From Dark to Light: The Serious Coffee Lovers’ Guide to Coffee Roasts

These days, light roast coffee is experiencing a surge in popularity. So what’s changed in the coffee-drinking world?

Well, a lot, but let’s begin with the different shades of coffee roasts. There is a real distinction between light, medium and dark roast coffee, and we’re talking about more than just the colour of the coffee beans when they are removed from the roaster.

We sat down (over coffee, of course,) with some of the most passionate coffee connoisseurs to shed some light on everything you need to know about coffee bean roasts. Hint: The difference lies in the taste too, not just the amount of caffeine kick.

Light Roast Coffee

Light roast, easily identified by its light brown colour, gives off a more pronounced acidic flavour while retaining the origin of the coffee bean. Photo from Ciara Hillyer

Let’s start with the lighter side of the spectrum. Have you ever had a cup of coffee that was so bitter, it took a while to finish it? If you find yourself enjoying coffee with a sweeter, more tangy taste, light roast coffee is your go-to order.

When coffee cherries are picked, the beans are soft, green in colour and tasteless before they are roasted to bring out the aroma and flavour that we have come to know and love.

Light roast coffee beans are roasted between 175-200°C to either just before or right at the first crack. Word has it that coffee roasters in the 80s realised when high-quality beans are roasted for a shorter time, more complex flavours are unlocked.

Many like light roasts for its milder taste — it is less bitter, though more acidic to the tongue. Having been exposed to heat for a shorter time, the beans offer some delicately nuanced flavours, retaining much of the original taste imbued from the soil they have been grown in.

A cup of light roast coffee reveals traces of sweetness and fruity undertones, often with a subtle floral aroma.

Medium Roast Coffee

Medium roast is generally preferred by most coffee drinkers because of its balanced flavour profile — delicately nuanced flavours, highly aromatic and likely to be sweet. Photo from Nathan Dumlao

Next, the medium roast coffee, an all-rounder in the coffee roasting realm. Coffee beans are roasted a little longer than the light roast until the colour turns a slightly darker shade of brown.

Medium roasts are typically exposed to temperatures between 200-220°C, roasted to the end of the first crack or the beginning of the second.

These coffee beans offer a multilayered complexity in taste. While many of the coffee’s original flavours are preserved, the beans are also roasted until they begin to reach a deep caramel sweetness.

As a result, your cup of medium roast coffee is most likely to be sweet in flavour with prominent notes of fruit, chocolate and caramel, highly aromatic and less acidic. For those who prefer a more balanced flavour profile, you can’t go wrong with a medium roast.

Dark Roast Coffee

Dark roast, as you may have guessed, is the darkest in colour. The beans may also appear shiny to the eye and oily to touch. Photo from Jakub Kapusnak

Traditionally, dark roast is used to mask defective or lower grade coffee beans. They are roasted to a point where one is no longer able to taste any of the discerning qualities.

Lately though, coffee roasters are no longer roasting away the bad flavours, but creating dark roasts to bring out the deeper and darker yet pleasant notes in coffee beans.

The dark roast happens roughly at the end of the second crack or slightly beyond, reaching a little over 230°C. At this stage, the coffee’s original flavours (bright tones) are typically overshadowed by the roasting qualities, which are bold and rich in body and texture as well as a hallmark aroma familiar to most.

The right dark roast sometimes reveals a decadent dark chocolatey flavour or toasted pine. It’s hard to miss dark roast; the dark shiny appearance from the oily beans will give away the roast.

But wait, which has the most caffeine?

It’s important to know which roast level you prefer because it determines how much flavour is in your cup of coffee. Photo from Victor Munoz

A dark, richer roast sounds like it leads to stronger coffee, right?

The answer is no. Or not really.

Caffeine content remains pretty much stable at each stage of the roasting process. So fret not;  be it light, medium or dark roast, it will all get you equally caffeinated.

However, the density of the bean does change; beans that are roasted longer are less dense. If you measure your coffee by scoops, light roasts technically have more caffeine. If you weigh out your scoops, darker roasts will have more caffeine, because there is less mass.

Now that you’ve got the coffee beans roasted just the way you like it, make sure you get the best coffee you can with them. Start with the Prima Donna coffee machine, or choose the right gadgets that will take your coffee drinking experience to the next level.