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