I just returned from a trip to Northern California and Western Washington to see friends and family. We were in our old hometown of Boulder, Colorado on both ends of the trip where I had occasion to try to find coffee worth drinking at the local Whole Foods (with no success despite - or rather because of? - it being the home of Allegro Coffee).
Everywhere I traveled this trip the coffee choices seemed to be either screamingly acidic, underdeveloped cinnamon-city roasts from Third Wavers or carbonized stuff from Peet's. Thankfully there was finally an exception when we got to Seattle: Cafe Carmelita from Tony's in Bellingham, which is not only advertised as a medium roast but comes complete with an Agtron number (67) to prove it. It's a lovely blend.
Sweet Maria's has an excellent roast color chart (I'll post the photo below, but the detailed description is well worth reading.
What I'm seeing in the hipster places are mostly roasts in the #8-10 range, and of course Peet's and Charbucks, with the exception of their token (and silly) new medium and light roast efforts are all in the #14-16 range. That leaves the entire world of balanced, nuanced, fully-but-not-overly developed coffees pretty much unrepresented at retail, unless you're lucky enough to stumble on just the right, rare Blue Bottle, Counter Culture or Tony's offering or, on the darker end of the spectrum, an old-school Northern Italian espresso blend (~#'s13-14) from the likes of Mr. Espresso or Illycaffe. Of course there are other regional roasters (Broadway Café and Roasting in Kansas City comes to mind immediately) still offering balanced coffees, but based on the Agtron numbers I'm seeing in Coffee Review for every such roast that's out there there's either a new player doting on the "tea like" flavors of their cinnamon-roasted direct-trade Yirgacheffe or an old-line roaster like the aforementioned Allegro abandoning balance in favor of trendiness.
I noted with interest that Tom at Sweet Maria's (as reliable and unbiased a guide to roasting and to coffee in general as I've ever read) lists the bean temperature correlates to Full City (#11) and FC+ (12) as 444 and 454 degrees F. respectively, and it reminded me of a roasting seminar taught by Agtron's Carl Staub I attended many years ago, during which he referred to 450 degrees as "the death of fruit."
I think that's accurate for coffees intended for drip or vacuum pot brewing, but espresso extraction reawakens and emphasizes acidity so strongly that optimal roasts - at least if the blend contains a fair amount of dense, high-acid coffees - can go slightly darker. What goes unsaid though is that cinnamon-to-city roasts are underdeveloped and just as imbalanced as the murky Starbucks stuff everyone is so determined to rebel against.
It seems like much of what's going on these days is that a roast that's only fit for evaluation purposes (#9) is not only being offered for sale and brewed in pour over bars but also routinely finds itself into espresso machine doser-grinder hoppers. This is something truly unprecedented, and it's unprecedented for good reason: drinking such coffee is an exercise in masochism. We've arrived at a retail landscape that, in fruit terms, offers nothing but green bananas or black ones useful only for banana bread: fully ripe has disappeared.
With bland and burnt now thoroughly explored, it will be interesting to see if the next (Fourth?) wave brings an interest in nuance and balance...the very things the best second wave companies, from Schapira's to Kobos to Freed Teller to Illy - tried to teach us about so deliciously decades ago. Here's hoping there's more to progress than applying a Folger's roast to good green coffee.