coffee beans in white coffee cup spilling over sides onto white counter

Coffee Roasts: The Difference Between Light, Medium, and Dark Roast Coffee

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When you step into the coffee aisle, and you are faced with a wall of options six feet high and thirty feet long, making a choice when you aren’t sure what you might want or like can be intimidating. 

There are coffees of various varieties from many different regions, then there are various roasts. You’ve got dark roast vs light roast, dark roast vs medium roast, but what does it all mean?

We are going to take a deep dive into the differences between light, medium, and dark roasts. What is roasting, why it matters, and what type might best suit your tastes. Stick with us, and you’ll be able to make a confident coffee pick and enjoy a satisfying cup of java.

Why Are Coffee Beans Roasted?

The short answer is that they are roasted to prepare them for use. Coffee beans are stored in a green state, which allows for much easier and longer storage without diminishing the quality or taste of the resulting coffee. 

Roasting changes this spongy green bean to the aromatic and delicious brown bean through a number of both physical and chemical changes.

Why Do Coffee Beans Turn Brown When They Are Roasted?

Probably the most obvious change to the beans, from any distance, is the color. They change from an odd blue-green color to the brown, dark brown, or nearly black we all know and love. The longer the roast, the more pronounced and extreme these changes will be.

The color change is due to the creation of polymers called melanoidins. Related to melanin, these polymers cause the entire bean to darken. It is created when the sugars and acids of the unprocessed bean combine during heating. 

The longer the bean is roasted, the more melanoidins are produced, and the darker the bean becomes.

Roasting also darkens the beans by bringing internal lipids of the bean to the surface. Coffee beans contain high levels of lipids internally that protect other more volatile organic compounds that create the flavor and aroma that is unique to coffee. 

During roasting the pressure at the core of the bean is increased dramatically, this increase in pressure forces the lipids from the entire bean to migrate close to the surface. Some extremely dark roasts even force some of these oils to the outside of the bean.

Are All Coffee Beans Roasted?

The green coffee bean can be used without roasting, though it will not produce anything with the flavor or aroma of the coffee you know. The green bean can be bought in its native whole bean form, and used to make a hot beverage, but it will be very mild, and will not taste of the roasted coffee you are familiar with.

There are also some supposed beneficial health effects to be gained from the extract of the green bean. There have been anecdotal reports of green coffee bean extract being useful in helping weight loss. 

There are few studies or pieces of reliable research on the effects and safety, however, and more research is needed.

The 4 Different Types of Coffee Roasts

You are going to encounter a few standard roast levels when you are shopping for coffee. They will range from light roast through dark roast and beyond, and each level will have its own unique characteristics, flavor, and taste profiles.

Light Roast Coffee

Common Names: New England, Light City, Half City, and Cinnamon

Light roast coffees are preferred for milder coffee varieties and blends. Light roasts will be a very light brown color, similar to a bar of light milk chocolate. 

These coffees will usually have a mellow body and light, bright flavors like citrus and lemon, combined with a biting acidity. Light roasts are only roasted minimally so as to preserve the unique and complex aspects of the bean.

Keeping the roast light is becoming a more beloved practice in the exploding specialty coffee industry because it brings out the unique and vibrant flavors found in each variety of bean. 

A light roast is great for highlighting the unique profile of the bean’s origin. Common light roasts include New England, Light City, Half City, and Cinnamon. Light roasts reach a temperature of around 356-400 Fahrenheit when roasting.

Medium Roast Coffee

Common Names: City, Breakfast, or American

Medium roast coffee has a decidedly brown to dark brown color, but should not have an oily surface unless characteristic of the variety. They will have medium acidity and a rounded flavor and taste profile. 

A medium roast will generally preserve the unique flavors of the bean’s origins, but will also begin to peek at the deeper sweetness and caramel tones of a longer roast. 

Because of this, medium roast coffees tend to be balanced and well-rounded, while having a darker brew color and a sweeter taste.

A medium roast will reduce or eliminate the brighter flavors and notes of a lighter roast, but that is the compromise for the increased balance in the flavor profile. This is another great roast for specialty coffees since they can be more appealing to the average coffee drinker. 

They lack the highly acidic crispness and are less intense, but they still show off the natural flavors wonderfully. A medium roast coffee may also be referred to as a City, Breakfast, or American roast. A medium roast will reach 410-430 Fahrenheit and will roast beyond the first crack. 

Medium / Dark Roast Coffee

Common Names: Viennese, Continental, Full City, Light French, Light Espresso

A medium-dark roast is a common roast that is a half step between both medium and dark roasts. 

Also called a Full City Roast, the medium-dark is determined by the very rich dark brown color with a very light surface oil content, and a taste that is bittersweet. Medium-dark roasts will reach 437-446 Fahrenheit.

Dark Roast Coffee

Common Names: French, Espresso, Turkish, Italian, Dark French, Heavy

Dark roasts produce very dark brown or black beans that have a surface that is oily to the touch. They have a pronounced bitter taste and extremely low moisture, and the lowest acidity content of all the roasts. 

This is because all of the available acids have combined with all the available sugars, and created the highest levels of melanonids of all the roasts. 

Dark roast coffees are known for their bitter bite, heavy body, and deep layers of flavors. Coffees taken to this level of roasting will not retain any of the flavor characteristics of the bean’s origin, but that is not what dark roasts are for. 

They began as a way for roasters to cook away a lot of the low-quality coffee flavor from what would be seen today as sub-par coffee. This made the coffee more uniform and gave it a deeper and more approachable flavor.

Nowadays because specialty coffee is highly available and coffee quality overall has never been better, dark roasts are used much more effectively to bring out the deeper, sweeter notes that were hidden deep inside that bean until heated to reach a second crack. 

You can really work some magic with chocolate, nut, or caramel toned beans that are roasted dark. Dark roasts may also be called a Full City Roast. A dark roast will reach 430-450 Fahrenheit and can reach the second crack and beyond depending on the roaster’s objective.

There are steps beyond a dark roast as well. There are a number of terms for those roasts, like High Roast, Continental Roast, New Orleans Roast, European Roast, French Roast, and Italian Roast.

Is Dark Roast Coffee Stronger?

This is a common question, and the answer depends on what you mean by “stronger”. Some people are looking for high levels of caffeine in their coffee, and if you’re one of them, we’re sorry (we’ll cover this in a bit).

There is not one roast over another that produces a significantly larger concentration of caffeine. The caffeine content should be listed on the package, and it will usually be pretty uniform across product lines.

Some coffee-drinkers consider light roasts too strong because they are not used to the very pronounced flavor profile that comes out with a light roast. Light roasts may also be considered too strong because of the strong bright notes that can come across sharply to some drinkers. 

Other folks find dark roasts are too strong because they dislike the often bitter notes in the taste and the oily mouthfeel. Dark roasts can offer deep and complex flavors, but if they are too dark for preference, they can come across as bitter and acrid. 

Since the beans are roasted for so long, there are hardly any sugars left from polymerization, and the ones that often contribute to the caramel flavors that seem to come regularly with a dark roast.

Does Dark Roast Have More Caffeine?

This is a common misconception, that roasting the bean longer somehow “brings out” more caffeine, and therefore dark roasts are somehow “stronger.” 

The truth is quite the opposite. It has been observed that light roasts actually have slightly higher caffeine concentration than dark roasts.

The amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee is going to be pretty standard across the board. So if you brew a pot of coffee with 3 scoops of medium roast, don’t assume that moving to 3 scoops of the dark roast is going to give you that extra kick.

Choosing The Right Coffee Roast For You

The right roast for you is going to be largely dependent on your own personal preferences and taste chemistry. It may also take some experimentation with roast levels and brewing strength, don’t be afraid to try something new.

If you prefer various bright notes like citrus, fruit, chocolate, or nuts against the background taste of the coffee, and do not mind a bit more acidic bite, then a light roast might be your best fit. 

You will find that specialty coffees suited to a light roast can really give you a new perspective on the standard cup of joe.

If you prefer a more full-bodied and well-rounded taste, then a medium roast may be perfect. It combines some of the brighter notes you see in light roasts, and some muted sweetness and slightly bitter savory tones that you would see in a full dark roast. 

If either end of the spectrum seems intimidating or too extreme, taking advantage of a medium roast as a starting point for experimentation would be an ideal strategy.

If you prefer a more traditional bittersweet finish with dull nutty notes and a smooth uniform taste profile then you might be a good candidate for enjoying a dark roast. It will have a very smooth mouthfeel and a deep and pleasant overall texture, like butter.

Final Note

We hope that our breakdown of the various roast levels, how they affect the coffee bean, what the ups and downs are of any particular roast, and what people enjoy about them has helped you to understand roasts a little more thoroughly. 

Hopefully, this has inspired you to branch out in your coffee tastes, and perhaps try a new roast. Even if it hasn’t, we hope you think about the various aspects of the roast levels you saw here, the next time you’re in the coffee aisle.

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