We get this question a lot: Do light roasts have more caffeine than dark roasts?
There’s so much misinformation out there, folks are never quite sure what’s true and what’s not. In fact, I often hear people order light roast coffee because they believe it’ll promise more of that boost. But are they right about that?
Let’s look at the science of roasting and see if this checks out—or if it’s just an urban coffee myth.
During the roasting process, we take raw (green) coffee from room temperature and modulate the flavor and profiles of the bean over 9–14 minutes. We typically crank up the temperature hotter than 400 degrees Fahrenheit while we’re at it.
Closeup of our tried and true 5kg US Roaster Corps. You'll find this guy at our Roasting Annex.
The beans’ color changes quite a bit, from green to yellow to light brown to deep brown to black. The flavors also change via maillard and Strecker reactions (really cool and complex non-enzymatic reactions that I won’t spend much time on here, but if you want to learn more, I suggest checking this TED video about chocolate chip cookieschange at different temperatures.) One thing we fail to look at (or adequately explain) is what happens to the caffeine inside of the coffee bean.
Do you know why coffee has caffeine? It’s a feature that was naturally selected over the years. We obviously know that caffeine is a stimulant. The plant uses this to defend itself from many different pests. The caffeine overstimulates the bugs, paralyzing them, and preventing them from further damaging the plant (pretty ‘effin cool defense mechanism, if you ask me!).
So, we know that caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant. We also know that caffeine does not begin to degrade until around 455 degrees Fahrenheit (e.g., it’s stable and not breaking apart). For example, Mission Coffee’s darkest roasts are lucky to get up to 430 degrees Fahrenheit. Logic would tell us that the bean often does not get up to a high enough temperature to cause the caffeine to degrade. So, if you had a light roast bean and a dark roasted bean of the same coffee, per volume, it would likely have a comparable amount of caffeine, right?
A finished roast cooling off in the cooling tray of our 5kg US Roaster. Coffee displayed here is a light roast, as seen by intact cellulose center and light brown coloration.
Caffeine content is actually correlated to coffee varieties (each plant will have a slightly different level of the chemical). Most coffees, whether they’re light or dark roasts, actually have the same amount of caffeine.
So, what is actually dissolvable in a coffee? And does it change from a light roast to a dark roast?
Well, does burnt toast taste different than perfectly golden toast? (Yes). Can you get the same nutritional value from each? (Maybe? I’m not a scientist.) It seems likely and logical that dark roasts are slightly less soluble (there’s much less stuff to dissolve; less flavors, things have degraded and changed, etc.). But, one thing that doesn’t change at these roast levels is caffeine.
While a light roast bean and dark roast bean may have the same amount of caffeine, when you look at the finished brew, there may be negligible smidgen more caffeine in a dark roast simply because there’s less of other stuff in there.
If you want to get even deeper into this topic, I recommend checking out this article on Daily Coffee News. You’ll have all the roast-related details you need.
Turns out, there’s no real difference if you’re drinking a dark roast or light roast. You’re likely to get a nice dose of caffeine from both. But, if you want to have a drink with slightly less caffeine, look for coffee beverages with a lower CONCENTRATION of coffee to water. (There’s a lot more coffee per ounce in espresso than cold brew; more in cold brew than drip).
Next time you’re standing in line at Mission Coffee Co., know that, light or dark roast, you’ll get that much-needed caffeine boost either way!
We get excited when we source coffees from remote or widely unknown countries or regions. Yes, coffees from Sidamo, Nyeri, and Antigua are certainly delicious. But, when you’re able to focus on new and lesser-known frontiers, you can find amazing producers that aren’t as well represented in the coffee market. In fact, many of them don’t have the same access to sell their coffee as other well-known regions. Because we’re a small team, we can’t travel to all these places (yet). So, it’s up to us to align with importers who want to explore these frontiers as well, and, more importantly, do it in a way that’s sustainable to the coffee farmers with whom they work.
This is what happened when we tasted a set of Peruvian coffees from Red Fox Importers a few months ago. I knew they were working in Peru, and I knew I wanted to highlight a coffee from this country. Peru has made immense strides in quality over the past five years. And Peru is less well known than coffee giants like Colombia, Brazil, and Ethiopia. That said, they have some amazing terroir for growing coffee. One thing that has kept them out of the spotlight is their accessibility; particularly their road infrastructure, especially in the most remote regions. The Andes are not the friendliest places to drive— and it takes a staggering 24 hours to drive from the capitol of Lima all the way to the southeastern remote Sandia Province, the area where our favorite coffee was from.
One of the small farm producers who deliver to the Inambari Cooperative. This is a typical solar (greenhouse) style dryer. (Photo credit: Red Fox Coffee Importers
Thinking back on a few of the other coffees that we’ve recently released, you might remember us talking about market accessibility. If a coffee farmer doesn’t personally have the relationship or resources to get their coffee exposed to the specialty world, they’re often dependent on local cooperatives or exporters to do that work for them. These cooperatives often comingle coffee from many small farmers and group it together into similar profile lots. This gives the cooperative larger lots of coffee, which tend to be more appealing to higher-volume buyers. These cooperatives also yield a bit more support in getting certifications like Fair Trade or Organic, which do add on small, yet significant, premiums to small-holder farmers.
Washed parchment coffee drying on platforms inside of a solar drier. Notice how the ends are open...this allows for excellent ventilation. It takes longer for this coffee to dry, but slow drying = better tasting coffee. (Photo credit: Red Fox Coffee Importers)
But farmers lose a bit of autonomy when they do this. The coffee is no longer “their coffee.” It’s a blend, either of a neighborhood, town, region, or state. This has often been the case with remote Peruvian farmers. It’s also been fair to say that folks aren’t pounding down Peru’s door when it comes to their coffee offerings. They’re often overlooked, and their coffee goes into blends that are less special (and fetch lower premiums) on the market.
Enter the team from Red Fox, who has been personally invested in Peru since 2007. Back then, they had the opportunity to cup coffees from the Sandia Valley, and realized that this flavor profile was unique. These coffees drank with beautiful florals and sweetness. After cupping, they were driven to figure out why. That led them to several small cooperatives in the region, one of which this coffee comes from.
Enter: the Inambari Cooperative, a small cooperative that represents farmers that have an average of 2.5 hectares of coffee land. In terms that I think we can more easily grasp, that’s equal to about 4.75 football fields worth of land. And with regard to farming, that’s not really a lot. Plus, when you’re talking farming in the mountains, that’s even crazier. A farmer that remote, and that small, is dependent on a cooperative to make connections happen.
So, what makes the coffee of the Sandia Valley so special? Back in the 1980’s, the UN led a replanting of the region, which brought many desirable/boutique varieties into the region—particularly the Bourbon (which we know well from both Africa and other Central America countries). While not the easiest plant to cultivate, the quality from the Bourbon typically yields chocolate, cherry, and floral-like coffees. And that’s exactly what we tasted in this lot.
Once their coffee is dried to the proper moisture, producers deliver their finished parchment coffee dry mill used by the Inambari Cooperative. (Photo credit: Red Fox Coffee Importers)
This lot from the Inambari Cooperative is a fully washed Caturra and Bourbon mix. The coffee is fully washed (a process where the coffee pulped, fermented, and then remnant fruit washed off) and dried on patios and parabolic (greenhouse-style) solar driers. In the brew, we taste a sweet and fruity body that’s suggestive of a vibrant cocoa and sweet grape jelly. The acidity on this coffee is clean, bright, and malic. It will finish with sweet fruit and florals, reminiscent of chamomile.
If you’ve never had a coffee from Peru before, this is a good place to start. Or even if you’re familiar with Peruvian coffees, we suggest you try this one out. It’ll change the way you think about coffees from this country.
Today I’d like to explore a little bit about organic coffee, and posit a reply to folks who say, “I only drink organic coffee.” I know you’re out there, and I know that you care an awful lot about being organic, sustainable, and socially responsible. And I personally respect, and agree with, those tenets. We should try to farm coffee without using artificial or synthetic chemicals. It should be our goal to support sustainable farming. And we should try our best to be socially responsible; to choose products from farms and roasters who support these ideals.
That said, I think we often conflate these ideas, and assume that if something is organic, it must be sustainable. I would argue that, in coffee, this just isn’t the case. Sustainable farming needs to be our primary focus and is more desirable than producing a purely organic product.
First, I would argue that most coffee farmers actually want to farm, and are typically organic farmers. They’re often far out in the forests, miles and miles away from the city. Know the easiest way to create fertilizer? Composting organic material found on the farm (sourced from plants or animals). And I’ve seen many farmers invest in ways to improve their fertilization process. Some have even gone to great lengths to use organic methods (e.g., farming parasitic wasps to combat beetles that attack the plant to cultivating parasitic fungi that consume disease-causing illnesses). One thing that most of these farms have in common is they had a solid existing infrastructure, and, through that, had cash that they could invest back into their farms. But that just isn’t the case for many small farmers. When someone’s struggling to earn enough to feed their family, it’s really not fair for to ask why they didn’t organically farm.
Similarly, the easiest way to maintain coffee farms is by hand. This is often well and good, but there are times when coffee farms “get sick.” The best example of this was an outbreak of coffee rust in Central America. Rust often spreads due to no fault of a coffee farmer. It can literally blow into a farm with the wind. The latest strain of rust recorded has mutated so that it’s immune to organic fungicides. I saw farmers who wanted to keep their farm organic (because they got a premium) lose their entire farm. It was heartbreaking to see the barren trees and the farmers giving up.
I saw others who chose to use the fungicide, knowing that, in the short term, they wouldn’t be able to sell their crop as “organic.” But in the long term, it was more sustainable (AND necessary) to support their family and livelihood. Believe me, small-holder coffee farmers aren’t chomping at the bit to spray their farm down with chemicals; they’re expensive, and often the supply doesn’t match demand. But sometimes, you need to make a hard decision and do it.
Many of these coffee tree diseases are analogous to common disease we see in humans. If you’re healthy, you can often resist illness. And, if you’re healthy and have access to the right foods/diet/money, you could potentially try to combat it organically. Sometimes, it’s just necessary to treat the problem. For example, you wouldn’t want to “tough out” meningitis.
An organic farm that I visited in Nicaragua back in 2015. As you can see, these coffee trees have no leaves and a heavy parasitic moss growing over them. In this case, with low market conditions, even being organic, it wasn't sustainable to grow coffee here.
That said, farming also has a problem with being too systemically dependent on chemicals and selective farming. A large part of the reason we see diseases swing through coffee regions like this is due to over-dependency on chemicals. And, if the market changes (e.g., your product is suddenly worth a lot less) the plants haven’t built up a natural resistance to disease without these chemicals. Because they're no longer affordable, well, it’s likely to fail.
Another problem with lack of resistance has nothing to do with chemicals, but more so with the demands of consumers. We often crave and demand high-quality coffee (e.g., specialty). For many years, farms have selected varieties of coffee that have yielded high cupping scores, in terms of quality. But, with high quality comes more demand, and most of these boutique varieties are surprisingly fragile plants. If there’s mono-culture on a farm, and a disease rips through it that affects that particular variety, that puts a farmer in a really difficult position.
Certification is another problem that I have with “organic” coffees. Yes, it’s cool, and farmers can get a premium for having their coffee certified as organic. But, did you know that every single country has a different “organic” standard. So, if a coffee farmer wants to be organic and sell coffee to the U.S., Canada, England, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, they’ll need to get certified with each one. And that costs money small farms just often don’t have. Larger farms with a lot of infrastructure and investment capital could potentially get a small premium for “organic” quality. But standards vary from country to country. So, if we collaborate with a producer who is certified organic in England, I can’t legitimately promote their coffee as USDA organic (the organization who oversees certification in the U.S.).
The same problem lies with Fair Trade coffees, but I won’t digress there in this blog.
Finally, I would argue that organic certification really has no bearing on the overall quality of the coffee, and that if you reward “organic” instead of rewarding “quality,” you’re focusing on the wrong ideal. It’s kind of a bummer when we’re tasting coffees: often “organic” certified coffees cup lower than their “non-organic” counterparts. Their premium is coming on the fact that it’s organic, not on because of quality. On the other side, suppose that we’re blind tasting 10 coffees, and that the person setting up our table placed two organic samples on the table, equal in quality to the others. If you asked me to choose which one was organic, I’d probably lose every time. The reason the quality coffees taste good is not because they’re organic, but because farmers had the resources and ability to fertilize, grow, groom, pick, process, dry, and sell their coffee in a sustainable way. And, a few of these just happened to be organic.
Drying beds at AGRIVID, a small cooperative of farmers in Tarrazu, Costa Rica. They are one of the first organic micromills in the region. But they were able to be organic because they previously focused on improving quality and infrastructure.
If it’s important to you (for health or lifestyle reasons), then I am fully in support of your mission to find the perfect organic cup. But, if you’re doing it to support sustainability, I recommend focusing on the transparency of the roaster and know that if they’re charging you a little more than the grocery store “organic” brand does, it’s likely they paid the producer more for that coffee. Many small roasters make it their mission to understand the farmer’s cost of production and pay a price reflective of that.
That’s our mission: we truly care about where our coffee comes from, and that our coffees will be here today, tomorrow, and years to come.
We often get asked, how do you meet the coffee producers that you work with? It might sound like such a hard task with producers living thousands of miles away, but in the age of technology and social media, we are actually very closely connected. But it starts with who you know.
Finca El Crucero
At Mission Coffee Co., we were introduced to our friend Herbert, a coffee farmer and representative of a small cooperative called La Real Expedición Botánica (which we will call La REB), by Brandon, our Lead Roaster. The two of them had met in Florida and tried to start a coffee relationship there but could never get the timing right. They kept in touch, and when we had the chance to cup from La REB late last year (Thanksgiving Day, actually!) we jumped at the opportunity.
So, how do you get noticed in a sea of other coffee producers? Well, you could get lucky and (if you have enough money to afford it) send a coffee to Cup of Excellence, win, and receive recognition and awareness that way. This is unfortunately the exception, not the rule. Another way to build awareness is to build relationships directly with roasters, which obviously takes time, money, and resources that most Colombian farmers don’t have. In fact, a 2012 survey of Colombian farmers found that over a third of those polled had some sort of off-farm income; almost all had to diversify their farming; only 17% were considered “coffee specialists.”
It’s hard to get noticed and to build a relationship on your own. If you don’t get lucky, you need to find another way to make those connections. That’s where our connection with La REB comes into play. Unlike a traditional co-operative, La REB combines coffee knowledge, resources, and marketing, and even has some investment from roasters here in the United States. The folks representing La REB (like Herbert) are all coffee farmers working towards improving quality and finding roasters who want to share in this experience. Ana Mustafa, who oversees El Crucero, is part of this group.
Coffee Blossoms at El Crucero.
Just a few years ago, Ana didn’t sell coffee at a specialty grade—she and her family were dependent on prices of the Colombia Federation. Unlike most countries, at least Colombia has an internal federation that dictates a premium above C-Market prices, but it’s still not high enough to make a sustainable wage. When we first cupped this coffee late last year, we were intrigued both by Ana’s story and willingness to experiment. The first lot (that we released in January of 2019) was a “double fermentation,” which is a hybrid of “natural” and “washed” process. Coffee sits in cherry for two days (a la natural process), but then is pulped, fermented, and washed. It was really an amazing coffee (and if you did not get any of that first round, well, you missed out!)
This harvest was a little different. From the money that Ana made from the last harvest, she was able to do more experimentation to improve the quality. We saw that the milling (both wet and dry) were improved (this improves the integrity of the green coffee). Plus, they were able to further dial in what fermentation duration does to the overall profile (ferment at 12 hours, 24, 36, or longer). And, surprise, surprise: with a bit more resources and some guidance from La REB, her quality went up. And higher quality means that roasters are willing to buy at higher prices.
A stunning view of Ana's farm.
This harvest’s Crucero features what’s called a “layered washed” process. This is a result of their experimentation with processing. It blends several different processing durations, and each one adds a bit of complexity to the overall cup profile. This advancement in processing has yielded a familiar, yet slightly cleaner, cup profile. When you sit down and enjoy a cup, you will notice a rich, round cocoa-like body. As it sits on your palate, you get a fruitiness of peach jam and fresh fruits. On the finish, we think you will still get a rum-like aftertaste. This is an amazing coffee that you don’t want to miss. (Order now!)
We’re excited for our continued relationship with Ana, El Crucero, and La REB. We’ve heard plans for more experimentation, more progress, and more improvement. This coffee will only get better with time.
The road to producing specialty coffee is not an easy one. I think many of us assume if we go to our local coffee roaster, they’ll just happen to have amazing coffees. But amazing coffee isn’t just dependent on roasters or branding or hip baristas—it’s the farmers who build sustainable and quality-centric farms. They’re the ones who commit year after year to improving product quality and infrastructure.
Finca El Platanar - Acatenango, Guatemala (Photo: Yepocapa Coffee)
I’m not sure how many of you realize this, but coffee farming is effing hard. There’s no magic formula that drops a bazillion pounds of coffee on grocery store shelves each year. The work is arduous—it’s labor-intensive and a huge investment on all fronts. And, if you make less money than you invest, it’s nearly impossible to create a sustainable business model.
Speaking of hard work and relentless dedication, let’s check out our new relationship coffee from Finca El Platanar in Acatenango, Guatemala.
This farm, like most other farms in the world, grew coffee that was delivered and sold on the open coffee market. At times, selling on the open market can seem beneficial to producers. For example, if the market is high, they can receive a premium for simply delivering average qualities of coffee. If the market is low, however, they’ll receive a much lower price for that same product. That’s what happened back in 2011/2012. In 2011, the market swung dramatically in the producers’ favor, topping out at $3.00/lb. for commodity-quality coffee—a price for most producers that’s well above cost of production. But, by the end of 2013, that same coffee fell to just above $1.00/lb. On top of that, in 2012, a major coffee epidemic swept through Central America called “rust.” This is a fungus that spreads quickly in moist environments and attaches onto the leaves of coffee plants. As it matures, it eventually eats up the plant’s resources, causing the leaves to fall off the tree. Without leaves, plants do not have the power to ripen their coffee cherry. To make matters worse, this rust had mutated from earlier forms, and was resistant to fungicides.
I took this picture while traveling in Nicaragua back in 2014. You can clearly see these tress have been affected by rust due to lack of leaves on the plants.
Think about that. Put yourself in the farmer’s shoes. You were getting $2.00 less for the same product. And to keep the farm in healthy operational status, you also needed to spend more money for pesticides, more fertilizer, and added labor to help clean up the farm.
You can imagine how this caused one of the major breaking points for small holder coffee farmers in Central America in the past ten years. La Roya (Coffee Rust) and low coffee prices forced many producing families to downscale or abandon their coffee growing operations. Many were better off investing in different crops and forgoing the coffee they had grown for generations.
Don Daniel, Farm Manager at El Platanar. (Photo: Yepocapa Coffee)
Enter: Don Daniel, farm manager at Finca El Platanar. When that rust hit in 2012—in tandem with a poor market—they chose to abandon 50 percent of their coffee farm. With the plummeting prices, they just couldn’t afford to reinvest the time, energy, and money into that part of the farm
That’s the downside to selling coffee in an open market. When times are good, they’re really good. But when they’re not (which is more often the case), market pricing makes it very difficult-to-impossible for a farm to be sustainable. El Platanar knows this reality all too well. Without direct access to coffee roasters (who typically reward quality with higher prices), there was really no incentive for the team to push toward quality premiums.
Newly renovated land with young coffee trees. This is immaculate. (Photo: Yepocapa Coffee)
But there’s a happy ending to this story, thanks to our friends at Yepocapa and La Cooperativa San Pedrana. They connected with Don Daniel and have been able to directly export his farm’s coffee as a single farm lot. They gave him a platform to highlight his quality, which only a few years removed from such a massive issue, is dang good. They’ve also been able to support with processing and agronomy help to support his reinvestment into the land.
This lot from El Platanar is a fully washed single variety (Caturra) lot. Coffee was picked and sorted at Finca El Platanar, then processed (fully washed, dry fermentation, and patio dried) at San Pedrana Co-op. This coffee tastes like a typical Central America Caturra: notes of sweet apricot, honey, and roasted nuts can be easily picked out of the body, with a lingering black tea note and sweet apricot/apple-like acidity.
You should really pick up a bag of this coffee. And, when you do, let Don Daniel know that both Mission and you, our customers, care about quality and buying a sustainable coffee product that will give us opportunities to grow in the future.