Why Do the Blonde Roasts Catch Our Eyes & Hearts?
“Blonde roast” is how Starbucks decided to brand its lighter roast coffee when it first emerged into their stores sometime around 2012. In regards to Blonde Roasts, the first I found of the “lighter” roast was in an article in The Seattle Times, from the city where it all began. On January 10, 2012, Rebekah Denn wrote: “Starbucks, so identified with dark-roasted coffee that haters call it ‘Charbucks’ is brewing up a new category of coffee. Starting today, look for milder ‘Blonde Roasts’ brewed coffee in all U.S. stores.”
The trend toward this milder roast may have actually started with Starbucks’ efforts to appeal to a much pickier European clientele. In March of 2012, The New York Times wrote about the company’s efforts to appeal to the café culture in places like Paris and London where customers either wanted more places to sit, stronger coffee (this report claims that baristas in one European shop were throwing in free espresso shots for European customers that found Starbucks lattes too watery), or generally better tasting coffee. Another NYT article from 2008 showed foreigners that were much less forgiving of the Starbucks brand; according to Finn-Olaf Jones, in Australia “the very mention of the name Starbucks is greeted with horror.”
During their efforts for brand success throughout Europe, the company not only embraced the café culture, taking their stores from coffee-to-go to what we’ve come to know and expect as far as seating and Wi-Fi, they also pursued flavors that would be more acceptable to these particular palates. Even though Europeans, especially the French, preferred espresso to drip coffee or the Americano, Starbucks’ espresso was too charred, leading to a “blonde” espresso being added in the Parisian market in early 2012. It was likely a universal strategy for the company to appeal to its customers worldwide that brought us the “blonde,” which is their signature light roast and which has entered the colloquial vernacular to represent lighter roast coffee.
The Arabica VS Robusta Coffee Bean Showdown
Before this Starbucks, like many mass-production coffee companies sought reliability in uniformity with their roasts; a darker roasted coffee tends to be less dynamic and more predictable. That’s how you build a brand that customers trust even if the product is “charred” or “horrifying.” Darker roasts also help to hide any potential flaws in a bean batch. Another typical reason to roast more darkly is because of the use of Robusta beans. Robusta is one of the two main family lines of coffee with the other being Arabica. Robusta tends to have a much higher caffeine content, often quoted as at least twice that of most Arabica beans, and this makes the beans stronger and more bitter in taste.
It ‘s hard to nail down whether or not Starbucks uses Robusta beans. The company has been insisting for years that they use only Arabica beans, 100% of the time. Some tests seem to reveal a caffeine content that would seemingly contradict this, with one tester claiming that the beans he tested had twice as much caffeine as a normal Arabica blend, which would indicate Robusta content. That being said, a report from Bloomberg News along with all official
Starbucks information states that the company only uses Arabica. This means that their tendency toward darker roast more likely comes from a combination of tradition and the desire for uniformity.
It is true that many raised on “old-school” coffee prefer a coffee that tastes hearty even if it isn’t actually strong. That’s why instant coffees (which tend to use at least some Robusta) and Starbucks’ darker roasting remains popular, at least stateside, with even their blonde roast meeting standards closer to a medium roast by most expert accounts.
High-Quality Small Batch Beans in Blonde Roasts
With Blonde Roasts and light coffee, it is, truly a light coffee in terms of color and texture, This term likely started to be defined in tandem with the specialty coffee trend; most accounts agree that Erna Knutsen was the first to use the phrase specialty coffee in 1974 when referring to high quality, small batch beans she sold to small roasting operations. The Specialty Coffee Association of America was established in 1985 and began producing standards for roasting, processing and defining coffee. These days, the specialty coffee industry is in large part defined by its focus on lighter roasts, which allow for more dynamic and unique flavor profiles and especially elevate the uniqueness of single-origins or specially tailored blends.
Light Roast Expectations of Blonde Roasts
There are not strict industry standards for roasting, as illustrated by Starbucks and other brands deviation from light roast expectations; but, there are some general common practices for achieving a light roast. The end result tends to be a lighter brown in color with no oil on the surface and more mass than medium and darker roasts. Light roasts are more acidic and tend to have more dynamic flavor profiles, retaining the natural flavors of its origin as well as much of the bean’s natural caffeine content. To obtain a light roast, the beans are most likely roasted to an internal temperature between 350 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit, just before the first “pop” or “crack” would be heard; this noise represents an internal expansion and signals the move from light roast toward a more medium one.
The Dynamism & Flavor Diversity of A Light Roast
The idea of light roasts having higher quality really depends on the consumer. Specialty coffee shops, particularly those featuring single-origin or pour-over coffees, prefer the dynamism and flavor diversity that a light roast can obtain. Many consumers, however, prefer a coffee-tasting coffee or the more balanced, familiar flavor of a medium or dark roast. Truly, the difference in caffeine content may not be enough to make much of a difference between light, medium and dark roasts. And, with the increased focus on roasting as an artisanal process or a craft, even dark roasts can turn out to have compelling, delightful flavor profiles in the right circumstances. When it comes down to it, it’s all about preference; tell us, what’s yours?