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Roast Levels – What’s the Difference Between Light Roast, Medium Roast & Dark Roast?

By 04/25/2015Coffeecademy, Tasting

Coffee roasts are identified by their color: light, medium and dark. Although these are not the most accurate terms for describing different roasts, as some coffees are naturally darker or lighter than others, they are convenient ways to categorize roasts. When purchasing coffee, you should expect different characteristics from a light roast, a medium roast, and a dark roast.

Light Roasts Retain Most of the Original Coffee Characteristics

Light roasts have a light brown, tan, color and lack of oil on the roasted beans. They have the highest acidity and are the brightest of the three roast levels.

The characteristics of different origins are most pronounced in light roasts, as are the qualities of the individual coffee. Much of the taste comes from the original coffee, which is why light roasts are often used for cuppings.

Light roasts are sometimes called Half City, Light City, New England, or Cinnamon roasts.

Medium Roasts Balance Acidity and Body

A medium roast will have a darker brown color than a light roast and will look richer. Some of the coffee’s oils may be visible on the beans, as well.

At this roast level, the coffee’s qualities begin to give way to the roast’s flavors and aromas, creating a balance between acidity and body. You’ll still be able to taste the original coffee, but the beans’ brightness will be complemented with the fuller body that is introduced by the roasting process.

Medium roasts go by City, Breakfast, Regular, and American roasts.

Dark Roasts Showcase Bold Bodies and a Richer Taste

Dark roasts are dark brown, sometimes almost black, in color. They resemble chocolate, if it was shaped like a coffee bean. Oils can be seen on the beans at this point.

Oils can be seen on dark roasted beans.

When drinking a dark roast, you’re almost exclusively tasting notes from the roast. The brightness of light roasts is replaced with body in dark roasts. Because the original coffee’s qualities are mostly lost at this roast level, it’s difficult to pick out the characteristics of a specific coffee’s origin or lot.

Historically, dark roasts have been popular in Europe, giving rise to terms such as Continental, Italian, French, and Spanish roasts. Espresso roasts are also usually dark roasts, which is partly why espresso can stand up to lots of milk and sugar.

Roast level is largely a personal preference, as each level produces different qualities in the coffee. Knowing whether you prefer light, medium or dark roasts, though, can help you identify new coffees that you might like.

Try a Driftaway Coffee subscription that starts with a tasting kit, and includes four different coffees with different roast levels. We believe tasting is the best way to figure out which coffees (and roast levels) you like!

Author Scott

Scott is a professional writer for Driftaway Coffee. He worked as a barista for eight years, but today prefers to enjoy his beverages from the other side of the counter. When not drinking Driftaway Coffee, Scott usually has a mug of his own roasted coffee nearby.

More posts by Scott
  • fluffydahitta

    Thanks for this Scott, love ya man.

  • http://residualincomer.com/ Yaro

    Many times in coffee shops you get two different drip choices: light roast coffee, or dark. Though overlooking the distinctions between the growing regions they come from, they’re typically offered as, simply, light or dark – http://coffeelounge.net/light-roast-coffee/

  • Guy LeDouche

    This is fascinating to me because the coffees I got in my 4 testing samples were all near cinnamon roasts – dry tan beans.

  • http://pornhub.com Luxi Terna

    yeah, this was FASCINATING (all your coffee info pages. I only just started drinking it). I got here via google just for the info. But now I’m going to see what you’re selling.

    …Right after I make a cup of dark roast from the assortment I have, since I assumed there wasn’t much difference (I only started drinking it since I didn’t know it was palatable with raw sugar, a LOT of cream and some vanilla.) And to think I wasted all that money on caffeine pills as a kid.

  • Juan Figueroa

    Does this affect if a coffee tastes more “watery”? i’m interested in having a strong flavor with K-Cups. I bought one and the coffee is not tasting as i would like because i like strong.

    • Matt K

      Its actually pretty interesting how many things can make your coffee taste watery. Through personal experimenting I’ve noticed a few factors:
      -quality of coffee brewer (cheap ones will almost always brew watery with some exceptions)
      -quality of coffee (better brands will need less coffee grounds while cheaper brands typically require more coffee grounds to counteract the watery taste)
      -how hot the coffee gets and how long the coffee sits before drinking (usually if you have a cheap brewer, you will have to let your coffee sit there in the heat so it can fully release all the coffee compounds. If you try and drink right away it will taste watery. Higher quality brewers will brew at a higher heat and are usually good to go once brewing is done)
      -what type of cup you use. (Oddly, this matters. I notice that if I have everything else perfect, my plastic travel mug will always change the flavor of the coffee to watery, no matter what I do. Coffee inside ceramic always tastes best to me. Metal is okay but I prefer ceramic. It has something to do with how porous the material is)

      A keurig will almost always make good coffee because it heats the coffee enough so that its ready to go. But even so a plastic travel mug always seems to alter the taste.

      • Juan Figueroa

        I am using a Kcup machine i bought at Macy’s. I used kcups that says medium roast, but the flavor is not strong as i would like. Is like drinking water instead of coffee. Which one is suppose to have strong flavor, light roast or medium trough dark?

        • Matt K

          It could be light, medium, or dark. That really doesnt affect if coffee is strong or not. If you want coffee to be strong and not taste watery you have to use more coffee and make sure you’re using a good brewer. When you say “k-cup brewer” I’m assuming you mean a sunbeam, hamilton, or cuisinart brand maybe and not keurig? Unfortunately this matters. You’re brewer may mot be heating the coffee grounds to a high enough temperature for the grounds to release the full amount of compounds, thus you end up with watery coffee.

          • Juan Figueroa

            A Cuisinart, yes.

  • Mid West

    Light roast has a flavor. The rest is just burned vegetation….thanks to Starbucks educating America to not know what coffee even is. They even used to have a chart in the store showing you that a bean needed to be burnt first. Once you burn it, it all tastes the same: burnt; it matters not what blend. Then, since it tastes so bad, you put ‘stuff’ in it. Coffee is black, anything added is because it tastes too bad to drink or you don’t like coffee. PERIOD. It is either a light roast or you should just go to a donut shop.

    • Paul B

      You’re obviously very passionate about coffee, and that’s good for you. But your statement is also pretty ignorant. I won’t comment on Starbucks because it makes no difference to me how a particular chain likes to prepare their coffee, but there’s nothing wrong with adding to coffee. Do you eat your steak unseasoned and raw? If so, then great. I like mine cooked to varying temperatures and sometimes with a good rub or marinade. It’s whatever the dish or recipe calls for; and they’re all still steak for whomever to enjoy, however they wish. People drink coffee however they like. If coffee wasn’t the foundation for their specific recipe then it wouldn’t be coffee; but just because they added something doesn’t mean it’s not coffee anymore or that they don’t appreciate the ingredient for its characteristics.

      • Mid West

        Well, I see you know nothing about coffee or the evil man that runs Starbucks; ingnorance is bliss, no?…LMFAO! People add stuff to coffee because it tastes so bas. Go to Costa Rica and try some real coffee….sheep.
        Search “The Real Reason Coffee at Starbucks Tastes Bitter and Burned” and get educated…if you dare…LOL!