When you pick up a bag of coffee at your local grocery store, and it says medium-light roast, what does that mean exactly?
The roast type plays a vital role in how your coffee tastes. Dark, medium and light roasted coffee beans all have unique flavor profiles; you might already have a favorite, and you don’t even realize it.
Light roasts, for example, typically have the brightest, most acidic flavors, medium is more balanced and smooth, and with dark roasted coffee, you can taste the smoky roasting process rather than the origin of the coffee bean.
Coffee roasting is both an art and a science that can make or break the taste of your favorite brew. The actual bean itself does matter, but coffee inherits most of its flavor from the roasting procedure. The length of the roasting process can affect the body, acidity, and taste of your coffee beans.
In this article, we will take you through the four main coffee roasts and explain the differences between light, medium and dark and how each can have a crucial impact on how your coffee tastes.
The Different Coffee Roasts
You won’t become an expert roaster overnight. It takes years of training to learn how to read the beans and make split-second decisions that will determine the outcome of a batch.
Many coffee roasters have their own personalized roasts that they have perfected. However, you can generally put roasts into four color types: light, medium-dark, or dark.
Keep reading to learn more about the four types of coffee roasts.
Light Coffee Roasts
Popular Names: Half-City, New England, Cinnamon
To a roaster, a light roast is right around the first crack when the temperatures reach 356°F – 401°F. This is where the beans are at their first stages of expansion and cracking.
The light roast coffee bean looks rather pale and dry at this stage, and the brewed coffee will have a light body and definite signs of acidity.
Because the beans have been roasted for a short amount of time, they typically don’t have any oils on the surface due to not being roasted for long enough at high temperatures.
Light roast beans also tend to have more caffeine than other roast profiles; the longer the roast, the more caffeine and acidity is pulled out from the beans by the heat.
These beans have a distinct taste profile due to the shortened roasting process that stops before some chemical changes occur inside the bean. The origin of the coffee is far easier to identify in a lighter roast due to fewer flavors absorbed from the roasting process.
Medium Coffee Roasts
Popular Names: Regular, City, American
Just after the first crack and right before the second crack, when the temperatures are around 410°F – 428°F, is the ideal time for medium roasted beans.
The appearance of the medium roasted coffee bean is still somewhat dry, but the roast profile is much sweeter, and they have a slightly more body and the longer roasting brings more flavors to the beans, which results in less acidity.
For many coffee drinkers, a medium roast has the perfect balance of aroma, acidity, and flavors and is what the average American is used to drinking.
Medium-Dark Coffee Roasts
Popular Names: Full City, Light Espresso, Light French, Viennese, Continental
The medium-dark roast coffee profile is just around the second crack when the temperature reaches 437°F – 446°F. At this stage, the beans will start to show noticeable oils on the surface and are characterized by a dark brown color.
At this roast stage, the higher temperatures eliminate almost all of the acidity, and many of the hidden aromas of the coffee start to become apparent.
A medium-dark roast will have a richer, more complex flavor with more body and a lot less acidity. Some grocery store examples of a medium-dark roast are Full-City Roast and Vienna Roast.
Dark Coffee Roasts
Popular Names: French, Dark French, Espresso, Heavy, Turkish, Italian
Dark roast coffee is very easy to identify. When the temperature reaches between 464°F – 482°F, the coffee beans become black, shiny, and excessively oily.
At this stage, it is almost impossible to detect the bean’s origin flavors and most of the taste is inherited from the long roasting process.
The beans will have sweeter, more caramelized flavors due to the natural sugars inside of the beans reacting with the prolonged heat. You can also expect to find more decadent flavors, lots of body, and no acidity; the darker the beans, the less acidic they are.
Look for a French roast or espresso roast if you enjoy pronounced bitterness with smoky-sweet undertones.
Other Coffee Roast Levels (Charred, Strong Roasts)
Coffee beans roasted past a classic dark roast will be very black and exceedingly oily on the surface.
Specialty roasters will never roast their expensive hand-picked single-origin coffee beans this dark – it would just be a waste. Coffee roasted to these extreme levels will have no origin characteristics and really taste like burned, charred ashy coffee.
Drink at these roast levels if you dare. However, so that you know, we here at Bean Ground don’t like to drink liquid charcoal!
Coffee Roasting Is Both An Art And A Science
Before being roasted, the humble coffee bean has none of the characteristics that the roasting process enhances.
The bean has a greenish hue, and it’s soft, playable, has very little taste, and has a slight fresh grass-like aroma. At this stage, the green coffee beans can be stored without loss of quality or taste.
The roasting unlocks all of the hidden flavors from inside the bean and causes numerous chemical changes to take place.
All of the natural sugars, starches, and fats are emulsified and caramelized and then rapidly released as the high temperatures increase.
Once they reach the desired roast level, the beans are quickly cooled to stop further processing. However, once the coffee has finished the roasting cycle, the flavor starts to diminish quickly.
Compared to the green coffee bean, the roasted bean actually smells like coffee, it weighs a lot less, and they are ready to be ground and brewed.
Blonde roast coffee is basically a lightly roasted coffee. Compared to a darker roast, a “blonde” will have more significant amounts of acidity and much more pronounced flavor nuances.
The bean’s cell structure is still intact and hasn’t started to break down, which happens the longer the coffee bean is roasted.
When it comes to espresso, there are essentially four roast levels that all fall in the medium to the dark range: Vienna Roast, Full City Roast, Italian Roast, and French Roast.
Darker roasts typically work better under the pressure of espresso extraction because the natural sugars inside the coffee beans have been caramelized during the roasting procedure, which helps boost the flavor of your espresso.
You might believe that the darker the coffee, the stronger it is, but light roast coffee is stronger on all counts, such as “origin” flavor and higher levels of caffeine.
When coffee goes through the roasting process, it loses up to 90% of its water content. Light roasts are a lot denser due to spending less time roasting, and therefore they retain more nutrients and minerals, such as caffeine.
Just like a charred and burnt steak will have lost almost all of its nutrients and vitamins, a dark roasted coffee will, in comparison, have lost its essential oils and minerals.
The caffeine levels of coffee are determined by the degree to which they have been roasted. The longer you roast the coffee beans, the more caffeine is “burned off.”
Lighter roasts typically have up to 60% more caffeine compared to a dark roast coffee when measured by volume. The key word here is “volume” – when coffee beans are measured by weight (mass), you will have about the same caffeine, regardless of roast level.
A Korean study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food states that lighter roasts are the healthiest coffee roast. They have more antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties compared to darker roasted coffee.
The research looked only at Arabica coffee beans (not robusta or any other variety) roasted to four classic roast levels – light, medium, city, and French roast. The roasted coffee beans were then ground and brewed using an espresso machine.
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