In Defense of Dark Roasts
Rabbithole Roasters’ David Lalonde wants specialty coffee to embrace the dark side
In the specialty world, dark roast coffee has, it’s fair to say, an unfavourable reputation. At best it’s considered old-school, a holdover from the first and second waves; at worst like it’s trying to hide something. And at one stage it was trying to hide something—roasting coffee to an oily, charcoal-flavoured husk was a way to mask the poor quality or stale beans that big companies were selling. At some point, this became the accepted standard.
Eventually, the third wave came along and brought with it ever-lighter roasts, epitomised by the popularity of the Nordic style in the 2000s. Roasting lighter brings out and accentuates a coffee’s inherent qualities instead of masking its weaknesses, which pairs well with specialty’s drive to highlight the coffee’s origin and processing.
The problem with roasting lighter and lighter is that the majority of coffee drinkers aren’t used to it—it doesn’t taste like coffee in the traditional sense. That, combined with the perceived—or sometimes actual—snootiness of specialty coffee, can put off many people.
But as the specialty coffee world reckons with the next stage in its development, if it wants to expand and grow beyond its current limits, it will need to win these more mainstream consumers over. That’s where specialty dark roast comes in.
Thanks for reading The Pourover! Subscribe for free to receive new articles every two weeks
“It’s time to reach more people,” says David Lalonde, co-founder of Quebec-based Rabbithole Roasters. “You've got traditional drinkers that have the budget to buy coffee that's more expensive, but they still like dark coffee, so why not include them in that?”
I first heard from Lalonde when I asked for his input on my recent article about coffee’s fourth wave. Although it didn’t make it into the piece, he mentioned dark roasts a couple of times as ways that specialty companies could look to expand their customer base.
Many specialty coffee companies sell dark roasts, of course—especially in the United States where tastes have typically skewed darker. And in 2022, roasting dark doesn’t have to mean covering up flaws—more developed coffee generally has more sweetness and a heavier body, and those are characteristics that many customers are looking for.
Offering dark roasts, as Lalonde sees it, is a way to broaden the pool of potential customers who might like the idea of specialty coffee but are put off by the taste of lighter roasts. Maybe it’s someone who’s used to their diner coffee, maybe they like to add cream—why not roast a little darker to attract them? “I’m not here to judge people’s taste,” Lalonde says. “You want to put caramel in there, you want to put a bunch of sugar in there? That’s all fine.”
Dark, Darker, Medium+
Like almost everything else in coffee, roast level and what is considered “dark” is subjective. What does Lalonde mean when he talks about dark roast? His company uses an internal scale of 1-5, with 5 being darkest, to help customers navigate and compare their various offerings.
When talking to specialty coffee drinkers, Lalonde will call a roast darker, or use the term “medium-plus” but to others, it’s just a straight dark roast. “People in specialty coffee really think that I'm doing a dark dark roast,” he says. “But if you put my coffee in a grocery store, for sure my darkest roast would be labelled medium.”
Rabbithole offers several different roast levels, and in some cases even roasts the same coffee light and dark—that way customers who want to try their Ethiopia Shoondisa, for example, have different versions to choose from based on their preferences.
Lalonde is pretty open about his reasons for promoting darker roast profiles. “For me as a business owner, it’s two-fold,” he says. “Increasing the amount of specialty coffee that I can buy from small producers—if I do dark roast and then my business grows 20% I can buy 20% more greens. But it also helps me as an individual to just pay the bills and things like that.”
He also takes issue with how specialty coffee views roast levels. According to Lalonde, the way that quality is assessed in specialty coffee, the way a coffee is judged and scored, favours light-roasted beans. The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) cupping form, or grid as he calls it, tries to assess a coffee’s acidity, body, aftertaste, and so on. “There are so many points where acidity and bitterness is going to make the coffee unbalanced,” Lalonde says, “so every time the coffee is a bit too dark, you're gonna lose a lot of points.”
“I was a Q Grader for years, and if you gave me the Shoondisa dark, using just the SCA grid I would probably grade it at 86 points, very solid. But if I used the grid the way I was taught, if I wanted to be calibrated with my fellow Q graders, I would have to grade it 82 points. So how can you justify it if your tasting grid, with the exact same beans but different roast profiles, is going to score four points apart?”
Using only taste to define what counts as specialty coffee is, to Lalonde, inherently flawed. There’s so much else that goes into a coffee that doesn’t fit on a cupping form. “A tasting grid should take into account how much you paid, what was the local price, how many harvests in a row have you bought the same coffee from the same producer because it means you brought them stability. All of this should be taken into account when you grade a coffee.”
More roasters are starting to embrace darker coffees, or at least being open and accepting of those who prefer them. Taste is subjective, in the end, and as long as producers are being paid fairly and the coffee still tastes good, roasters shouldn’t be ashamed to expand their offerings.
As Lalonde puts it, “If I sell more coffee to people who want a dark roast, and I do dark specialty, ultimately it's good for the farmers.”