- Light Roast Coffee: pronounced acidity, clear and mild cup, more origin flavors.
- Medium Roast Coffee: balance between acidity, sweetness and aromas.
- Medium-Dark Roast Coffee: lower acidity, more chocalate-like notes, heavier mouthfeel.
- Dark Roast Coffee: notes of dark chocolate, heavy mouthfeel.
- This is only a guideline as coffee flavors depend also on roast profiles, varieties and processes.
...if you have time, dive deep into the full article
No matter what the name of the final coffee bean color is, every coffee, although varying one from another, goes through a similar transformation.
For you as a home barista and coffee lover, these changes don't only refer to the physical transformation of the beans, but especially to the changes and development in the flavor profile.
The purpose of this post is to give you a basic understanding of the flavor changes occurring during the roasting process related to the intensity of the flavor compounds and their relation to each other. Finally, I want to simplify the process of finding the right beans with the right roast for you.
The coffee flavors potential lays in the beans
The final flavor profile is greatly dependent on the initial flavor-contributing compounds in the coffee beans and how the roaster gets to them and can extract a balanced flavor experience for you.
The main flavor contributing elements refer to sweetness, acidity, aromas, mouth-feel (body) and bitterness. Depending on how far the roaster pushes the bean through the roast, it changes the intensity of these flavors and their balance to each other.
In Coffee Croassroads Brian Lokker remarks:
"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."
Coffee Roasting Levels
"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 [and some other factors], color is a convenient way to categorize roasting levels." (Lokker, 2013)
Coffee is like a rainbow: green, yellow, light brown, dark brown!
This is more or less the color spectrum a coffee undergoes during its hot adventure in a roasting drum.
But what you get to see in the end are usually the roasted coffee beans in a brown-shade which can be anything from a light-brown, cinnamon-like tone to a deep, dark, cocoa-like brown.
I'm sure that when you buy coffee you have read names referring to the coffee bean roast color on the packaging such as "French Roast Coffee", "Espresso Roast", "Cinnamon Roast" or just "Light Roast".
As you can see from these examples, there are no clear standards in the coffee industry and every company and roaster has different names for their roast colors. These differences in the understanding of coffee roasts can lead to confusion within [the roasting world]. What can be referred to as a medium roast for one roaster, could already be a dark roast for another roaster.
Generally, we can divide coffee in one of the following four color ranges. (Coffee Roast Guide)
- Light Roast Coffee
- Medium Roast Coffee
- Medium-Dark Roast Coffee
- Dark Roast Coffee
#1: Light Roast Coffee
When asking friends about how they perceive light roasted coffee, they always say that it has a high acidity. In fact, lighter roasts are characterized by a more pronounced and intense acidity combined to a clear and mild cup.
Most of the sweetness that the coffee comes with is retained in lighter roasts as the process of caramelization has not affected it to a greater extent.
Moreover, lighter roasts preserve more of their original flavor. In high quality beans this may contribute to an amazing coffee experience as roast notes haven't penetrated the flavor spectrum.
But when low-quality coffees are roasted lightly, quality issues become more apparent. Despite of the potential to give us a great cup of coffee, improperly roasted beans can reveal some bitter notes combined with astringency (dry mouth-feel). This is a clear roasting problem and thus can prevent even the best coffee of the world to show its great characteristics.
#2: Medium Roast Coffee
Pushing the beans from light to medium roast, can increase the intensity of aromas, sweetness, and acidity. While the latter usually reaches a peak during light-medium roast, the other flavor compounds appear in a more balanced way than in lighter roasts.
The mouth-feel of the coffee is increased. Roast notes are not that apparent yet.
As a consequence of its balanced flavors, medium roasted coffees are used in cupping protocols for specialty coffees to determine the different flavor qualities and their intensities.
#3: Medium-Dark Roast Coffee
Pushing a roast a little bit further, the intensity of acidity decreases as well as the complexity of the aromas.
Roast notes become more apparent and the body gets heavier. As coffee is caramelized during roasting, typically more bitter notes appear.
The overall complexity can decrease approaching more of a chocolate-like flavor profile.
#4: Dark Roast Coffee
A dark roasted coffee is not to be mistaken for a burnt coffee, a general misconception I have perceived in the past.
Dark roasted coffee is dominated by the roast notes of the roasting process covering the original flavor profile of the origin to a greater extent.
Acidity decreases significantly, leaving only a trace of the original ones.
The mouth-feel of the coffee is increased and the bitter notes of caramelization show up. Aromas and taste are marked by the roasting process.
A well dark roasted coffee, can reveal notes of chocolate or cocoa seeds. Bitterness and flavors caused by burning such as smoke or ash should be avoided.
Finally, the overall flavor profile of a coffee will strongly depend on its origin, processing and of course the entire brewing process.
In this post you have learned that the degree of roasted coffee or its final brown-shade is a great and convenient indicator for a certain flavor profile. It's not graved in stone, but can give you a first impression of what to expect in the final brew.
In addition to the coffee bean roast color, the way the roast master manipulates the roaster significantly impacts the final coffee flavors profile of the brew. At the same time, it gives the coffee a more personal note.
Another important factor is your ability to perceive the different flavor-contributing compounds. The flavor perception varies from person to person depending on the sensorial experience. That means that you can only recognize flavors which you have already experienced during your lifetime.
However, training your tasting skills is not difficult and requires only focusing on what you eat and drink every day and become aware of the flavors you are trying.
Trying different coffees from different origins and roast degrees, can also contribute to train these sensorial skills and increase your sensibility.
What degree of roast do you usually prefer?
I hope this post was helpful and I would appreciate if you want to share your thoughts and experience about this.
I'm looking forward to your commentaries below.
Ackerman, K. (2015). Everything You Need to Know About Coffee Roasts. [Blog] Foodal. Available at: https://foodal.com/drinks-2/coffee/guides-coffee/the-influence-of-roasting-on-flavor-profiles/ [Accessed on 2017, May 16]
Coffee Roast Guide. National Coffee Association of U.S.A. Available at: http://www.ncausa.org/About-Coffee/Coffee-Roasts-Guide [Accessed on 2017, May 6]
Lokker, B. (2013). Coffee Roasts from Light to Dark. [Blog] Coffee Crossroads. Available at: https://www.coffeecrossroads.com/coffee-101/coffee-roasts-from-light-to-dark [Accessed on 2017, May 6].
Roasted Coffee and Degree of Roast Color. (2011, May 11). [Blog] Coffee Enterprises. Available at: https://www.coffeeenterprises.com/2011/05/roasted-coffee-degree-of-roast-color/ [Accessed on 2017, May 1]
Sivetz, M. (1963). Coffee processing technology. Westport, Conn.: Avi Pub. Co..
Title picture by Nousnou Iwasaki on Unsplash
Corrected & revised by Andrea Letzner