Coffee 101: Roast Types

So if you were anything like me when I first got into coffee then to you all coffee is I’d a vehicle with which you deliver caffeine to your body.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’d argue that coffee is more than just a means through which you can get your morning buzz so allow me to explain to you the basics behind coffee.

Roast Type.

So you may have heard of light or dark roasts and you can probably infer they have something to do with how long the coffee beans have been roasted but what does this exactly mean to you as a consumer? What’s the difference between a light or a dark roast? What the hell is a medium roast?

So long story short, the roast of a bean refers to how long the coffee beans have been exposed to heat. The longer a coffee beans has been roasted the stronger the flavors tend to be. Coffee beans are typically categorized into three distinct types of roasts: dark, light, and medium.

Dark Roasts.

Dark roasts are typically very bold and have very strong flavors. I have seen a lot of people order dark roasts whenever I’m in a coffee shop or say that they prefer dark roasts over light roasts. I have observed that many people seem to prefer to order dark roasts over all other types of roasts which leads me to conclude that people either a) really like dark roasts or b) someone somewhere started the belief that dark roasts are the best kind of coffee. However any good statistician will tell you that anecdotes and personal observations make for a bad sampling method so take my anecdotes with a hefty grain of salt. Regardless, I would typically describe dark roasts as having very smoky or burnt tastes. They tend to be more bitter than other roast types and sometimes they may even have spicy notes. Technically speaking, an espresso roast is just a very dark roast.

When cold brewed dark roasts will typically have a very bitter forward taste so you have to be careful with the grind size and brew time. If done carefully however you can be rewarded with a cold brew that has incredibly deep and rich dark chocolate notes and sometimes even a pleasantly spicy flavor.

Light Roasts.

Light roasts on the other hand are roasted for much shorter amounts of time. The flavors they tend to impart when brewed are lighter and more “fruit-like”.  If I had to describe light roasts I would say they typically have more of an acidic bite than other roast types and generally have nutty/malty notes when brewed in a cup of drip coffee. If cold brewed they generally produce very light but citrus-y flavors which make for a unique drinking experience.  I’ve often heard them described as more complex however the manner in which that word is used is so vague I’m not quite convinced that the flavors are so much “more complex” as they are subtle.

Medium Roasts.

Finally, we have the enigmatic medium roast. Many of the medium roasts I have tasted and worked with tend to be more chocolatey and fudge-y in flavor which puts them closer to dark roasts in terms of flavor profiles. However they tend to be much else bitter than dark roasts  and slightly sweet. Overall medium roasts provide a balanced flavor profile and are generally a safe choice when you don’t know anything else about the beans.

If you’re unsure what sort of flavors you prefer in your coffee I’d recommend starting with a medium roast as they typically result in a cup of coffee that is less acidic and less bitter than other roast types while also possessing strong flavor profiles.

Differences in Caffeine by Roast Type.

I’ve heard people say that dark and light roasts have different amounts of caffeine by volume which might be true but for the most part – to my understanding at least – the variances in caffeine in beans are more likely to be affected by where they were grown as opposed to how they we’re roasted.

If you’re truly and primarily concerned about getting as much caffeine as possible out of a cup of coffee I’d suggest investigating cold brewing as that process tends to yield very concentrated coffee with levels of caffeine that are typically between 1.5x-2.0x of regular drip coffee; you also get the added upside of being able to drink it quickly since it’ll be cold.

Anyways, that’s all I have to say on roast types. Roast types are a good way to get a general idea of what sort of flavors a particular type of coffee might have, however there are other factors that also affect flavor such as origin location, process (i.e. wet, dry, etc.), grind size, brew time, etc. So this guide here isn’t an end all be all by any means but rather it’s an introduction to the different ways to categorize and think about coffee. Ultimately at the end of the day you should go with whatever blend, roast, or type of coffee that you enjoy drinking the most.



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