Light Roast vs. Medium Roast vs. Dark Roast
When it comes to expanding your coffee horizons, you can make some educated guesses based on two aspects: the origin of the beans and the roast.
The origin of the beans obviously affects the flavor—different soils and types of beans change what ends up in your morning mug. The roasting process plays a key role in the end product, too, and it’s a largely subjective area of coffee drinking.
We've all heard that Arabica is better than Robusta, that beans from the motherland, aka Yirgacheffe, ultimately win out against all others, that single-serve automatic machines just can’t replicate the care and precision of more artistic methods such as pour over or french press, and that decaf is total blasphemy.
These are things we know.
Unlike those tried-and-true facts, the debate between light roast vs. medium roast vs. dark roast isn’t as finite. Ultimately, it’ll come down to a taste test, something you’ll have to handle yourself. In the meantime, though, we can give you a great foundation to work off.
The Green Bean
Coffee beans aren’t a delightful shade of warm brown as we’re typically accustomed to—not before they’ve been roasted, at any rate.
On the plant, the beans we know and love are encased in what’s usually simply referred to as ‘the cherry.’ They’re picked, cleaned of the stone fruit, to reveal a “green” bean. They look a lot closer to a pistachio than what we typically grind up for our caffeine fix. Unlike pistachios, they don’t have much taste, though, and won’t get you that cuppa joe you need to, ya know, well, live.
Before it can make its way into your mug, then ultimately coursing through your bloodstream, the beans have to be roasted first. Contrary to what some believe, beans don’t come with a specific roast type—it’s another one of those instances (much like espresso) where the beans don’t dictate the category, the roaster does.
Any picked bean can be roasted any which way: light, medium, or dark. There are even many roasters that offer intermediate steps between those because what is life without choices? You can also roast beans yourself in your own home if you opt to buy green (or unroasted) beans. What’s nice about this is, one, the control you have over roasting, and two, that you can store them without worrying about them going stale or losing flavor.
Just a random tidbit there. Since we primarily buy our beans pre-roasted (but whole) (not pre-ground) (don’t argue with me on this), let’s chat about what it means to opt for a light roast versus dark roast, or striking that middle ground with a solid medium roast.
The Roasting Processes
Like I said, all beans start out “green,” or raw. Check out the video below to watch some beans roasting to a beautiful deep brown, and then we’ll talk about some of the machinery involved.
It’s kind of cool, right? If you were imaging that the roasting process would look more like an endless supply of racks with a single layer of beans (like the way pumpkin seeds are cooked), we would’ve been on the same page for many years, fellow coffee connoisseur.
The truth is much closer to a household clothes dryer than anything else. Who’d’ve thunk it?
Before we delve deeper into the difference between the roasting types, let’s talk a little bit about the lingo and scales. While it’s true that every roaster has a different method to their caffeinated madness, we can talk about generalities.
Roasts are typically determined by what are called “cracks.” As the beans are roasted, they become less dense as they lose water. Like all things being sapped of their hydration, the beans’ outer shells will begin to stiffen, losing the spongy quality.
As this happens, the beans will eventually hit a breaking point, typically referred to as “the first crack.” More often than not, light roasts are pulled from the roasters prior to that first crack. Some are allowed to hit the popping point before cooling, but much after that and the beans are entering a medium roast status.
Medium roast, much like the first roast, is dictated by a crack—the second one. Most medium roasts are pulled before that second milestone is hit. Dark roasts, on the other head, are dictated more by the oily sheen. They’re roasted from the beginning to middle of the second crack.
Let’s take a closer look at each roast.
These caramelly-colored beans are likely not what you expect—you probably think they have less caffeine or have little flavor. Neither of those statements particularly ring true about this bean.
Roasted to before the first “crack,” light roasts retain a remarkable amount of their origin flavors and aromas. If a bean is known for its cocoa hints, you’ll taste that cocoa; if it’s renowned for its flowery notes, this is the bean that’ll highlight those jasmine, dandelion, or honeysuckle hints.
Light roast coffees are also spun at a lower temperature that its fellow methods, staying between 350-450 degrees Fahrenheit.
And, because brands aren’t all that good at coming up with creative names, they are a few tried-and-true terms coffee sellers slap on their light roast bags: Light City, Half City, Cinnamon Roast, and New England Roast. I’m not encouraging this habit (there’s no flat-out rules across the industry when it comes to designating roasts), but I suppose it does help consumers easily spot what they’re looking for.
We’re just before the second crack. That’s when most medium roasts are dropped out to cool. While a darker brown, these beauts are still nice and warm in shade. They’re often touted as having a balanced taste, and they’re probably what’s considered the most common roast.
These beans remain stubbornly non-oily, even after being roasted between temperatures as high as 410-430 degrees Fahrenheit. They can, however, end up a little on the sweeter side thanks to more caramelization from the longer, higher roasting times and temps.
You’ll run across bags labeled with Regular Roast (how original), American Roast, City Roast, and Breakfast Roast.
This is a pretty common intermediary step for roasting levels, so we’ll talk about it briefly. The beans are starting to hit that stock photo color—that perfect multi-hued combination of tantalizing browns. Chestnut and cocoa, slight dashes of amber or burnt umber. It’s a picture-perfect roast.
Medium-dark roast is also where you’ll begin to see a bit of sheen to the beans thanks to the higher heat of 435-445 degrees Fahrenheit. Oily beans typically make for a nice crema on an espresso shot, which is why coffee makers usually use from this level on up.
The dictator of the medium-dark roast is the beginning-to-middle of the second crack. Referred to often as a Full-City Roast, After Dinner Roast, or Vienna Roast, this is where the divide between roasts gets larger.
Starting from this point, the roaster’s process influences the beans’ taste much more prominently. The super secret tweaks and quirks and whatnots of the roaster play a much larger role in the more bittersweet, possibly spicy, taste of these beans.
I said I would discuss this briefly, but I lied. Deal with it.
MEDIUM DARK ROAST
These are the oily beans that can really clog up your single-serve automatic machine, but the aroma, folks. Dark roasts make for a good 2 ouncer of espresso, and the smoky, bitter taste is really unmistakable.
Roasted between 465-485 degrees Fahrenheit, these pups have long since hit the second crack and beyond. They masquerade under “French Roast,” “Italian Roast,”
“Espresso Roast,” “Continental Roast,” “Spanish Roast,” and many more. If you want to know why the-roast-we-do-not-speak-of is crossed out, mosey on over to the espresso guide. I’m not a record player, okay.
We’ve really powered through this topic, so give yourself a high five. Let’s wrap this up neatly, with a pretty bow, by tacking on pure knowledge.
There may be a question kicking around in your mind, one that you’re trying to pin down, but can’t quite put into words. I’m guessing it’s a little something like this: what the hell happens in those roasters? What are these roasters adding? Doing? Just what?
It is kind of puzzling. I think it becomes a little more miraculous if you chomp on a raw bean before asking the question, but the simple answer is this: nothing.
It’s called the Maillard Reaction, and you see a similar process when making toast. The application of heat affects the amino acids and sugars present, basically like magic. This series of chemical reactions, catalyzed by nothing but the increase of air temperature, is what transforms a limp piece of white bread into golden-brown goodness. Same pretty much goes for that raw coffee bean — just starting with a palish green.
You might also be surprised to hear that, although we’ve been conditioned to appreciate the smokiness and bitterness of a dark roast, light roasts have much more complex flavor profiles, ones that bespoke their origins. I know I stated this earlier, but it’s worth repeating.
If you’re clutching tightly to your back of black beans, I mean, that’s fine. You do you, boo. But there’s something really remarkable that can be said about a bag of coffee that’s holding the nutrients, the uniqueness, of a far away land locked inside its lightly roasted shells. You might even find you can ditch the sugar and creamer if you opt for a lighter brew.
Also, coffee is a fruit. Those beans are really seeds. No, I won’t start calling them seeds, but, like they say, a smart man knows a tomato is a fruit, a wise man doesn’t add it to a fruit salad.
Plus, the next time some know-it-all tells you to eat your fruit and veggies, just angrily hold up your coffee mug and demand, “Well, what do you think I’m doing?!” Just make sure the anger is real, dammit.
Roasts are all a subjective thing. It’s probably better that way, because companies subjectively roast them. The general guidelines can be a really helpful way of determining your preference, but don’t be afraid to branch out—especially if you’re curious about some of the options on the lighter end of the brown color spectrum.
If you’re looking for suggestions, check out the articles on espresso beans, organic beans, and low acid beans, and just give it a go. Trial and error are your best friends on the path to discovery, so pat them both on the back and find something likeable or funny about them. They’re there for the long haul.