The Difference Between Coffee Roasts – The Light and Dark of the Matter

Have you ever stood in front of a coffee display wondering what the heck all those labels mean? There are so many different roasts available! And they have weird names that don’t do a thing to help explain what kind of coffee you’re actually getting. How do you know what to pick? Should you choose the American or go with the breakfast roast? Or maybe you’ll enjoy an Italian roast more? And where do the New England and French roasts fit in? Since it’s all so confusing, it’s definitely time to take a closer look at the difference between coffee roasts.

coffee aisleRoasting is Required

Without the roasting process, there would be no delicious coffee experience. Period.

Raw coffee beans, which vary in color from green to yellowish to reddish as they age but are all referred to as “green,” have none of the coffee aroma or flavor we’ve come to know and love. It is only through the roasting process that the chewy, grassy-smelling coffee seed transforms into our fragrant, beloved coffee bean. Check our our article How is Whole Bean Coffee Roasted? to learn more about this fascinating metamorphosis.

Timing is Everything

Different coffee roasts are created by the coffee beans being roasted for varying lengths of time. Of course the type of coffee bean (robusta or arabica), its country of origin, and the roasting temperature will also play a role in the flavor of the coffee. But any coffee bean from any region will experience the same basic transformation when roasted.

And in coffee roasting, timing is everything.

Coffee beans go through a variety of chemical changes during the roasting process. The beans lose weight as water and volatile compounds are released by the heat of the roaster. They increase in volume as the cellular makeup of the beans expands to release those elements. And, of course, the color of the bean shifts from its raw, pea-green hue through various stages of brown from a pale tan to almost-black.

So what does it all mean?

Basic Coffee Roast Categories

To start with the basics, there are four general categories of roasted coffee that, thankfully, most roasters agree upon:

  • Light Roast
  • Medium Roast
  • Medium-Dark Roast
  • Dark Roast

As you might guess, lighter coffees are roasted for less time. Darker coffee is roasted longer. But there are more distinctive characteristics present at each level of roasting than just the color of the bean.

Roasting Characteristics

While a lot of people equate lighter roast with “delicate flavor” and “strong coffee” with darker roasts, these vague generalizations aren’t particularly accurate. In reality, a lighter roast coffee isn’t just “more delicate” than a darker roast, it has an entirely different flavor makeup. And any type of roast can be used to make a “strong” cup of coffee.

So what is it, then, that creates the difference between coffee roasts we can taste in our cup?

The answer: it’s the unique chemical composition of the coffee bean at each stage of the roasting process.

In the early stages of roasting, the flavor specific to the coffee’s origin is prominent. In general, light-roasted coffees are acidic with fruity overtones. Their specific flavors will vary based on the integral growing conditions that produced the coffee beans themselves. Geography, soil composition, rainfall, and processing methods factor into the taste of a brewed cup of light-roasted coffee.

In the later stages of roasting, a caramelized, toasty flavor begins to eclipse that of the coffee bean. The origin of the coffee is no longer discernible in darker roasts. The flavor in our cup comes, instead, from the extent to which the bean is toasted. Dark roasts will range in flavor from bittersweet to bitter to nearly burnt.

Sight, Smell, and Sound

Appearance

As one would guess, light-roast coffee beans are a paler shade of brown than their nearly-blackened dark roast counterparts. Dark-roasted beans are also shinier than lightly roasted beans. The sheen develops when the beans have been roasted long enough and hot enough for the oils within them to seep out and coat the surface of the bean.

Despite the obvious changes in the color and sheen of coffee beans as they roast, appearance is not the most accurate method for determining the type or level of roast. For one, the gradations between medium to medium-dark roasts and between medium-dark to dark roasts is difficult to discern with the naked eye. What’s more, roasted coffee beans continue to darken as they age. So what appears to be a dark roast may actually be an aging medium-roast bean. That’s why it’s important to pay more attention to the label than appearances when buying roasted whole-bean coffee.

Aroma

Like the darkening color of the beans, that pleasant “coffee smell” we’re so familiar with develops throughout the roasting process. Raw, green coffee beans have an earthy, grassy aroma. The heat generated during roasting gradually alters the chemical properties of the beans until they give off a fragrant, toasted scent. Lighter roast coffees, having been heated and chemically-altered the least, will not have the same bold “traditional coffee smell” as darker roast coffees. The aroma begins to become pronounced in the medium-roast range and continues to strengthen the longer the coffee beans are roasted.

Auditory Indicators

Coffee beans go through two distinct “cracking” phases during roasting. These are referred to as “first crack” and “second crack.” And since they occur at specific temperature points in the roasting process, these audible sounds are a better indicator of the level of roast achieved than either appearance or aroma.

  • First Crack: Occurs when the coffee bean reaches about 330 degrees Fahrenheit. The moisture content of the coffee bean has been depleted by the heating process and the cellulose structure of the bean is expanding. These two conditions cause the bean’s first audible cracking sound and mark the beginning of the “light roast” phase that will produce light to medium-roast coffees. The surface of the bean remains dry during this phase.
  • Second Crack: Takes place when the coffee beans reaches about 440 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, the coffee bean is devoid of water, has expanded to capacity, and is beginning to develop an oily sheen. The audible cracking sound heard now indicates that the cellular structure of the bean is beginning to collapse. Second crack marks the transition from the light/medium roasts into the medium/dark phase of the roasting process. If roasting is not monitored carefully after the second crack is heard, the beans will literally burn and become unusable.Light to Dark Roasted Coffee Beans

The Name Game

So now we know what makes up the difference between coffee roasts, but that still doesn’t help us much when we’re standing in the coffee aisle. The common names used for varying roasts don’t provide much insight into what we’re buying. So let’s take a moment to shed some light — and dark! — on the matter:

Light Roasts: Cinnamon, Half/Light City, New England

At “first crack” we find the lightest roasts: cinnamon, half city, or light city. The flavor here is typically grassy and sour, and the brew produced is light-bodied and highly acidic. These roasts are most often used to create inexpensive commercial coffee blends.

Just beyond the lightest roasts listed above, we find the New England roast. Although still a very light roast, the acidity has become more complex and less pungent as the roasting process has progressed. Many coffee aficionados appreciate the complexity of this level of roast with its bright, light body but with the flavors of origin still highly pronounced.

Medium Roasts: American, Breakfast, City

The later phase of “first crack” roasting creates what we call medium roasts. At this point, the acidity of the coffee beans has become more subdued and the sugars in the beans are just beginning to caramelize. This produces a slightly sweeter, smoother-tasting cup of coffee.

Flavors of origin remain noticeable in medium roasts, but the “toasty” flavor of the roasting process is also becoming noticeable. Generally, medium roasts are considered well-balanced. This is because acidity has diminished, sweetness has begun to develop, and that appealing coffee aroma has asserted itself.

The characteristics of medium-roast coffees combine to create what many consider the ideal coffee experience: a full-bodied, smooth, bittersweet brew. The American Roast is so named, in fact, because it is the preferred blend of coffee drinkers in the United States of America.

Medium-Dark Roast: Full City, Viennese, Continental

As the “second crack” is heard, we move into the realm of what’s called the medium-dark roasts. The beans have become a deeper brown as the roasting has progressed, of course, but, at this stage, the beans also begin to develop a sheen. This is because the temperature of the beans has become hot enough to force the oils inside them to the surface.

In medium-dark roasts, the flavor of origin is beginning to fade, thought it will remain faintly discernible at the lighter end of this spectrum. As the medium-dark range of roasting progresses, it’s the caramelizing of the sugars within the bean that become the dominant factor in flavor. The acidity present in lighter roasts disappears entirely and is replaced by an aftertaste ranging from bittersweet to bitter.

Medium-dark roasts brew up a robust, full-bodied cup of coffee. The pleasant coffee aroma is now fully developed. Taste-wise, these roasts transition from acidic to varying degrees of bitterness. Those who prefer the caramelized “roast” flavor over that of origin find their favorite brew among the medium-dark roasts.

Dark Roasts: French, Italian, Espresso

In the final stages of the “second crack” roasting phase, we find the true dark roasts. The beans, now nearly black in color, have become dry and brittle beneath their oily surface shine.

Flavor of origin is completely gone in the dark roast coffees. The taste now is made up completely of the roast flavor which generally ranges from “toasted” to “burnt.” Many coffee aficionados disparage dark roasts for this very reason. They argue that, once true coffee distinction — the flavor of origin — has been lost, all that remains is varying degrees of burnt bitterness.

Obviously lovers of espresso do not share this view!

So What’s in a Name?

When it comes to roasted coffee, the answer, unfortunately, is not much!

Although we’ve outlined some of the most common names and their roast categories, this list is hardly complete. Nor is it definitive. Why? Because there is no standardization in the realm of coffee roasting. What one roaster considers a “medium roast” another will label “medium-dark.”

The truth is, coffee roasting is more an art than a science.

While technology has made advances in the ability to monitor the color and temperature of coffee beans as they are roasting, the origin of the beans as well as their organic properties will produce different results under the same roasting conditions. When a roast is “done” is nearly always based on the educated yet subjective expertise of the individual doing the roasting.

Finding Your Preferred Roast

So what’s a coffee lover to do to find their favorite coffee roast?

Experiment!

Now that you know the difference between coffee roasts, you can sample them all with new insight and understanding.

  • You can buy different roasts at the market and have fun comparing them at home.
  • You can order a cup of a different roast each time you visit your local coffee shop.
  • If you are lucky enough to have a small-scale roastery nearby, you can likely sample a variety of roasts side by side all in one visit.

Just keep in mind that once you’ve found your favorite, you may discover that roasts with the same name (American Roast, for example) taste quite different when sold under a different brand name or produced by another roastery.

One of the greatest joys of coffee is that there is tremendous variety to suit every taste preference. So whether you most enjoy a cup that’s light, bright, and acidic or one that’s dark, aromatic, and bittersweet, you can truly find a roast that allows you to have your coffee your way.

And that’s the real dark and light of it all!

Circle of Coffee Mugs

Personally, I like darker roasts best. What about you? Have you found your favorite roast? Let’s talk coffee in the comments section below.

14 Comments

  1. Dwilli

    Hello,

    Very informative article to ponder. As an avid coffee drinker, I can honestly say I do not really know the difference between the coffees believe it or not. I’m not saying I like all coffees, but saying I like coffees that have the strong taste of coffee. I tend to pick dark roast because of that. I can’t say I put any thought where the coffee came from, but only that it’s dark roast. The information you presented about the different roasts of coffee is incredible, and the reason I think I like dark roast may not really be the reason (strong taste of coffee). I’m Saying this because you indicated that any type of coffee can be used to make a “strong” cup of coffee, light or dark.

    I am a daily 2 cup coffee drinker, I know that I like a strong cup of coffee and now I am eager to find which strong cup I prefer, now that I know it really has nothing to do with it be light or dark to get a “strong” cup of coffee. Let the experimenting begin! Knowing the variety of coffees this might take awhile, but knowing what I know now I can explore the other roasts that can deliver a strong cup of coffee as well.

    Thank you for the great insight and education!

    Diane

    • Cheri

      Diane I am so pleased you found this article informative, and I’m really excited that it made you interested in experimenting with other types of coffee. I always thought I liked the darkest roasts until I started learning more. Then I discovered that what I really enjoyed were coffees more in the medium-roast range because they combine the best of both ends of the spectrum…the unique flavor of origin with a bit of that nice “toasty” flavor from the roasting process. Too light, and I find the coffee a little too “fruity” and sour for my tastes; too dark, and, for me, they are bitter and “burnt” tasting. Whatever roast of coffee you find you enjoy, you can adjust that “strong coffee taste” by adjusting the coffee-to-water ratio. The more ground coffee (of any roast), the stronger your cup of coffee will taste! I hope you have a great time exploring new coffee experiences. Feel free to come back and share them with me as I love to learn from my readers as well! Thanks so much for commenting!

  2. tina25h

    Hi Cheri

    I have only started drinking coffee a couple of years ago and have never really considered the differences in the roasting levels. This is quite an interesting read and very informative. 

    My preference is a medium roast and now i understand why. I do not care for the bitterness of coffee and drink it with a flavored creamer. So a dark roast would not be for me. I do not think i would care for sour tasting coffee either. So I will be sticking to my medium roast. 

    My mother drinks instant coffee (referred to as original roast). I have never tried the instant coffee. Do you know what the flavour difference is? Also being a novice coffee drinker compared to many, is there a major taste difference between the canned perked coffee and freshly ground coffee?

    Tina

    • Cheri

      I’m so glad the information I shared helped you understand your taste preference, Tina. I have just been sampling a very light roast, and nope…that’s not for me. It’s almost “fruity” smelling and tasting. So I’m with you…a bit of toasty flavor from the roasting process is ideal; I can head into the medium-dark range, but beyond that, I, too, find them way too bitter for my liking. 

      How funny that my mother likes instant coffee also! Personally it is not my favorite as I prefer the fresher taste of coffee that has not been freeze-dried (which is what instant coffee is…see Strange Fact #7 in this article if you want to learn a bit more), but the joy of coffee is that we can all find our favorite and enjoy it to our heart’s content.

      Personally I find I greatly prefer to grind my own coffee beans whenever I can (more on that here), but sometimes it’s just not feasible, so I also keep a bag or can of ground coffee on hand. Because there’s nothing worse than NO coffee!! haha

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. If you have any other questions, please let me know.

  3. Suzana

    Hi Cheri,

    I really love coffee, I’m actually drinking one right now! I especially like short espresso, with milk (macchiato) or without it. I would have to say that Medium-Dark and Dark Roasts are my thing 🙂 But just the smell of the coffee gives me – how should I say – positive feeling, vibes 😀 and of course than a cup of nice coffee is a great choice for starting a day right! You classified this so well and wrote everything important about it.

    I like the name of your site, and I will bookmark it.

    Best wishes,Susan

    • Cheri

      Susan I was tempted to name my site “That Coffee Smell,” but I thought it sounded just a bit odd…but you so obviously get it! I am exactly the same way…the smell of fresh coffee is just full of positive, energetic, feel-good vibes. I’m so glad you enjoyed the article, and I do so hope you’ll come back and visit again. It’s always a pleasure to meet another coffee lover! Thanks for commenting.

  4. Luke

    Hi!

    Just at the time I would need some coffe, (which is not often) I found your article here 🙂 Anyway, your article is very interesting and full of informations about coffee roasts. I can completely agree with you that when one non coffee-addict came to shop, he/she has no clue what actually are all those sorts of coffee. If there is any difference here I wonder which coffee of those on the list is the strongest?

    I really like your article and I`ll show it to my girlfriend, because she is coffee adict 😉 keep up the good work!

    • Cheri

      Thanks for your comment, Luke, I’m glad you found the article interesting and hope your girlfriend will find it interesting also. As for your question, the coffee-to-water ratio is going to determine the overall strength of a cup of coffee more than the level of roast. The less water, the stronger the cup, regardless of whether one is using a light or dark roasted bean. The use of a lighter or darker roast really comes down to taste preference for the coffee itself. Any kind of roast can be used to make a weak or strong brewed cup of coffee. Hope that clarifies!

  5. Todd McKeever

    That was a great and very informative post.

    I love coffee!! I actually like the dark roast coffee. My thoughts are the darker the better. 

    I had heard the lighter roast coffee actually has more caffeine than the dark roast coffee. Do you know anything about that?  Would you also happen to know, any place that a person can order coffee that is roasted to personal preference? Do you know if this is even possible? 

    • Cheri

      I’m happy to meet another coffee lover, Todd, and I’m glad you found the article informative. I used to think “the darker the roast, the better,” but I’ve discovered I like having some of the coffee flavor come through along with the “toasty-ness” of the roasting, so I stop at in the medium roasts now. But that’s the great thing about coffee…we can each have it the way we like it best! 

      And, as a matter of fact, I did write a bit about the caffeine levels in light versus dark roasts. Check out Strange Coffee Fact #9 to find the answer to your question (it’s not as straightforward as we would think!).

      As for roasting to your preference, you can actually roast your own coffee beans at home if you desire (interesting fact that commercial roasting is a very recent phenomenon…used to be everyone roasted their own coffee beans at home!). If you aren’t quite that into it, then I recommend seeking out an independent roaster in your area to find the greatest variety of fresh roasts from which to choose.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  6. Chris

    Thank you for such an interesting post! I have oly recently started to get into coffee drinking and I have to admit that I dont know much about it. This post has definitely educated me a bit and I will be sure to check out your other osts as you seem to know your stuff!

    • Cheri

      I’m glad you found this article informative, Chris. My biggest advice for a newer coffee drinker would be to try a variety of origins, roasts, and blends (and alternate brewing methods if you’re really into it). It’s a lot of fun to discover how differences that the region grown or roasting time can have on your coffee-drinking experience. If you are lucky enough to have an independent coffee roaster near you, I highly recommend visiting them. You can learn a lot and usually get free samples, too (super-cool bonus! haha). Thanks for your comment!

  7. Betty Bard

    Very interesting, Cheri! I thought I already knew about this topic, but I learned so much. It’s amazing that understanding more about the production of coffee makes me appreciate it even more.
    I used to think I preferred light roast, but this year I’ve been enjoying the darker roasts. Now I’ll know the differences in the aromas also. Thanks for all the great info.
    And I might add, I think of you each morning as I am preparing my coffee !

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Betty. I am finding my “coffee enjoyment” growing along with my knowledge as I create this site. I’m enjoying it so much! I’ve always gravitated to the darker roasts, but not necessarily for the right reasons I now realize…haha…so I look forward to future experimentation. How sweet of you to think of me when you make your morning coffee! Knowing that just makes my day. Until next time…coffee cup cheers to you!

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