Whenever you are searching for coffee beans, you’ll have a choice of light, medium, or dark roasts. However, the differences between them can lead to confusion.
If you’re familiar with all three, you will know there are differences in color and flavor, but that’s not all. This article will go through the most significant differences between the three. It will also explain:
- What coffee roasting is;
- All the elements that differentiate light, medium, and dark roasts;
- Which coffee roast has the most caffeine and acidity.
By the end of the article, you should have all the know-how you need to understand coffee roasting and which roast is the one for you.
What Is Coffee Roasting?
Roasting is the method that transforms green coffee beans into brown, aromatic beans that you can use for brewing.
Once you have harvested and processed the coffee tree’s fruits, they become coffee beans. However, they taste grassy and not like the coffee we’re familiar with at this point, and they are still green.
The process of roasting coaxes out the smells and flavors from the beans. Roasting occurs by heating the green coffee beans at a high temperature, leading to chemical reactions in the beans. Once they are at optimum condition, the beans are cooled down rapidly to stop the roasting. Now, the beans will have a coffee smell, while they will also not be as heavy as before because the moisture will have been removed. At this point, you can grind them, then brew them.
The Roasting Phases
There are several stages to roasting. To begin with, you store the beans in a hot place to allow them to dry. Over time, they turn from green to yellow and finally brown. This is when the most significant chemical reactions occur, leading to the creation of the taste and smell compounds.
The internal pressure of the beans reaches a point where they crack, referred to as the first crack. Then, the water within them evaporates, reaching the second crack. The beans will keep getting darker as they continue to roast.
After the second crack, dark roasts usually finish. However, light and medium roasts typically finish between the first crack and the second crack.
Now we know more about the roasting process, let’s examine the differences and characters of light, medium, and dark coffee roasts.
Light Roast Coffee
Light roast coffee beans are complete almost before making the first crack. They typically attain temperatures of 350-400F.
As the name suggests, light-roasted coffee is a pale brown color. Also, the surfaces of light roast beans are free of oil.
Its crisp acidity and bright flavor typify light roast coffee. There are many layers of complexity, featuring more robust fruity, floral, and sweet flavors than medium or dark roasts offer.
Light roasts are a more pale brown than other beans because the roasting process is finished before generating oils and caramelized sugars. To this end, light roasts are often compared to tea.
Distinguishing Light Roast Coffee
When you’re shopping for light roast coffee, the product’s name will usually state the type of roast it contains.
If you can’t find that, look for descriptions such as fruity, bright, sweet, complex, or acidic, as these are tell-tale signs of light roast beans. Also, look for the tasting notes, which should include descriptions such as vanilla, honey, berry, rose, citrus, or chamomile.
Other terms for light roast to look for include cinnamon roast, blonde roast, half city, or light city roast.
Why Choose Light Roast?
Light roasting has become increasingly popular over the years.
Light roasts usually keep more of the characteristics and flavors of the pre-roasted coffee beans. This helps highlight the coffee’s natural qualities. Provided the beans were grown, processed, and roasted correctly, they will offer a wide range of smells, flavor profiles, and aftertastes.
Light Roast Coffee Is Suitable If…
You are interested in sampling the original taste of single-origin beans or would like to taste a significant range of flavors. However, you have to be tolerant of the coffee’s higher acidity.
Light Roast Coffee Is Unsuitable If…
You are not fond of sweet, acidic coffee and like coffee that’s stronger with a fuller body and more robust tastes.
Also, people with sensitive stomachs may find the acidity of light roast coffee troublesome. However, the level of acidity in coffee is not typically determined by the kind of roast, but the type of beans, among other things. If you are looking for low acid coffee beans, check out this article.
Our Favorite Brewing Method For Light Roast Coffee
We think light roast coffee beans work best with pour-over coffee. For the best results, use the Chemex, V60, Kalita Wave, or ideally a gooseneck kettle. If you grind the light roast beans with a hand coffee grinder, you’ll need extra effort than medium or dark roasted coffee beans.
Medium Roast Coffee
Medium roast beans are usually roasted for a little longer after the first crack. However, you would finish the roasting process before reaching the second crack. Medium roast beans reach temperatures of 400-430F during the process. The longer roasting times remove some of the beans’ acidity but add more flavor than light roast beans. So, medium roast beans are fuller in flavor. However, the flavor profile will also be more condensed.
Medium roast beans have an oil-free surface with a color of dark brown. Unsurprisingly, their color sits between light and dark roasts. If you think of dark roasts as night, medium roasts are dusk.
There is evidence of the deeper caramel sweetness that has come to the fore due to the longer brewing process in medium roasts. Meanwhile, some of the brighter notes found in light roast beans are absent in medium roasts. Coffees brewed with medium roast beans are well-rounded, balanced, sweeter, and darker than light roasts. They also have a heavier body.
Distinguishing Medium Roast Coffee
If the word medium isn’t on the package, look for references to city roast or breakfast coffee. Also, because medium roasts are usually used in drip coffee in the US, it is sometimes known as American roast.
Why Choose Medium Roast?
The majority of coffee roasters favor medium roasts because they appeal more to standard coffee drinkers than light roasts. They are not as intense or acidic but still have elements of the coffee’s original flavor profile.
Medium Roast Coffee Is Suitable If…
You are a coffee newbie. Medium roasts are an excellent place to start as they have medium acidity and bitterness and appeal to most people’s palates.
There are also variations to suit your tastes. So, if you tend towards darker coffees, you can try a medium-dark roast.
Medium Roast Coffee Is Unsuitable If…
You love espresso or prefer light roast coffee. Unless this applies to you, medium roast beans should appeal to you.
Our Favorite Brewing Method For Medium Roast Coffee
Practically every method of brewing is suitable for medium roast coffee. However, it’s particularly good with drip coffee. Nevertheless, whether you brew pour over, French press, AeroPress, or most other methods, medium roasts are suitable. Medium dark roasts are even good for espresso.
Dark Roast Coffee
Usually, dark roast coffees reach the second crack. Dark roast beans roast for longer than the others at temperatures of 430-450F. This means the roasted beans are less moist, less dense, and take on a smoky, bitter taste.
Dark roast coffee is dark brown and almost black. These beans also usually have an oily, shiny surface.
Dark roast coffee beans are typified by their heavy bodies, low acidity, and darker, deeper tastes.
Dark roast coffees also no longer have many of their original characteristics, so different dark roast beans tend to taste and smell similar.
However, this doesn’t mean they don’t have appealing qualities. Dark roast coffee typically has flavors of toasted nuts, chocolate, spices, caramel, and dark sugar. Meanwhile, they also have earthy, smoky, and woody notes.
Distinguishing Dark Roast Coffee
There are several names given to dark roast coffee beans. Some of the most common are continental roast, French roast, espresso roast, Italian roast, Viennese, New Orleans, or European roast. Whenever you see those names on the packaging, you can be confident they are some of the darkest roast beans on the market.
Why Choose Dark Roast?
Dark roast coffee is low in acidity, heavy-bodied, and has a uniform quality from bean to bean. Indeed, in comparison to light roasts, dark roast beans are significantly more consistent.
Dark roasts are also excellent for espresso brewing because the coffee’s sugar will be caramelized, which adds to the flavor. Meanwhile, for many espresso-based coffees that use milk, the milk improves the taste and balances the bitterness. Indeed, sometimes beans of a lower quality are dark roasted to eradicate nasty flavors.
In the past, dark roast coffees were particularly popular. However, the advances in roasting techniques and improved quality of beans have led to specialty and lighter roasts gaining traction in recent years.
Dark Roast Coffee Is Suitable If…
For coffee lovers who enjoy bold flavors and full-bodied coffee, dark roast is excellent. Also, if you love espresso, the richer crema offered by dark roasts is perfect.
Meanwhile, if you prefer to drink your coffee with milk, the way it combines with a dark roast is particularly satisfying.
Dark Roast Coffee Is Unsuitable If…
You are not fond of the intense, smoky, and nutty flavors of dark roast, eradicating sweet fruity flavors, nor the bitterness offered by a dark roast.
Our Favorite Brewing Method For Dark Roast Coffee
You can use dark roast coffee for any method. However, it is most effective in Moka pot or espresso. We also like dark roast beans in cold brew and French press. Dark roasts work well with cream and milk as they help balance the strong, bitter flavor.
Which Roast Contains The Most Caffeine?
We know that dark roast coffee tends to be stronger than light and medium roasts, but does it contain more caffeine?
In short, no. Caffeine retains its stability up to 392F (200C) and breaks down around 585F (285C). Temperatures used in roasting rarely reach the higher figure, meaning the caffeine content will be similar regardless of the roast.
However, light roast coffee do have a little more caffeine thanks to the shorter roasting time, but generally, there is not much difference in caffeine content between light and dark roasts.
The main difference in caffeine content comes in how the coffee is measured. If you measure according to weight (mass), you will always have the same amount of caffeine no matter what roast level.
However, if you use scoops (volume) to measure, the coffee made with light roast beans will have more than that brewed with dark roast beans as the former are larger and denser than the latter.
This difference in size leads to the misconception. Finally, Robusta naturally contains more caffeine than Arabica. If you are looking for something that gives you a strong caffeine kick, check out the ‘Strongest Coffee In the World‘, you’ll find the most caffeinated coffee.
What About Acidity In Different Types Of Coffee Roast?
Another consideration is whether light roast beans have more acidity than dark roast beans.
Certainly, lighter roasts are more acidic to taste. Light roasts have a higher pH level because they contain more chlorogenic acid. The longer the roast time, the more the chlorogenic acid is converted into quinic acid. This process reduces the pH level.
Nevertheless, the acid level will also change depending on where the bean originated. In general, beans that are grown at higher altitudes will have more acidity.
There are significant differences between light and dark roast coffees. Our recommendation is to sample the range of roasts so you can gain first-hand experience of how they differ.
Roasting coffee does not just require expertise, it is also very scientific, and different flavors will come to the fore depending on the roasting process applied to those beans.
The flavor isn’t the only consideration either. You are likely to have taken a whiff of freshly roasted coffee at some point and will be aware of how appealing it is. That’s one of the primary reasons why we always encourage brewing freshly roasted coffee.
Hopefully, this guide has explained the characteristics and differences of the roast types, and you will now have a deeper understanding of which one suits you and your preferred brewing method.