Coffee is an ancient product that has been consumed by various cultures since the 15th century, each with their own unique differences and coffee roasting processes. As such, lots of terminology has been developed on how to properly categorize coffee for an ever-increasing audience of consumers. This is a double-edged sword: granting experienced coffee drinkers easy reference on what they're buying, but leaving new consumers with an entirely new lexicon to study. Fret not, because understanding the differences between light vs medium vs dark roast coffee is an incredibly simple process.
How is Coffee Roasted?
First, it helps to understand what the process of roasting actually does for the coffee. Before being roasted, the product is called “green coffee”, due to its characteristic green color. These coffees can have natural differences even before roasting, helping coffee roasting companies choose which origin of coffee they want to roast in the first place. After the origin of green coffee is chosen, the green coffee is placed into a large roaster, usually either a gas-heated Drum Roaster, or an air-heated Hot Air Roaster. As the coffee is roasted, it goes through several different stages of roast level, from light, to medium, to dark, each providing its own unique flavor profile. The same coffee can taste vastly different as it passes through different roast levels, so coffee roasters take great care to understand the full range of what a coffee has to offer. After a particular roast level is achieved, the coffee is cooled on a cooling tray, and packaged for sale and consumption. While it is a complicated process, each step is incredibly important to accurately achieve the desired end result of delicious roasted coffee.
Sometimes called “City Roast” or “New England Roast”, light roasted coffee is brighter and more delicate than medium or dark roast coffee. The primary differences in light roasted coffee are acidity and caffeine, providing the strongest concentration of both. As light roast coffee burns away the least amount of caffeine, it will be the most energizing roast, while tasting the least bold as well, often giving a clear and representative taste of the coffee’s origin. With its characteristic clarity, strength, and fruitiness, light roasts tend to be the favorite of experienced coffee drinkers and roasters, though it can be too acidic and fruity for some palates.
Sometimes called “City Plus”, medium roasted coffee is the middle of the road when compared to dark and light roast coffee. The chief difference in medium roasted coffee lies in its texture and depth, providing a more full and bold flavor. Medium roast coffee will have an average caffeine level, but will have a thicker, more syrupy body when compared to light roasts. Known for its sweet caramel flavors, some nuttiness, and a balanced acidity, medium roasts are an ideal choice for a classic cup of coffee that also gives a clear profile of the original coffee origin.
Sometimes called “Full City” or “Full City Plus”, dark roasted coffee is the most rustic and “dark” profile when compared to medium and light roast coffee. With its strongest roasting differences lying in the coffee’s texture and sweetness, dark roasts are a simple coffee to pick out of a lineup. Dark roast coffees will have the lowest amount of caffeine, but make up for it with boldness of flavor and texture. Dark roasts are known to be very chocolatey and sweet, with strong nutty flavors and a strong concentration of expressed oils, providing more flavor overall. They also tend to be the least acidic and fruity coffees, making dark roasts a great choice when seeking the classic “diner coffee” flavor, or for drinkers who like a particular bold and strong-tasting brew.
The Right Roast for You
The taste of coffee is an inherently subjective quality, and one roaster’s medium roast coffee could be vastly different from another’s. There are even roasts outside of this range, such as Vienne/French roast, or White roast, all of which provide their own unique flavor profiles and characteristics. Different origins are also best suited to different roast levels, with denser beans being able to handle darker roasts. Blended coffees may also mix different roasts of beans and origins to achieve a particular flavor profile, creating a large scale of depth and nuance that cannot be defined simply by the roast level. Each coffee drinker’s palate is unique, and all coffees may not suit a particular palate — an important reason to understand the differences in coffee! Ask a local barista which coffees they serve and like, and use that information to help develop your own personal brand of coffee consumption — there is sure to be the perfect roast out there for you.
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