer you live. 

That’s good enough for me, even if it doesn’t answer the question of how dark to roast it. That, as McCamant says, is personal. All I can say is, if you must drink it dark, don’t do it to beans you care about, as Monk observes,  

“Dark roast coffees tend to taste more like each other - as the differences due to distinct origins are obscured by the carbony roast flavors.” 

Along with roasting, Monk has studied most other coffee-related issues. His trees are growing out of what was recently bare lava from a 1950s flow, which he had pulverized with a Caterpillar. 

“Some coffees can be excellent at [a dark roast] stage,” he allows. But Kona, is  “...not one of those.”

So if you want your morning cup to taste like the aftermath of an airstrike, go find some French-roasted beans from South America. But if you want your coffee to have notes of nuts and flowers, try some freshly roasted light or medium beans from a good region, and take a walk on the light side.