Has the dark roast become coffee’s white Zinfandel?

“The darker you roast, the more you lose the taste,” says Groundworks Coffee owner Ric Rhinehart. “There’s dramatic differences that most people never see.”

As is often the case, Starbucks gets the blame. The monolithic coffee house has been accused of roasting inferior beans just short of burnt, thereby masking any deficiencies and, in turn, creating a global preference for the taste profile.

Specialty Coffee Assn. of America spokesperson Mike Ferguson says it’s the talk of jealous competitors. According to the Agtron meter, a tool that measures color to determine roast development, “technically speaking, they don’t burn their beans.”

To keep their beans on the right side of the Agtron, local roasters are promoting what Rhinehart calls “relationship coffee” — small harvests roasted in even smaller batches, with a close eye kept on the heat.

Lamill Coffee owner Craig Min takes four origin trips each year to find what he calls “the top, top end, which typically sell for double to triple the market price.”

Providence chef Michael Ciumarasti says it’s worth it. He uses French press pots to serve Min’s Guatemalan La Flor Del Cafe, Ethiopia Harrar Horse and Columbia Reserva Del Patron.

However, a dark roast can also reveal complexity. At a Lamill tasting arranged for Variety Weekend, a cappuccino made from Northern Italian-style espresso tasted as if were infused with a deeply bittersweet caramel.

“It’s very difficult to do (a dark roast) and to do it right,” says Ferguson. “You can’t improve bad coffee, but you can destroy great coffee.”

The classy cuppa Joe
Variety Weekend asked five L.A.-based premium roasters to choose a favorite, er, variety.

Place: Graffeo
315 N. Beverly Dr.
Coffee: Dark roast
Price: $12.75/lb.
Tastes Like: A blend of beans from Columbia, Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea make for a rich brew with a clean finish.
Why: Graffeo’s Chris Davidson says sophisticated roasting equipment and estate coffee results in “by far the darkest roast that doesn’t have a burnt flavor, letting the flavor of the beans come through.”

Place: Groundworks
671 Rose Ave.
Venice; other locations
Coffee: Panama Esmeralda Geisha
Price: $49/lb.
Tastes Like: Ripe strawberries, citrus and jasmine, roasted lightly for maximum taste
Why: Unique Ethiopian cultivar brings a distinctive character to a New World bean. Groundworks buys only 12 bags a year of this rare variety.

Place: Lamill Coffee
Coffee: Guatemala La Flor del Café
Price: $12.95/lb.
Tastes Like: Bittersweet chocolate and cocoa notes
Why: High-altitude Antigua growing region produces a fragrant, smoky medium-to-full-bodied cup

Place: Monkey & Son at Surfas
8777 W. Washington Blvd.
Culver City
Coffee: Krakatoa
Price: $8.25/12 oz
Tastes Like: A heavy, darker-than-dark roast mix of five different coffees, with a rich, smoky flavor
Why: The blend includes Ethiopian Yirgacheffe for earthiness, Sumatra for a spicy, nutty flavor and Central American to smooth it out.

Place: Urth Caffe
8565 Melrose Ave.; other locations
Coffee: Ugandan Mountain Gorilla
Price: $29.95/12 oz.
Tastes Like: Light roast, heavy body. Heirloom varietal has a delicate flowery aroma and a distinctive sweet taste
Why: World’s highest-grown coffee, and it’s organic; volcanic rock gives it an earthy character. Urth works with area farmers to preserve the endangered Mountain Gorilla habitat.

By Chris Rubin
It takes more than willpower to break the Starbucks habit; you need the ability to make a great grande latte at home. (What, you thought we’d suggest not drinking the stuff?) An espresso with a crema halo that’s neither thin nor sludgy demands a machine that can produce nine bars of pressure, or 130 lbs. per square inch. (A car tire holds 32 psi.) That’s too much for the likes of most home machines, but there are a few that can meet your heavy-duty demands.

Pony Espresso Francis Francis! X1
Pasquini's La Cimbali M2
Pony Espresso Francis Francis! X1 Pasquini’s La Cimbali M2
IF: You. Must. Have. Caffeine.
THEN: Pony Espresso
WHY: This twin-boiler, 50-lb. workhorse pumps out perfect espressos the way Madonna pops out hit songs.
BONUS: The easy-to-clean steamer wand froths milk fast.
IF: You not only want to make great coffee, but also look great making it.
THEN: Francis Francis! X1
WHY: Designed by Italian architect Luca Trazzi with a choice of nine colors, it’s a little piece of art on your kitchen counter.
BONUS: Purchase through Illyusa.com and receive free cups and coffee.
IF: It’s never too early to be neurotic
THEN: Pasquini’s La Cimbali M2
WHY: Connected to an Internet link, Pasquini monitors all functions and adjusts and corrects settings as needed.
BONUS: The machine grinds beans to order, tamps the grounds, brews the coffee and cleans up for the next cup of espresso — up to 200 times an hour.
PRICE: $1,250
PRICE: $800-$900 PRICE: $10,000