Just ten or twenty years ago, there was little variation between coffee bean roast levels. Medium and dark roasts were, all things considered, pretty similar. Even light roasts really weren’t that light by today’s standards.
But things have changed—and fast. Coffee roast profiles are more diverse than they ever have been, which means it’s more important than ever to know how light, medium, dark, and even darker roasts are different.
In this mini-guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about coffee bean roasts in order to select the beans that are best for your taste preferences and coffee habits. Let’s start on the light side of the spectrum and get darker.
This is where the most change has happened over the last few years. Light roasts are have gotten—well—quite light. Colour-wise, they can be dark tan, lacking any sign of oils on the bean surface.
Back in the 80’s, coffee roasters around the world starting realizing that, by roasting high-quality beans lighter, they could unlock more delicious and exotic flavours. That launched the specialty coffee movement that’s become a global phenomenon.
Light roast beans are the closest to their plant origins, which means they typically taste the most like wherever they came from. Beans from Ethiopia and Colombia taste wildly different as light roasts because those characteristics unique to the beans’ regions and farms are preserved and not “roasted away” like they are in darker roasts.
Speaking generally, light roast beans typically have a bright acidity, lighter mouthfeel, a lack of bitterness, and exotic flavours.
Light roast coffees from Guatemala often have a crisp apple-like acidity and light milk chocolate flavour. Panamanian beans tend to be extremely floral with a citrus tang. On the other hand, beans from Ethiopia often have rich notes of blueberries or strawberries. There’s a lot of variation capable with light roasts.
However, this incredible flavour diversity comes with a price: inconsistency.
Light roast beans are the least broken down and have the most variation. Sometimes two different bags of the same coffee can require different brewing techniques to get the same result. This can make them irritating to coffee lovers who just want a delicious cup that they can rely on for weeks or months.
If you’re willing to fight through some potential inconsistencies for the diverse flavour profiles, light roasts may be a great fit for you.
Light Roast Coffee At A Glance
Bitterness: Very Low
Flavour: Diverse, Exotic
Colour: Dark Tan, No Oils
Modern medium roasts are also lighter than the medium roasts of a few decades ago. The beans are usually a light brown colour and rarely have an oily sheen (though it happens every now and then).
Coffees roasted to this level still have most of the flavours unique to their origin farm or country, but they’re wrapped together in a more approachable, and often more balanced, flavour experience.
With medium roasts, the most intense acids are toned down and smoothed out by a forming sweetness that’s often reminiscent of caramel, honey, or molasses. Rich, smooth aromas are formed and a pleasant hint of bitterness arrives to round out the brighter notes.
There’s still an incredible amount of flavour diversity among medium roasts. They can be exotic, but they’re generally a little more balanced and approachable. This makes them, in the eyes of many, the best roast level for newcomers to specialty coffee.
Medium Roast Coffee At A Glance
Flavour: Diverse, Rounded
Colour: Dark Brown, Rarely Oils
Yet again, modern dark roasts are lighter than historical dark roasts—but the difference isn’t as dramatic as it is with light and medium roasts and their historical counterparts. These coffee beans are a dark brown colour and are often wrapped in a light oily sheen.
At this roast level, the flavours characteristic of the bean’s origin are starting to fade away and blend into a more rounded, deeper flavour profile. Dark roasts aren’t uniform in this regard, but there’s not nearly as much flavour diversity, which is why it’s uncommon for a specialty roasters to have more than one or two dark roast options.
Dark roast coffees tend to have a toned-down acidity, a mild (and pleasant) bitterness, rich chocolate or nutty aromas, deep and sweet flavours, and a heavy body.
Because the roughest edges of any coffee are smoothed out by the longer roast, dark roasts are especially common among espresso blends. This eliminates many of the inconsistencies of brewing, which is really important from a cafe-business perspective. Many roasters also have a kind of “entry-level” blend they sell to home brewers that’s roasted a little darker for its approachability.
Dark Roast Coffee At A Glance
Aromas: Rich, Deep
Flavour: Chocolate, Deep, Earthy
Colour: Dark Brown, Oily Sheen
Even Darker Roasts
Coffees roasted beyond a simple dark roast are often leaving specialty coffee territory. It’s very rare to find specialty roasters roasting anything similar to a Vienna Roast, Italian Roast, or French Roast. These beans are sometimes black as night and usually have a heavy layer of oils on the surface.
At this roast level, all of the delicious flavours given to a coffee by its origin farm or region have disappeared. And, unfortunately, they haven’t been replaced with anything desirable.
Darker than dark roasts tend to lack distinguishable flavour, other than a general woody-ness and notes of ash or carbon. There’s virtually no acidity, but there’s a ton of bitterness. In fact, it often seems like you’re only tasting bitterness.
Generally, these coffees are low-grade, low-cost beans bought on the commodity market. Specialty roasters would never destroy the flavours of a high-grade coffee, and we suggest avoiding these super dark roasts.
Even Darker Roast Coffee At A Glance
Acidity: Very Low
Bitterness: Very High
Flavour: Carbon, Ash, Woody
Colour: Black, Very Oily
The world of coffee is diverse and fascinating. Flavours unknown to coffee lovers just twenty years ago are possible with what we know today—but you won’t be able to explore them with super dark roasts.
We suggest sticking with light, medium, and dark roasts. These are the roast levels that retain the coffee’s unique characteristics. If you want dramatic diversity, go with light roasts. If you’d prefer something a little more balanced and less intense, try medium roasts. If you enjoy that deeper and darker flavour profile, enjoy some dark roast coffee.
As long as you’re buying specialty-grade, freshly roasted coffee, you really can’t go wrong. To see some examples of different roast profiles and how they taste different, check out our lineup of coffee beans.