The deep, dark rabbit hole of roast profiles

1. There’s no industry standard to categorise roasting methods.
2. Everyone has different tastes and opinions.
3. We roast our single origins following an ‘omni’ style that suits both filter and espresso brewing (the latter brews best with a 1:3 extraction ratio).
4. Our blends are specifically roasted for espresso (we recommend 1:2).
5. Our current decaf is roasted in the darker side of the omni spectrum.

A diagram showing how Sample Coffee’s roast styles sit within the light-to-dark spectrum. Single origins sit in the middle but closer to the left (light) side. Blends sit on the right (dark) side.

“What roast profile is your coffee: light, medium or dark?”
“Are your single origins roasted for filter, espresso or both?" 
"What does ‘omni roast' mean!?”

Even if our cafe shelves and website have the answer to these questions, we get them in our inbox every so often. Sometimes, it’s from potential customers searching for new beans or roasters. Other times, it’s from regular Sample Coffee brewers starting to dig deeper into the nerdy world of coffee and want to know more about what they’re drinking.

Face-to-face, it’s easy for us to explain the basics and essential nuances. It’s tricky to do via email, though. Writing well and quickly feels as challenging as (or more than) roasting great coffee, so our template answer tends to be something like this: 

“We roast our singles using a single profile that suits both filter and espresso brewing (this style is called omni roasting); they’re 'designed’ to taste best when drinking them black. Our blends are specifically roasted to be brewed as espresso; they are delicious with m*lk.”

Lately, I’ve felt these couple of lines don’t do justice to the complexity of roasting and fail to convey why and how we do it. So, after over 20 years behind the roaster—half of those with Sample Coffee—it’s time to put my thoughts about the ‘deep, dark rabbit hole of roast profiles’ in proper writing. Bear with me.

Sir John Tenniel, 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The information era

In the last decade, how we brew coffee in shops and at home has immensely improved thanks to increased access to two elements: knowledge (via the internet and social media) and advanced equipment—at origin, roasteries, cafes and homebrewing stations. Quality has increased in every area, and it’s relatively easy to experience an extensive range of flavours and sensations. It is a great time to be a coffee drinker!

As customers’ senses develop, they start noticing the qualities they enjoy and those they’d rather not taste. When ordering the next brew or bag of beans, they’ll look for specific parameters suggestive of a coffee that matches their taste: origin, varietal, fermentation process, flavour suggestions, and, you guessed it right, roast style/profile/level.

Roast style/level/profile are just opinions

Over the years, the industry has tried to communicate different approaches to coffee roasting through categories and labels. For example, based on provenance (French, City/New York, Turkish, Nordic), roasted bean colour (light, medium, dark) or target brewing method (filter, espresso, omni/allrounder).

The challenge is that none of those are defined by measurable and agreed-upon metrics (despite attempts to do so). Our current categories and labels are fair approximations but, nevertheless, a subjective call, an opinion: what someone calls ‘medium roast’ may be ‘light’ for another, and so on. Today, an industry standard that organises the numerous coffee roasting styles does not exist.

Each roaster must express their philosophy (What do they want their coffees to feel like? What’s the mission?) and approach (How do they achieve it in practice? How does the mission materialise?) using their own sensory awareness and communication skills.

Reuben and Rowan having a chat while roasting on our Loring Kestrel S35.

Our philosophy: here to enjoy each cup

I believe coffee taste is subjective; one person’s love can be another’s disdain. This is why there is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to roasting or brewing; the ultimate goal is to enjoy each cup.

This is what drives our roasting philosophy at Sample Coffee. We don’t follow labels, lingo or hype. We roast only the coffee we love drinking every single day (we’re our first customers), without cutting corners. We’ll find a community of drinkers and brewers who respect, share and enjoy our approach.

Our approach: pursuing clarity of flavour

We want our single origins to highlight (as much as possible) the inherent characteristics of each coffee lot—this is generally known as transparency or clarity of flavour. Those qualities are determined mainly by terroir, varietal, fermentation method and production process followed by each producer.  

To achieve this, we design our own roasting protocols (we define the duration and temperature ranges) that will deliver those characteristics according to our experience and testing over the years. These protocols sit in the middle of the light/filter and dark/espresso roast spectrum, closer to the first. We target a balance between acidity/brightness and sweetness/full body (according to our preference and palate), always with enough development to avoid green-grassy flavours.

Those metrics may be slightly adjusted depending on the bean characteristics (size, density, age, etc.), but the philosophy and approach are the same for every lot.

A diagram showing how Sample Coffee’s roast styles sit within the light-to-dark spectrum. Single origins sit in the middle but closer to the left (light) side. Blends sit on the right (dark) side.

Roasting styles based on target brewing method.

Unlike other roasters, we don’t use separate roasting protocols for filter and espresso. We follow ‘just’ the one style described above, which (in our opinion) suits multiple brewing methods—an approach known as ‘omni roast’. It can be tricky to get it spot on, but this is how we like it.

Omni-: a combining form meaning “all" or "everywhere" used in the formation of compound words. (Collins Dictionary)

Because our omni roast sits closer to the ‘filter’ end of the spectrum, we do recommend any particular adjustments or parameters for brewing our single origins as such. Following your filter standard/favourite recipe will generally result in a delicious cup. → View all our filter brew guides.

However, when making espresso, we recommend an in:out ratio of at least 1:3 (i.e. 20g of ground coffee in, +60g of yield out). → View our espresso (single origin) brew guide.

Why omni? Is it for practical reasons? While omni roasting clearly has some logistic advantages, especially for small-scale roasters and coffee shops, we do it because we love how our coffee tastes—both brewed as filter and espresso—when roasted this way and brewed well.

What about blends? We expect our blends to be brewed as espresso and drunk with m*lk. We want them to taste rich and sweet but not bitter or ashy. Our blend roasting style could be considered a espresso roast but is lighter than the average industry standard. We recommend brewing using a minimum in:out ratio of at least 1:2. → View our espresso (blend) brew guide.

How about decaf? The decaffeination process changes the green coffee beans’ density and porosity. This impacts how the heat transfers during the roasting process, and speeds the rate in which oils migrate to the outer surface/oxygen seeps into the core of the roasted bean post-roast. (And the more oxygen contact, the faster coffee gets stale and old.)

These crucial behaviour differences need to be considered when tackling decaf coffee.

We currently offer only one decaf single origin, Colombia La Serrania, which is roasted on the darker side of the omni spectrum (some could even say it’s a very light espresso). We originally designed this profile with the expectation that it would by mostly brewed as espresso and had with milk, but the reason it’s so lightly roasted is to extend its life (already compromised by the decaffeination process) as much as possible.

We and some customers also brew it happily as filter.

Having said this, as demand grows, we’re currently considering offering decaf as espresso and filter roasts. This way, those who buy filter can get a coffee that lasts for longer and not impacted by a darker roast.

(By the way, we recommend watching James Hoffmann’s Decaf Explained with lots of great insights about history, science and practice.)

The bottom line

Aside from understanding how we approach roasting at Sample Coffee, these would be the key ideas I wish everyone would take from this article:

  1. Don’t get too caught up in labels before making up your mind about a coffee or roaster. Use descriptions as a guide, but ultimately, let your palate be the judge; a sip is better than 1000 words!
  2. This is just my view, and others may (and probably will) think differently; this is a very subjective and hot topic. As I warned you in the title, the world of roast profiles is a deep, dark rabbit hole!

Reuben Mardan
Founder of Sample Coffee

Edit 15/05/2024: Updated TL;DR and graph to add information about decaf. Added sections "Why omni? Is it for practical reasons?” and “How about decaf?”.

Tags: roasting, about us


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