The art of roasting coffee is what turns green coffee beans into the delicious brown coffee beans we crave each day. Most importantly, it is a skill that can make or break a great coffee’s flavor: you can grow the best coffee on Earth but if the roast is wrong, it will taste awful.
You can drink coffee made from unroasted coffee beans if you really want. But the resulting cup will have an intense, vegetal flavor which is pretty unpleasant. It’s also possible to roast beans at home, though this involves buying extra equipment and sourcing green coffee.
So how do you know which coffee bean roasts are right for you? How do you choose between light, medium, and dark roast coffees?
Well, these various roasts of coffee beans show off different characteristics. And each is better suited to different coffee beans and brewing methods. So, finding the right roast for your preferred brewing method and choice of coffee beans is key to having the best coffee experience.
Here, we’ll go through all the different types of coffee roasts to help you nail down which one is right for you. With this guide, you will know what to expect from different roast levels and which brewing methods bring out the best from your coffee bean selection.
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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.
Read on as we break down the most common types of coffee roast:
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 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 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 insane amounts of pressure – more than home espresso machines offer. Plus, you’ll lose the complexity that made the coffee beans good in the first place.
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 sounds 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.
WHAT DOES LIGHT ROAST COFFEE TASTE LIKE?
Generally, light roast coffee beans look dry and pale. And, when brewed, will create a light-bodied coffee. You shouldn’t get any flavor from the roasting, just a more acidic, citrusy flavor. Most of the flavor comes from the coffee beans’ natural characteristics and not imparted by the roasting process. So, there is little room to hide.
This means you can really taste the variation in terroir between different beans. So, if you’re looking to taste the differences between different coffee regions then light coffee bean roasts are the best way to go.
But it is a very different experience than what most coffee drinkers are used to.
Now, this doesn’t mean light roasted coffee products don’t taste great. Quite the opposite; you can enjoy a light, aromatic flavor with fruity or floral notes standing out.
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+.
FLAVOR PROFILE OF MEDIUM ROAST COFFEE
If you find light roast coffee a bit too citrusy and mild, then a medium roast is an excellent way to enjoy the regional flavors whilst still having something closer to what most consider “coffee flavor”.
And you won’t be alone in your choice; it is the preferred coffee roast in America. For many, medium roasts are the perfect balance of aroma, acidity, and flavors.
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.
For brewing medium roast coffees, anything other than espresso or Moka pot brewing will yield a quality cup that gives you all the complexity of the beans. You can cold brew medium roasts but they will be quite light and delicate and won’t be suited to adding any milk or cream.
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 TO EXPECT FROM MEDIUM-DARK COFFEE BEAN ROASTS
By the time the beans are roasted to this temperature, most of the acidity has been lost. And, thanks to the increased caramelization of the sugars, they have a more bittersweet flavor.
More of the original flavors of the bean are also lost in the continued roasting. So the resulting coffees tend to be much fuller-bodied with rich flavors and aromas from the roast. You may hear medium-dark roast coffees described as heavy although that doesn’t do complete justice to the rich, full profile of the coffee beans.
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.
They’re also an excellent choice for making cold brew as long steeping time in cold water really draws out the richer notes. Plus, these beans can handle milk or cream nicely.
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).
WHAT DO DARK ROAST COFFEES TASTE LIKE?
If you are a fan of bitter flavors, dark roast coffee beans are the ones for you:
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.
If you want to know more about dark roast coffees and how to find the best beans, check out our complete guide here:
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 country-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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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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!
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