Roasting Coffee and Making Music - So Many Similarities

Roasting Coffee and Making Music - So Many Similarities

Musicians love coffee. Whether it’s a late set or long practice session, a warm cup of joe keeps your fingers moving and ideas flowing. But you might be surprised at how much making a great song has in common with making a great cup.

I’m Alex, Coffee Guy and Music Guy, and in school my favorite subject was orchestration.

Also called instrumentation, orchestration refers to the selection and use of instruments, samples, or sounds in a performance or recording. Whether you’re in a garage band, a bedroom producer, or writing for the LA Philharmonic, the instruments you choose will deeply color any notes that come out of them.

LA Philharmonic

So for example, if you want a warm, natural sound you might choose a string ensemble for some luscious harmonies and sweeping melodies. But if you want a jovial, celebratory tone you could use a grand horn section with brassy fanfares. A guitarist may want the big, epic sound of an electric guitar and high-gain amp, or the intimate frailty of an acoustic in their bedroom. 

In any given piece, the orchestration will convey three elements. First is the mood. In music the quality or type of sound is called timbre (pronounced tam-ber). A violin has a woody, warm timbre, while a trombone has a rounded, brassy one. The timbre of an instrument elicits different imagery and can therefore be used to set the mood. Lighthearted or melancholic, energizing or relaxing?

Second is the time and place. Instruments will often elicit the time period they were invented in. For instance, a harpsichord or lute is going to make any piece sound antiquated, while an analog synthesizer is affectionately ‘80’s. But they also convey location, such as the church setting of a pipe organ or the characteristically asian sound of a koto or a zheng

The third element is the fullness of the sound. If you have only a flute and violin, there won’t be much low end, so you might add a cello or piano to fill in the gaps. Or maybe you want an airy, hollow tone, so you leave out all of the mid range parts and use just a bassoon and glockenspiel.

But orchestration isn’t just the instruments you pick, it’s also how you use them. A clarinet can play pretty high, but the high timbre is sharp and glassy. The low end on the other hand is very warm and rounded, allowing it to blend really well and give a small woodwind section a full sound. Cellos have a great, deep low end that you feel in your chest, but also have a very buttery smooth top end that really sings. 

And there’s more. If you have a melodic violin solo, you don’t want to put it in the middle of a woodwind section in the same range or it will get covered up. A composer has to leave room for whatever part they want the listener to hear or pay attention to. So they might pair the violin with a soft horn section, or use only the strings. Or if we’re in the middle of a bombastic climax, and we can’t make any room, we’ll want to choose an instrument that can punch through the rest of the orchestra like the cutting sound of an oboe, or the power of a trombone section.

So what does all this have to do with coffee? Well, when creating a blend, a roaster considers similar elements: Mood and overall flavor, specific notes and images, and a balanced, satisfying cup. First we consider the kind of coffee we want. Something bright for a morning pickmeup, or a sweet dessert coffee to wind down a meal? How do we want someone to feel while drinking?

Next we decided what particular flavors and notes will put the audience in that mindset. Woody, nutty flavors remind us of a warm fire, or walk in the woods. Citrus and tropical fruit remind us of the beach and bright sunlight. Lastly we consider the balance of fullness of the coffee. A coffee that’s all citrus might be too acidic and end up sour and thin, so we thicken it up with some earthier beans. Or a chocolaty dark roast might be boring, so we spice it up with some black pepper notes. 

SCA Coffee Tasters Flavor Wheel

So how do we achieve these different outcomes in our roast? It mostly comes down to bean selection. Origin, processing, grade, harvest season, etc. all affect the timbre of the crop. Every region has unique qualities influenced by the history of the soil and the taste of the water. Coffee from Costa Rica will have a bright citrusy flavor, reminiscent of the tropical sunny beaches. Beans from Peru are crisp and nutty like the mountain air. So when we’re designing a blend, we want to consider which origin will best deliver the overall flavor that we’re looking for, just like choosing the right instruments in an ensemble.

But it doesn’t end there. Just like a composer needs to know both the ranges and multiple timbres of all the instruments, a roaster needs to know the flavors and notes of all the origins, and the effects of processing on all those flavors. A natural (or unwashed) bean will have more of the fruitier, more pungent flavors of the crop, whereas a fully washed bean will be more mellow and often sweeter. So depending on how intensely we want a flavor to be featured we might prefer a natural Colombian over a washed one.

All of this is to achieve a balance in the cup. No coffee should be all acid all day, as it will be sour and harsh, so we need to add something sweet or savory to fill the gaps. But a coffee that’s all brown sugar will be pretty boring, so we might add some notes of cinnamon or cardamom to spice it up, but we’ll need a bean that’s not too heavy or it will just add even more sweetness. We need just the right origin and process for all the pieces to fit together and give us a nice rounded, balanced cup. 

But what about actually roasting the coffee? Well in music, anything that’s produced has to be mixed and mastered. This involves adjusting the levels of all the sections of the ensemble, tweaking the timbres, and a whole bunch of other engineering wizardry. A sound engineer is always trying to design the final sound for whatever the audience will likely listen to it from. A live symphony will be playing in a hall with sound traveling along walls, while a rock band will be playing out of large loudspeakers to a stadium of screaming fans. A listener may have an audiophile grade set of headphones and dedicated amplifier, or just the earbuds that came with their phone. So engineers often boost the vocal tracks so the lyrics are legible on an Iphone’s speaker, while also cranking up the ultra low end to make a dance club’s PA really bounce. 

Roasting is no different. We have to predict how the audience will likely brew any given blend, and try to design a roast profile that will bring out the flavors we want on as many brewing methods as we can. A breakfast blend is more likely to be brewed in an automatic drip brewer, or maybe a pour over, so we’d want to roast it more medium, or medium light to bring out that brightness and not leave too much drag. An espresso blend will almost certainly be brewed as an espresso, but could also work well in a french press, so we might take it a little darker for a full body and lots of sweetness. 

So, next time you try a coffee, try to pick out the different elements of the blend (or the most notable elements of a single origin) and consider how the roaster is selecting origins, processing, and roasting profile to achieve those elements. If you’re a roaster, consider how important it is for a composer to know the timbres and ranges of every instrument in the orchestra in order to achieve the sound they want. Take the time to sample as many origins in as many processes as you can to grow and develop your toolset. Consider the right combination of beans that won't bury the flavors you want, but also won't leave the cup feeling incomplete and unsatisfying. And just like a composer needs to know some really skilled players to fill the ensemble, a roaster needs to make friends with really good growers and importers so you can get whatever flavor you want for any gig.