Knowing the difference between the various roast levels is an important factor when deciding which coffee beans to buy. The roast level, brew style and the specific part of the world from which the coffee beans originated (also referred to as origin by coffee aficionados) are the main contributing factors that will determine how your coffee will taste and what flavor notes will be more pronounced over others.
With that in mind, let’s explore the four main roast levels to consider when shopping for that perfect bag of beans!
Light Roast: For those that prefer a ‘tea-like’ delicate flavor profile, light roast might be just the roast for you! If you’re wondering whether your current bag of beans falls under this category, you can verify by taking a quick look directly at your beans. Not only will they be a fairly light version of ‘coffee bean brown’, but you may also notice that there are no visible oils on the surface of the beans. The longer coffee beans are roasted, the more oils that are pulled to the surface. Since lightly roasted beans are generally not roasted for very long and sometimes at a lower temperature, oils generally don’t get a chance to come to the surface with this type of roast.
To help pick out the light roasts in your local grocery store or café, this mild roast level is also known as: Light City, Half City, Cinnamon, Blonde or New England.
Medium Roast: If you’ve never tasted the tea-like brew or seen the light tan hue that comes from a delicate light roast, one might find it easy to confuse a light roast with a medium. When looking directly at the roasted beans, neither light or medium roasts should have visible oils on the surface. However, if you taste a light roast side-by-side with a medium roast, you would immediately detect the difference. With more pronounced flavor than a light roast, but still far from a heavy dark roast, this middle-ground roast tends to be the most popular roast of all!
To spot medium roasts at your local grocery store or café, they may also be called: American, City, or Breakfast.
Medium-Dark Roast: Moving to the heavier bodied spectrum of the roast scale, medium-dark roasts tend to have oils on the surface of the beans and the fresh brew usually offers a slightly bittersweet taste.
This type of roast is often referred to as Full-City, Vienna or an After Dinner Roast.
Dark Roasts & Beyond: The roast style that made Starbucks and the Seattle coffee scene famous is often enjoyed in a latte or cappuccino, or with a little cream and/or sugar to take the edge off. Darkly roasted beans can be easily identified by their extremely oily surface and can range from just plain dark to very-dark with a pronounced charred-like taste.
This type of roast is also known as Italian, Viennese, French and Espresso.
Understanding the primary roast types is an excellent way to help you identify what you like, and what you will ultimately buy. But like most things, roast types can vary. ‘Roaster A’ may refer to their lightest roast as a ‘light roast’, but when compared to ‘Roaster B’s’ light roast, it may seem a little dark. Some more analytical-types might be annoyed by this variation, but others view this as the beauty of coffee! While there are guidelines to help set standards and best practices, the actual process is a creative one where subjectivity is commonplace.
When it comes to a great cup of coffee, the standard that truly matters is yours.