What’s your favorite coffee roast? Dark? Light? Somewhere in between? Here’s a “coffee 101” guide to coffee roasts from light to dark.
The degree to which coffee beans are roasted is one of the most important factors that determine the taste of the coffee in the cup. Before roasting, green coffee beans are soft, with a fresh “grassy” smell and little or no taste. The coffee roasting process transforms these raw beans into the distinctively aromatic, flavorful, crunchy beans that we recognize as coffee.
Other factors of course enter into the complex equation that determines your coffee’s taste. Two coffee varieties, from different countries of origin or grown in different environments, are likely to taste quite different even when roasted to the same level (especially at light to medium roast levels). The age of the coffee, the processing method, the grind, and the brewing method will also affect the taste. But the roast level provides a baseline, a rough guide to the taste you can expect.
The most common way to describe coffee roast levels is by the color of the roasted beans, ranging from light to dark (or extra dark). As coffee beans absorb heat in the roasting process, their color becomes darker. Oils appear on the surface of the beans at higher temperatures. Because coffee beans vary, color is not an especially accurate way of judging a roast. But combined with the typical roasting temperature that yields a particular shade of brown, color is a convenient way to categorize roasting levels.
Roast level preferences are subjective. The roast level you like may depend on where you live. In the United States, folks on the West Coast have traditionally preferred darker roasts than those on the East Coast. Europeans have also favored dark roasts, lending their names to the so-called French, Italian, and Spanish roasts that dominate the darker end of the roasting spectrum.
Roast names and descriptions are not standardized in the coffee industry. Starbucks, for example, uses its Starbucks Roast Spectrum ™ to categorize its coffees within three roast profiles: Starbucks® Blonde Roast (“light-bodied and mellow,” like its Veranda Blend™), Starbucks® Medium Roast (“smooth and balanced”), and Starbucks® Dark Roast (“fuller-bodied and bold”). California-based roaster Rogers Family Company, on the other hand, has five roasting levels ranging from medium to extra dark. (Its San Francisco Bay Fog Chaser blend, for example, is a Full City medium roast coffee.)
In general, though, we can categorize the most common coffee roasts from light to dark as follows:
Light roasts are light brown in color, with a light body and no oil on the surface of the beans. Light roasts have a toasted grain taste and pronounced acidity. The origin flavors of the bean are retained to a greater extent than in darker roasted coffees. Light roasts also retain most of the caffeine from the coffee bean.
Light roasted beans generally reach an internal temperature of 180°C – 205°C (356°F – 401°F). At or around 205°C, the beans pop or crack and expand in size. This is known as the “first crack” (for the “second crack,” see below). So a light roast generally means a coffee that has not been roasted beyond the first crack.
Some common roast names within the Light Roast category are Light City, Half City, Cinnamon Roast (roasted to just before first crack), and New England Roast (a popular roast in the northeastern United States, roasted to first crack).
Medium roasted coffees are medium brown in color with more body than light roasts. Like the lighter roasts, they have no oil on the bean surfaces. However, medium roasts lack the grainy taste of the light roasts, exhibiting more balanced flavor, aroma, and acidity. Caffeine is somewhat decreased, but there is more caffeine than in darker roasts.
Medium roasts reach internal temperatures between 210°C (410°F) and 220°C (428°F) — between the end of the first crack and just before the beginning of the second crack.
Common roast names within the Medium Roast level include Regular Roast, American Roast (the traditional roast in the eastern United States, roasted to the end of the first crack), City Roast (medium brown, a typical roast throughout the United States), and Breakfast Roast.
Medium-dark roasts have a richer, darker color with some oil beginning to show on the surface of the beans. A medium-dark roast has a heavy body in comparison with the lighter or medium roasts.
The beans are roasted to the beginning or middle of the second crack — about 225°C (437°F) or 230°C (446°F). The flavors and aromas of the roasting process become noticeable, and the taste of the coffee may be somewhat spicy.
Among the most common names for a medium-dark roast are Full-City Roast (roasted to the beginning of the second crack), After Dinner Roast, and Vienna Roast (roasted to the middle of the second crack, sometimes characterized as a dark roast instead).
Dark roasted coffees are dark brown in color, like chocolate, or sometimes almost black. They have a sheen of oil on the surface, which is usually evident in the cup when the dark roast coffee is brewed. The coffee’s origin flavors are eclipsed by the flavors of the roasting process. The coffee will generally have a bitter and smoky or even burnt taste. The amount of caffeine is substantially decreased.
To reach the level of a dark roast, coffee beans are roasted to an internal temperature of 240°C (464°F) — about the end of the second crack — or beyond. They are seldom roasted to a temperature exceeding 250°C (482°F), at which point the body of the beans is thin and the taste is characterized by flavors of tar and charcoal.
Dark roasts go by many names. As a result, buying a dark roast can be confusing. Some of the more popular designations for a dark roast include French Roast, Italian Roast, Espresso Roast, Continental Roast, New Orleans Roast, and Spanish Roast. Many dark roasts are used for espresso blends.
So there you have it — a short guide to the common coffee roasts from light to dark. To summarize the differences, in addition to the color gradations:
- As coffee roasts get darker, they lose the origin flavors of the beans and take on more flavor from the roasting process.
- The body of the coffee gets heavier, until the second crack, where the body again thins.
- Lighter roasts have more acidity than darker roasts.
- Light roasted beans are dry, while darker roasts develop oil on the bean surface.
- The caffeine level decreases as the roast gets darker.
Ultimately, it’s all about the taste, the flavor, the aroma. You may prefer a lighter roast in the morning (with more caffeine) and a darker one later in the day. Coffee, including the optimal roast level, is a personal preference. What’s yours?
Coffee Review, “Coffee Language: Roast Names,” and “Roast Styles: Roast Table.” Accessed 2013-03-11.
National Coffee Association, “Roasting Types.” Accessed 2013-03-11.
Rogers Family Company, “Gourmet Coffee Roasting.” Accessed 2013-03-11.
Starbucks Coffee Company, “Learn about the Starbucks Roast Spectrum.” Accessed 2013-03-11.
Wikipedia, “Coffee roasting.” Accessed 2013-03-11.
Diedrich roaster: By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Coffee bean roast images: By Dan Bollinger (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
fatima issa says
good direct information on caffeine level and roasting degree relationship. would like to know how to roast, grind, preserve at home?
I used to buy by green coffee beans from Burman too. But I have switched to Sweet Maria’s Coffee out of Oakland. The prices are similar, they have a great selection, and the beans seem to be better quality. Less “bad” beans in every batch: broken, discolored or generally “off” looking beans. So I think their quality control may be a little better. Also, they have great descriptions of where they get the beans, how they are processed, what level they should be roasted….even info on the farmers themselves! I just think a little more time and care goes into what they are selling than at Burman. Lots of great roasting info too. I learned all about the “city” versus “full city”, etc, at their site. Great tasting notes too on every bean: “bright, acidic cup with notes of orange and caramel..” etc, with recommendations on what roast level works best for what bean. They also sell a lot of roasting and brewing supplies. Just a really good source for home roasting. Check them out: Sweetmarias.com.
As far as roasting coffee “too dark”….I love my darker coffee too. But yes, you definitely lose a lot of characteristics of the beans themselves the darker you roast them. So the flavor is coming from the roast rather than the bean. I have started to back off on the roasting time just a bit. I still go fairly dark, but not to the point of French Roast anymore. Been doing city + and full city. Still nice and rich, but not killing off all of the characteristics of the beans. Remember to take the beans out just a hint before they are at the desired level or they can come out too dark.
Troy Allison says
Thanks, I will give Sweet Maria’s a try. I am happy to say that my last batch I was able to stop before going too dark. I will be trying it in a few days.
Check out Sweetmarias.com. Great info on roasting, storing, etc. You definitely want something air tight to store your beans in. They also sell grinders, roasters and storage containers. I buy my green coffee beans from there and roast them at home in a popcorn popper. Works great!
Which popcorn popper do you use? Any special methods? I’ve read about two common ones but both seem very different. I’d like to start roasting fresh at home, with minimal investment in case it doesn’t work well. Thanks.
I am currently using the West Bend Poppery II. I got it used on Ebay. But that Sweet Maria’s website also has a popper that they sell for 20 bucks that is basically the same as the Poppery II. I bought one from them to have as backup for when this used one gives out. So you could get your popper and your beans from the Sweet Maria’s website and be ready to go!
Your post helpful.
National Online Coffee Distributor says
Interesting that light coffee is so popular in New England. The light roast k cup coffee is a big seller in Mass.
Brian Lokker says
Yes, there really are substantial regional differences. The dark roasts popular in the Pacific Northwest seem to have dominated the specialty coffee market, but the variety of roasts is increasing as retailers try to appeal to a wider range of tastes.
I just started buying green coffee beans and roasting at home. I roasted some Nicaraguan beans to just the beginning of the second crack, than waited till the next morning to grind and make a cup. I was not satisfied and ended making a cup of Starbucks French roast. I live on the west coast and yes prefer a darker roast. I think I will blend some darker with the lighter and see what happens. I need the caffeine in the morning and the bold taste of the dark.
I am enjoying doing this and it is definitely an art. I feel like an artist getting the painting just right.
Go organic when buying green beans. It does make a difference in your cup a joe. I buy from Deans Beans.
Brian Lokker says
Christine, You are certainly right that roasting is an art. I like your idea of blending light and dark to get “the best of both worlds.” Let me know how you like the result.
S. Mutabuzi says
Hii Christene, if you want to take a cup of coffee with higher flavor let roast at medium level, am sure you will enjoy so much.
You may try to preserve you roasted beans for longer before grinding them. Minimum recommended by coffee roast experts here in Brazil is 48 hours. Maximum and ideal is 10 days. It needs this time to loose most of the CO2 from the roasting process.
Most helpful posting.
Can I buy roasted beans in Pattaya and Bangkok?
Is there a good company from which I can buy on line for Thailand.
Where can I buy. Grinder for beans?
Thanks for your advice and for sharing
Brian Lokker says
Graham, I appreciate your comment. Many coffee roasters will ship internationally (including Rogers Family Company Coffee & Tea, which is mentioned in my article), although you may have to order by phone rather than online. For information on buying coffee beans in Thailand, you could try the forums on thaivisa.com. See this thread about where to buy good coffee beans, for example. Good luck on your coffee journey.
Hi, I live in Indonesia. I could help you out and send some coffee. There’s lots of yummy coffee of different roasts and certainly different areas. Indo is thousands of km across and most of the islands produce coffee creating lots of different tastes. Just an idea. I have no idea about shipping costs but we could always try once and see how it goes. My favourite beans are a brand called JJ Royal which you can google. Their beans are brown and oily but my fav bags are very chocolately and yummy. Have fun!
abdul gani says
if u are interest in arabican Gayo Coffe, here is my Facebook: kupii pante raya
Is there a coffee bean or is there a way to have twice the caffeine in the bean to make a higher caffeine coffee.
Brian Lokker says
One coffee with a higher caffeine content (200% more, according to their website) is Death Wish Coffee. You can read more about it and order it online at DeathWishCoffee.com. I haven’t (yet) tried it, so I can’t recommend it or comment on it in any detail.
Coffee Owl says
Well, robusta naturally has more caffeine than arabica, if that helps.
Brian Lokker says
Yes, Coffee Owl, thanks for pointing that out. Typically robusta has 40-50% more caffeine. See my article Introduction to the Coffee Plant.
Also, the lighter the roast, the more caffeine. As the beans are roasted, more and more of the caffeine is roasted out. So those “breakfast blends” that have the high caffeine content? Those are always lighter roasts. Darker coffee beans may taste stronger, but are actually lighter on the caffeine.
I am a relatively new coffee drinker. I am trying to get away from drinking pop. I know even coffee has its negatives health-wise, but pop is much worse. I do think the Darker the roast the better the smell but, I usually drink the light roasts because I know they have the greater amount of caffeine.
Brian Lokker says
Joel, thank you for your comment. You’re right that sugared drinks are less healthful than coffee in most respects. See, for example, my article about the likelihood of depression for soda pop drinkers vs. coffee drinkers — Coffee May Reduce Depression Risk.
Neat explanation. Thank you!
Great Article, very helpful.
Thou I can’t seem to find an answer to the health benefits vs roast type.
If roasting longer produces oils on the surface it seems we would be absorbing these ‘beneifical’ oils more readily than light roasted coffee or are we still absorbing plenty of these oils from drinking the brewed bean in the first place? Any thoughts are appreciated. Thanks
Very informative! Thank you! Came here because I have been a regular patron at a certain gas station chain for years. They have Original, Vienna Roast, Colombian, and Costa Rican blends. Trying to learn the difference in terms of darkness and boldness.
Juan Miguel says
Worthy read. So there’s really a process of making light beans into a dark one. Those medium to dark one is so good too drink.
I really my coffee beans medium roasted. That way it retains the original yet strong coffee flavor. Thank you for this superb piece of information though.
I have been roasting my own beans in a popcorn popper. It is fun to experiment with different beans/roasts. Seems that sumatra beans are best for darker roasts, where the Central American and African beans are best for lighter roasts.
sweetmarias.com for my green coffee beans
Gayo Coffee says
Great Article, very helpful.
Indonesia Gayo Mountain Coffee
Troy Allison says
This is a very helpful article. I have been an avid coffee drinker for years and have always had a preference for darker roasts. They just seem to have more flavor. I’m the same way with my preference in Craft Beers, I like dark ones. I had been wanting to try roasting my own so my wife got me a SR500 roaster for my birthday. I love it. I have bought coffee off Burman Coffee in their dark sampler pack. Three, one pound packs of different coffees. Problem is I never knew what it meant when their description says they like this at a “Full City Roast” or something else. I’m afraid often I have roasted some of the flavor out by going to dark. I have heard before that coffee needs to “rest” for a few days before grinding so I’ve made sure to do that. Your article helped a lot. Now I can experiment with a little more knowledge. Thanks
Brian Lokker says
Thanks, Troy. I’m very pleased that you found it helpful. Thanks for reading Coffee Crossroads!
very helpful! I had no idea that the darker the roast, the lesser the caffeine! I actually thought since I drank a very dark roast, it was the MOST caffeine!!! I stayed away from light roasts because I didn’t want to drink “tea” as I call it! I will have to try a light roast and see what I was missing!
Yep. Those ones that are called “breakfast blends” because they are high caffeine levels for morning? Those are pretty light. I have been roasting my own beans, and I sometimes buy decaf green coffee beans. They are already partially roasted to get some of the caffeine out, and then when you roast them it takes out more. Instead of the khaki-beige color of the regular green beans, they are already sort of brown. A lot of people I know assumed stronger TASTING coffee meant stronger caffeine levels. But it’s actually the opposite. The longer you roast the beans, the more of the caffeine roasts out. Try some light coffees or some “breakfast blends”.
ali wafa says
Please show me The Roast comparation Chart,How to be a good Roasting….Thanks from Ali wafa – Gayo High Land Aceh
Are the health benefits of the different types of roast similar? Put differently, does the level of antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients vary according to the type of roast?
I would think that the longer you roast the beans, the more of the beneficial nutrients will leave them. The way that the longer you roast them, the more caffeine leaves. I would think it would be similar to food: the more you process food, and the further you get from the “raw” state, the less nutrients are retained from the original product. But this is just a guess based on common sense; I really don’t know if this is true with coffee.
Juan Miguel @Light Roast Coffee says
Truth be told, most consumers can’t differentiate between the nuances of Sulawesi and Colombian beans. Rather, they’ve learned that a light roast coffee may be livelier, while the dark roast may tend to stick around longer on their palate.
You are probably right about that. That is one thing that I love about roasting my own beans now; to taste all the different beans from various regions of the planet. All the nuances are really amazing. And also what beans taste better at what roast levels; the way that South American beans are generally better a bit lighter, whereas African and Indonesian beans are so great at darker levels.
Where are you getting this info? Caffeine is relatively stable during the roasting process. You don’t “lose” the caffeine content of the bean the darker the roast gets.
I was so confused with roast names. but this article gives a very detailed explanation and is very easy to understand. thanks!