Different Types Of Coffee Roasts: Dark, Medium …? Choosing a Coffee Roast Level

Light, medium, dark roast? What, light-medium, medium dark roasts?? What are all these different types of coffee roasts??

Coffee roasting is a fascinating topic and there are many reasons to learn more about the different types of coffee roasts. The biggest one, perhaps, is that roasting style has more to do with the way your coffee tastes than almost any other part of coffee production.

Understanding coffee roasting will help you easily find new coffees that suit your tastes.

Roast Levels

“Dark roasted” and “high quality” seem to have become confused in the language of coffee in the last few decades. The fact is, every roast level has its own unique qualities, and every coffee drinker prefers a different roasting style.

Dark Roast vs Light Roast Coffee

When you think about the different types of coffee roasts, the first thing that comes to mind might be color. Coffee marketing campaigns often associate dark, oily-looking beans with rich nutty flavors. Lighter-roasted coffees tend to look dry and pale in photographs, and are generally less photogenic. But the fact is that light roasted coffees are just as flavorful as the dark stuff.

So, what’s the difference between dark roasted and light roasted coffee?

During the roasting process, two major things happen:

The Maillard Reaction is a browning process that begins early in the roasting process and continues for the rest of the roast. Maillard reactions give the coffee body and produce bitter flavors. The darker a coffee is roasted, the more time the Maillard reaction continues, and so the more bitter and heavy bodied a coffee becomes.

Caramelization involves breaking down sugars into smaller compounds. Caramelized sugars add nuttiness and toasty flavors to the coffee. The more caramelized the coffee becomes, the less sweet it will taste.

How Does Roast Level Change Coffee Flavor?

The most important thing to understand when exploring the different types of coffee roasts is there is no “best” roasting style. Light and dark coffees have the same intensity of flavor, but they will have different flavor profiles.

Lighter roasted coffees have a profile that is pleasantly acidic. Think: lemons, limes, and green apples. Light roasts also tend to be light-bodied, and less bitter.

The flavor profile of darker roasted coffee tends to be more bitter, nutty, and full bodied.

Going beyond light and dark

Roast level is easy to identify, it has a major impact on flavor. This is far enough down the rabbit-hole for the average coffee drinker, but if you want to be a true coffee connoisseur, you need to understand roast profiles as well.

The art and science of roasting profiles is a huge topic and there are many books, videos, blogs, and other resources that explore it. The Specialty Coffee Association (http://sca.coffee) offers a week-long professional education course in roasting, and even that only covers the basics.

One of the many considerations that impact the flavor of the coffee is the speed at which it’s roasted. The chemical changes that occur in the coffee bean during roasting need time to fully develop.

Flash Roasting Vs. Specialty Roasting

A specialty roasted coffee takes about 9-12 minutes, and the time spent in different phases of the roast is carefully controlled. Specialty roasting requires skill and patience, and there is a limit to how much coffee can be roasted in a single batch while still maintaining the necessary level of control. Specialty roasters focus on the nuances of coffee. Careful roasting amplifies the inherent flavors of the coffee, and preserves the delicate characteristics of origin.

In the commodity coffee roasting world (think: generic supermarket brands, gas stations, etc), coffee is typically roasted in 3-4 minutes or less. The beans are flash heated to force the sugars to caramelize and to get the color looking right. Flash roasting focuses on high-volume and pays very little attention to subtle flavor variation. In fact, flash roasting is often done in order to mask the unpleasant flavors of inferior quality coffee.

Choosing a Roast That’s Right for You

So, maybe you’re not ready to drop a couple thousand bucks on a professional roasting course. No worries. You don’t need to be a master roaster in order to navigate the different types of coffee roasts and find the one that’s best for you. All you need is to remember the basics of roast level and profile, and a willingness to try new things.

The best way to find a coffee roast that you like is to taste a lot of coffee. There’s a lot of coffee out there, though, so here are a pointers on narrowing down your choices.

Preference Is Everything

A lot of specialty roasters get so focused on the nuance and “origin characteristics” of coffee and forget about the most important thing: you, the person who’s going to be drinking it.

Have you ever had someone tell you that a cup of coffee is going to blow your mind? They swear it’s the best thing ever, but then you taste it and it just seems watery. Or, worse, it makes your mouth pucker like biting into a lemon? This is a common experience among newcomers to specialty coffee. This unpleasantness causes a lot of people to believe that “specialty coffee” means “weak, sour coffee”.

If the coffee you’re drinking isn’t making you happy, then you’re drinking the wrong coffee. But don’t get too hasty and abandon a brand, or an origin right away. The difference between a mind-blowing cup and a mug of bathwater could be a simple adjustment to the roast, or even the time of day that you’re drinking it.

Adding Milk?

If you like milk and sugar in your coffee (almost everyone does, right?), this will have a huge impact on what roasting styles you prefer. In general, most people who drink coffee with milk opt for medium to dark roasts.

If you’re one of those people who likes a little coffee in your cream (can you say au lait?), then the muted acidity and increased sweetness of a super-dark French roast is right for you.

Coffee Pairing And Timing

If you like to drink your coffee at meal times, it’s important to choose a roast that pairs well with the food you’re eating. There is an infinite range of choices from chocolaty and nutty on one end of the spectrum to fruity and acidic on the other.

Coffee is a seasonal product, just like wine. This means that finding the perfect roast is a lifelong process. Every year will bring new coffees and new flavors, but the joy of discovering a great coffee is well worth the effort.


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