We all have our preferences when it comes to coffee. Some of us love our single-origin coffees meticulously brewed with a pour-over, while others prefer a classic milk-based espresso drink such as a cappuccino or latte. But there’s one thing that has a huge impact on the flavor of our favorite coffee before it ever hits our cup: roasting.
Before it’s roasted, coffee doesn’t look, smell, or taste anything like the coffee that we drink. After it’s picked from the fruit (yes, coffee is a fruit) and processed, coffee starts as a green bean that is soft, spongey, and smells a bit like grass. It’s the heat introduced during the roasting process that causes chemical changes within the beans and ultimately creates the coffee that we know and love.
Of course, there are various levels of roasting, from light to dark, Italian to espresso. Roasts can also vary from one roaster to the next since there’s no set industry standard. Still, whatever your favorite coffee might be called, you can expect it to fall somewhere among the following four roast levels. In the guide below, we’re going to take a look at what each of these roast levels can tell you about your coffee.
In This Guide:
Light City, Half City, Cinnamon
This roast is often called “first crack” because this is the stage where roasted coffee beans first begin expanding and making a distinct cracking sound. Light roast coffees generally reach an internal temperature of 356°F to 401°F.
These beans are light brown and dry on the outside without any of the oils seen on darker roasted beans. The tastes here are typically light and vibrant with high, pronounced acidity. Because it isn’t heavily roasted, the coffee maintains much of its characteristics and virtually no traces of the roasting process. This ability to highlight the unique flavors of a coffee is a big reason why light roast coffees have become extremely popular in the specialty coffee industry.
Light roast coffees can be used for virtually any brewing method, though they’re often especially great for pour-overs. Contrary to popular belief, an experienced roaster can even use light roast coffees to create a wonderful espresso.
American, Breakfast, City
Medium roast beans reach an internal temperature between 410°F and 428°F. They are typically roasted well after first crack but enter the cooling tray before reaching second crack.
These beans have a richer, medium brown color but still look dry without any surface oils. They’re often referred to American Roast due to being widely preferred in America. Medium roasted coffee typically has a more balanced flavor than light roasts, as well as a fuller body, sugary sweetness, and reduced acidity. Medium roast is where you also begin to detect just a hint of the bitterness many people expect from coffee.
Medium roast coffees are popular because they work with virtually all brewing methods, making them just as likely to end up in a Chemex or v60 as they are to be brewed with a siphon coffee maker.
These beans are a dark, deep brown color. At this stage of roasting, some oil is visible on the surface of the beans, giving them a slight shine.
Medium-dark roasts have a modestly bittersweet aftertaste and significantly reduced acidity. The flavors are a lot less vibrant than lighter roasts but the coffee is balanced with a full body. With a medium-dark roast, you can also start to lightly taste the effects of the roasting process, but they aren’t overpowering.
These coffees are popular in espresso blends.
New Orleans, European, Viennese, Italian, French
Dark roast coffees are perhaps the most debated and polarizing of all roast levels. Some people swear by dark roast coffee because of its signature “bold” flavor, while many in the specialty coffee industry feel that dark roasting your coffee is the quickest way to ruin good beans.
It’s easy to identify dark roasted coffee beans. They’re shiny black beans with an oily surface that gives them a glossy finish. Dark roasted coffees have a hint of spice, very pronounced bitterness, and hardly any acidity. They also have a thick, almost oily mouthfeel. The flavors of dark roasted coffee aren’t nearly as bright or pronounced as lighter roasts, though they can bring out interesting, earthy, spicy, or woody notes of certain coffees.
It’s assumed that all espresso uses very dark roasted coffee, sometimes even called an “espresso roast,” but this isn’t exactly true. While many traditional espressos will feature darker roasts, espresso can actually be made using any roast level. In fact, many espressos contain a blend of different roasts and origins. If your coffee is labeled as an espresso roast, it likely just means that the roaster thinks that particular coffee tastes best as an espresso.
Dark or light roasts: Which has more caffeine?
Short answer: neither! Long answer: it depends on how you measure.
Many people believe that because dark roast coffees taste “stronger,” they contain more caffeine. But this isn’t the case. Others contend that light roasted coffee contains more caffeine because less of it is lost to the roasting process. This isn’t exactly true either. The truth is that, while some caffeine is lost in the roasting process, caffeine is actually stable across different roasts, making any differences negligible.
In reality, any differences in caffeine come down to how you measure your coffee. Dark roasted beans are larger but less dense than light roast beans because they lose water during their longer roasting process. So, if you measure your coffee by scoops, light roasted coffee might have higher caffeine levels simply because the beans are heavier than dark roasted ones. This is a perfect example of how measuring by volume (scoops) leaves a lot of room for error in coffee brewing.
If you want to test this yourself, try weighing 30 grams each of dark roast and light roast coffee beans. You’ll see that you end up with a pile of dark roast beans that is much bigger than the pile of light roasted beans. This is because the dark roasted beans are not as heavy as the light roasted ones.
Now, if you measure your coffee by weight (which you always should), your dark roast coffee will likely have more caffeine simply because there are more beans involved. This article by Sprudge provides a great analogy for this by likening coffee roasts and caffeine to grapes and sugar. If you eat a pound of fresh grapes versus a pound of dried raisins, far more sugar is consumed in the dried, condensed raisin equation.
Of course, remember that this is just a general rule of thumb. Bean size and density is only one small example of the dozens of variables that can affect your cup of coffee. The truth is, if you’re looking for caffeine, you really can’t go wrong with any roast. Well, except for decaf.
Choosing a coffee roast
This is an overview of the main coffee roast types. As with most things in the coffee world, every roaster will have its own philosophies and definitions. Some dark roasts that you find will be just a bit dark, while others will taste completely charred. Some roasters might adjust their roast levels depending on a coffee’s origin or the brew method they’ll be using.
In order to determine which roast level is right for you, you’ve got to take your new knowledge of roasts, get out there, and experiment! A coffee subscription is a great way to explore different kinds of coffees. Here’s a couple to get you started:
Zach is a writer and content marketer, specializing in coffee. His work has also been featured on Sprudge.