coffee beans

Ultimate Guide to Coffee Bean Roasts: Which One Is Best?

author gravatar
By Matt Woodburn-Simmonds

Freshly roasted coffee is one of the best aromas in the world. Roasting green coffee is crucial to extract the delicious flavor from the beans. The level to which you roast the beans allows for very different characteristics in the cup.

Coffee roasts can be very simply described as light, medium, medium-dark, or dark roast. There are specific roast levels within these broad categories and each style is best suited to certain coffee drinkers and brewing methods.

We explain all the nuanced differences between the roast levels, which are best suited for each brewing method, and which one is the best for you.

This article may contain affiliate/ compensated links. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you. For more information please see our disclaimer here.

coffee beans icon

Overview of different Coffee Bean Roasts

Generally speaking, coffee bean roasts are broken down into 4 broad categories – light, medium, medium-dark and dark roast – thanks to the varying shades of brown the beans turn during roasting.

But, within each of the main coffee roast profiles, there are many additional names given by coffee roasters. However, there’s not much industry standardization so it can get a little confusing.

This categorization all depends on the internal temperature of the bean. And it’s a good way of letting consumers know what to expect from their coffee. But it’s always best to ask the roaster to make sure you’re both on the same page. 

We’ve made a helpful guide to help you navigate the confusing names of the various roast types: 

Infographic: Know your coffee bean roasts

After farming and processing, certain beans will be better suited to different roast styles:

As a general rule, the darker the roast, the less you will taste from the actual bean. Instead, you will get the flavor from the roast. 

With this in mind, if a coffee roaster has some exceptionally high-quality beans, they’ll probably use them for a lighter roast. This allows you to fully experience the expertly grown coffee beans. However, if the coffee bean quality is slightly lower then they can be dark roasted. You will still get some character from the coffee beans but the majority of the flavor has been imparted from the coffee roasting process.

Espresso beans are almost always medium-dark to dark-roasted. This is because darker roasts are more water-soluble and, when brewing espresso, you need to get all the flavor from the beans in around 30 seconds. So you need the flavors to be water-soluble to produce a rich, flavorful shot.

Whilst it is possible to make espresso from much lighter roasted beans, you need to specially dial in your home espresso machine to do this. Either increasing the temperature or grinding the coffee even finer. Many budget models won’t be able to extract very well from light roast coffee beans and you’ll get thin and sour espresso shots.

frappe icon

White Coffee

Not a traditional coffee roast, but you may see “white coffee” online or in certain shops.

White coffee is roasted to only 325ºF (160ºC) which is well before the “first crack” that most roasters would say is the lightest of light roast coffees.

White coffee doesn’t taste at all like what you think coffee should taste like. It’s malty and nutty, a bread-like flavor and quite sharp.

The beans are still so dense that it has to be ground in a commercial grinder, it would break your home grinder. When brewed, espresso is the best method, it looks similar to a wheat beer. Most people drink it mixed with creamer and flavorings, as it tastes pretty awful.

We don’t include it in our roast guides as it isn’t really a roast anyone uses. But you might see it and we want to save you the pain of drinking it out of curiosity.

light icon

Light Roast Coffees

Light roast coffee is named for the very light brown color of the beans. Although you may also hear it referred to as the first crack as the beans are in the first stages of expansion and cracking.

There are two styles of light roast coffee: Cinnamon Roast and New England Roast. Both are “first crack” (when the coffee starts to “pop”). It does this as the internal temperature approaches 400ºF (205ºC) and the gases inside the bean expand. Lightly roasting coffee beans sound a bit like popping popcorn.  

Cinnamon Roast is when the internal temperature of the beans is just below the threshold for this first crack – 385ºF (196ºC). At this point in roasting, the bean’s surface is still dry and the oils haven’t been fully released. The beans are quite hard and dense as the gases haven’t expanded to the point that causes the first crack. 

New England Roast is just at the point of the first crack of the beans (401ºF / 205ºC). The outside of the beans is still dry but they’re a little less dense and the “roasty” flavors are a little more developed than Cinnamon roast.  


Light roast coffee is light-bodied with citrus flavors and aromas of flower blossoms. Most of the flavor comes from the coffee beans’ natural characteristics and is not imparted by the roasting process. 

This means you can really taste the variation in growing regions between different beans. So, if you’re looking to see how different climates and environments affect the flavor of your coffee, light roast is for you.

For brewing a light roast, we recommend using the pour-over method or a French press. But definitely avoid espresso or cold brew as these aren’t well suited to light roast coffee beans.

roast coffee icon

Medium Roast Coffee Beans

Medium roast coffee beans are a slightly darker brown than light roasts but are still dry (no oily surface).

The color change is mostly due to the caramelization of sugars which also causes the aroma of the beans to be much stronger and creates a sweeter flavor profile. However, the unique flavor of the bean’s origin can still be enjoyed.

The internal temperature of the beans for medium roast coffees is between 410 and 435ºF (210-224ºC). So, the roast is complete just after the first crack has been obtained. Due to the evaporation of moisture, the beans are around 13% smaller than at the light roast stage.

The different coffee roasts that utilize medium roasting techniques are American, City, and City+. 

What does Medium Roast Coffee taste like?

Medium roast coffee has more sweet fruit flavors and the start of “roasty” flavors such as chocolate, smoke, and nuts. This balance between sweet fruit and the acidity of the beans gives a really nicely balanced coffee. This is why medium roast is America’s favorite.

As you progress from American roast to City+ roast, the internal temperature increases. This means that the roasting flavors will become slightly more pronounced and you’ll have a lower acidity cup of coffee.

Which coffee roast is better really comes down to your personal preferences. But if you’re used to dark roast coffees, then start your medium roast journey at City+, then work down to the lighter mediums. If you’re usually a light roast drinker, then do the opposite.

Medium roast beans are the do-it-all style. From espresso and Moka pot brewing all the way to cold brew. Cold brew with medium roast beans will be quite light and delicate so are best enjoyed with out milk or creamer.

roasted coffee beans icon

Medium-Dark Roast Coffee

Medium to dark roast coffee beans are very dark brown in color with some oil on the surface. As most of the beans’ aroma has been drawn out, you will get an incredible smell when you open your bag of medium-dark roast beans.

The internal temperature of the beans needs to reach 437-454ºF (225-234ºC). The “second crack” occurs at around 446ºF (230ºC), so medium to dark beans are removed from roasting just before this process starts. The varieties that use this coffee roast type are Full City Roast and Full City+.

Lower quality beans will usually be roasted this dark as the coffee roasting process can cover up any inconsistencies or defects in the beans. It’s a bit of a waste of really high-quality beans to have them roasted to medium-dark or darker.

What do Medium-Dark Roast Beans Taste like?

Medium-dark coffee beans are bittersweet with the caramelized sugar notes and slight smokiness from the roasting working with the natural fruit flavors from the coffee beans. A lot of the uniqueness from the beans is now lost but you’ll still get a some variation in complexity depending on where they were grown.

If you think about the smell of roasted coffee wafting through the air of your favorite coffee shop, it is most likely a medium-dark roast that you are thinking of.

We’re now in espresso brewing country. Using medium-dark roast coffee beans will produce a deep, rich, full-bodied shot of black espresso.

They’re also an excellent choice for making cold brew as the long steeping time in cold water really draws out the richer notes. Plus, these beans can handle milk or cream nicely.

skull and cross bones icon

Dark Roast Coffees

It gets darker! Coffee beans that have been dark roasted are instantly recognizable thanks to their sheen of delicious oil and very dark, almost black color.

These beans have gone well beyond the second crack, with an internal temperature of 462-474ºF (239-246ºC). Doing so draws all the oils out to the surface and creates a bitter-tasting coffee.

There’s really only one reason to dark roast the hard labor that the coffee farmers have produced: to hide unpleasant flavors from growing or processing defects. This is why you will generally only see low-quality Robusta beans dark roasted.

The types of coffee roast that go dark, and are famous amongst espresso drinkers, are Vienna Roast, French Roast Coffee, and Italian Roast. Although you may also find “Espresso Beans” which indicated dark roasting (although you could use medium-dark too, depending on your preferences).


Dark roasting removes all the original flavors of the beans. So, you are left with a toasty-burnt flavor that is very low in acidity. The coffee is distinctly bitter, thick, and slightly smokey.

The oily surface of the coffee beans also carries through into your cup of coffee. You can feel the oily texture oozing down your throat which is definitely an acquired taste. 

Dark roasts aren’t for everyone, but the only way to really enjoy them is in espresso as they are a bit too much for other types of coffee makers. Though I’m sure many would also enjoy them in drip coffee machines or French press. If bitter coffee is your jam.

If you want to know more about dark roast coffees and how to find the best beans, check out our complete guide here:

Table: Internal temperature determines the coffee roast categorization
best coffee option icon

Which Coffee Bean Roast is Right for You?

The King of the coffee bean roasts all comes down to your personal preference:

Do you want light, bright, and citrussy coffee? Something that shows off the individuality of the coffee region’s terroir and makes an excellent pour over? If so, then light roast is for you.

Or, do you prefer the richer flavors whilst still allowing the unique taste of the region to shine through? If so, medium roast coffee is the best.

However, if you’re an espresso lover or you just prefer full-bodied, punchy, deep flavored coffee then medium-dark will be the best for you.

Then there’s those who are looking for their coffee to be rich, bitter, and smokey. And, if that’s you, dark roast is your answer. 

But where do you start if you’re new to roast coffees? Our advice is to start with medium roasts from a country or region that takes your interest. You can always move lighter or darker if you find medium roast too light or too toasty for your palette. 

To help you understand what to expect from the different growing countries, we’ve put together a complete guide.

Basically, there’s no right and wrong type of coffee roast. Just what you love most. And, with so many options out there, you can have fun experimenting.

thumbs up icon

The Importance of Freshly Roasting Coffee

As every coffee expert will tell you, as soon as coffee is roasted it starts to degrade. Not very quickly. But over time, you lose some oils to the air. And oxidation of the flavorful molecules in the coffee beans acts just like a slow puncture, gently letting the flavor escape from the beans.

Everyone will preach the importance of having beans that are “freshly roasted”. And you’ll see coffee experts talking about “days off roast” when testing different coffee beans.

But, honestly, as long as your roasted coffee products are stored in air-tight bags then the degradation is insanely slow. In fact, it will likely take months to get to the point where you’re likely to notice any difference.

Although, if they’re exposed to air and/or sunlight then it’s a very different story. But the whole “coffee is only good for 2 weeks after roasting” is a bit OTT for the average home coffee drinker.

limitations icon

Problems with Unevenly Roasted Coffee

If your coffee beans are unevenly roasted, you’ll end up with pretty unpleasant coffee. But why?

Imagine taking a tablespoon of coffee grounds that contains some lighter roasted and some darker roasted coffee, and you put it in your favorite coffee maker. As the water passes through the grounds, you will end up with an uneven extraction of flavors. 

It is this uneven extraction that results in a cup of joe with the unpleasant elements we associate with bad coffee:

For example, it could be too weak and acidic due to some of the beans being much more lightly roasted than what you were brewing for. Or, it can go to the other end of the spectrum and be overly bitter if you have some beans that are much darker than intended.

This is why evenly roasting is critical for getting good flavor extraction from the grounds and thus a delicious cup of coffee. It really is both an art form and a masterful skill. 

question icon

How is Coffee Roasted?

Coffee roasting is an incredible skill that takes vegetal unroasted coffee beans to the incredible smelling and tasting brown whole bean coffee we all love so much.

To understand more about the process, check out this fascinating video which uses GoPro footage to get inside a commercial coffee roaster. Attila Zérczi shot the footage in the micro-roastery of Hungarian roaster, Laczkó Gábor:

frequently asked questions icon


What is Blonde Roast?

Blonde roast is just what it sounds like – a pale, light roasted coffee.

Continuing the hair terminology, medium and medium-dark roasts are sometimes referred to as “brunette roasts”. Although this is pretty weird and not really helpful as it lumps too many coffee bean roasts into 1 category.

No doubt some clever marketing types have decided that “Blonde roast” works better than any of the alternatives in terms of selling coffee. So that’s why we find it at Starbucks.

Which Coffee Bean Roast has the Most Caffeine?

Depending on who you listen to, you can hear conflicting opinions about caffeine content and types of coffee roasts. 

Some will insist that caffeine “burns off” during roasting which makes light roasts much higher in caffeine. Whilst others will say coffee from darker roasts has the highest caffeine content because the beans are smaller so there is more caffeine by weight.

To act as a guide, you can check out the caffeine content of various drinks on a Starbucks menu:

The difference in caffeine content between their Blonde Roast and Featured Dark Roast is quite high – Blonde roast has 75mg more in a Tall (12 fl oz). However, as you continue down their menu you will notice the difference is actually pretty small. In fact, the Blonde roast has less caffeine than the medium and dark roasts for some beverages.

So, it’s a pretty complex question – certainly more confusing than at first glance. But, generally, the difference isn’t that big. And it will depend more on your brewing method than on the coffee bean roast level as to how much caffeine you’re actually getting.

Read Next: Caffeine Doesn’t Affect Me 

weighing up icon

Summing Up

It’s a lot to digest but, hopefully, now the different coffee bean roasts make more sense to you.

From light, medium, medium-dark, to dark coffees, there is plenty of choice and variety out there. 

So, why not have fun experimenting with all the different types of roast coffee. You might find you love a medium roast for French press but a medium-dark for espresso. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution – just a lot of fun and caffeinating!


Matt Woodburn-Simmonds

Matt's coffee obsession started in 2006 when working as a Barista. A tendency to turn up to work hungover kickstarted his coffee journey which quickly turned into a love affair. As he moved on to work as a Restaurant Manager and Sommelier, the obsession continued to grow. Now, his passion is helping others to enjoy better coffee at home.

You Might Also Like