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A Gentler Java: The Lighter Side of Dark-Roast Coffee

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Millions of Americans begin each morning with a cup of coffee. Some people are coffee connoisseurs, obsessing over the origin of the bean and the method of brewing while shunning any additives that would adulterate the natural flavor; other people just grab whatever’s available and dump in loads of milk and sugar. 


Besides the bean itself, the biggest factors that influence coffee’s flavor, color, and chemical makeup are how it’s roasted, for how long, and at what temperature. Roasting can bring out certain flavors while removing others. It can alter the caffeine content and even change how the coffee affects sensitive stomachs. Contrary to most people’s perception, thick, black coffee isn’t the strongest or most bracing brew. In fact, it may be the kindest, gentlest choice of all. 


The Bean Basics
All coffee beans start out green. The roasting process imparts the burnished brown color we all recognize, and it also affects the finished characteristics of the coffee. In general, the less a coffee bean is roasted, the more that bean’s natural flavors will shine through—both the good flavors and the bad ones, which can include bitter, sour, or acidic tastes. Dark roasting covers up the not-so-desirable elements of the bean, but in eliminating the undesirable tastes, it also burns away the chemicals that impart the delicious flavors particular to the bean’s region, soil, and growing climate—the ones that coffee lovers prize so much. 


Dark-roast coffee (sometimes called French, Italian, or Viennese roast) is by far the most popular type sold today, owing to the quality of the beans available for purchase. The coffee industry is large, and huge coffee companies generally offer coffee of a much lower quality (the kind available in tins at the supermarket) than what’s available at specialty shops or coffee bars. The manufacturers make up for the inadequacy of their beans by roasting them longer, eliminating the natural flavors in favor of the taste of traditional dark-roasted coffee: sweet and highly caramelized. Much of the hype over dark-roasted coffee is a mere marketing trick to sell subpar beans. Once a bean has been roasted so much, it can be hard to tell a poor-quality bean from a high-quality one. Imagine two steaks: one a tenderloin of Kobe beef, and one a lump of tough shank. If both were cooked beyond well-done, it would be hard to tell the difference between them. 


Foiling the Java Jitters
The rise of dark-roast coffee may be a marketing ploy, but there’s evidence that for those people who love the taste of coffee but want to cut down on caffeine consumption, a dark roast is the way to go. 


The biggest predictor of a finished coffee’s caffeine content is, of course, the bean itself. High-quality Arabica beans usually used in artisanal or specialty coffees generally have less caffeine than Robusta beans, often used in mass-market coffee. Another factor that determines caffeine content is the brewing process: coffee that spends more time in contact with the ground beans has more caffeine than coffee that’s brewed quickly. Because a shot of espresso is usually pulled more quickly than a cup of coffee that’s drip-brewed, the drip coffee can actually have more caffeine. 


Roasting affects the caffeine level because a small amount of the caffeine is burned off during the process. It’s not a significant amount, because the boiling point of caffeine is about six hundred degrees Fahrenheit—far above the 470 degrees usually used for roasting coffee. Coffee beans expand as they roast, but they also lose weight, mostly due to water and other chemicals evaporating. In the finished product, there is less caffeine by volume. 


Go Dark to Lighten Up
Mounting research also suggests that dark coffee is easier on the stomach. According to a study presented at the March 2010 conference of the American Chemical Society, the longer a coffee bean roasts, the more it develops a specific chemical compound, called N-methylpyridinium (NMP). When the researchers exposed cultured stomach cells to coffee made from green beans, light-roasted beans, and dark-roasted beans, the dark-roast coffee caused the stomach cells to release smaller amounts of acid than the other two types. The dark-roast coffee contained more than thirty milligrams per liter of NMP, compared with the twenty-two milligrams per liter in light-roast coffee. 


The researchers also tested coffee made from beans that had been steamed, a process that many manufacturers claim reduces coffee’s stomach-souring power. The steam-treated coffee had the least amount of NMP of all—a mere five milligrams per liter. The researchers didn’t have enough data to understand exactly how NMP works to turn off the acid-producing cells in the stomach lining, but it seemed clear that dark-roasted coffee with NMP was the gentlest brew by far. The researchers expressed hope that their findings would someday help lead to the development of coffee beans with higher levels of NMP, which would make the dream of drinking coffee a reality for those with sensitive stomachs. 


After so many years of companies’ marketing it as a bold, flavorful choice, dark-roast coffee is among the most popular styles, but the adventurous (or strong of stomach) should consider a venture into the world of light-roast coffee, where the differences between a Tanzania Peaberry and a Jamaican Blue Mountain become obvious instantly. Not all dark-roast coffees are of poor quality, but in general, the more lightly a bean is roasted, the more confidence the roaster is showing in the bean’s quality and taste. A good roaster knows which beans belong with which roast, and tries to treat each to bring out the fullest expression of its taste. 


Even though dark roasting is often used to cover up subpar beans, dark-roast isn’t always the unsophisticated choice. It is, after all, the roasting method for exotic beans like Marrakech blend, New Orleans chicory, and Sumatra Black Satin. But whether you start your morning with Folgers Instant, Starbucks, or a boutique coffee brand, all that matters is that you’re happy with the taste—and that your tummy is happy, too.

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