Many of us approach how we like our coffee, in terms of “strength”.
Some of us like a “strong cup of coffee” for its flavour, and others might be looking to a “strong cup of coffee” for more caffeine. On the other hand, many of us want to steer clear of coffee we might find too strong.
In any case, what makes us perceive the “strength” of coffee, really comes down to how the coffee beans were roasted. Not just that, but roasting is also responsible for bringing out delicate flavours and aromas that are specific to the regions where coffee is grown.
Knowing a little about the real differences between light, medium, and dark roasts, will help you track down coffee that’s perfect for you.
Intro to Coffee Roasting and Names
A coffee roaster uses gas and cast-iron, to roast unroasted (or “green”) coffee beans. Similar to cast-iron cooking methods, gas is increased and decreased at certain times during the roasting process. These changes affect the degree, and colour, to which coffee is roasted.
In the coffee world, we have names for specific degrees/shades which coffee is roasted to. For light roasts, you might see “Half City”, “Cinnamon Roast”, or “Blonde”. To the eye, these would all be different shades of beige to light brown, yet still considered in the “light” category. Some degrees of medium roasts we’d call “Full City Roast” or “Regular Roast”, and dark roasts can be called “Vienna Roast”, “French Roast”, and “Italian Roast”.
That’s a lot of names to remember. And you certainly don’t have to! It’s really just a common language for coffee roasters when it comes to the spectrum of roast degrees. So you may see some of those names in cafés or on coffee bags in the grocery store, and that would help indicate what degree of roast you’re buying.
Dark or Light Roast?
But what flavours are you getting when you opt for a light roast rather than dark? And when are you sacrificing that precious caffeine??
Well first, let’s settle up some common misconceptions - by starting at the far end of the spectrum:
Dark Roast Coffee
Many people order or buy dark roast coffee under the impression that it’s “stronger” than light or medium roasts with regards to caffeine - however, this is not true.
As coffee is roasted, the caffeine naturally present inside green coffee is actually slowly burned away. The longer coffee is roasted, the less caffeine remains in the bean. Now let’s clear things up at the other end of the spectrum:
Light Roast Coffee
Just like with dark roasts, many people can be fooled by the “light” terminology, believing light roasts to be “weak”. Not only does light roasted coffee have (slightly) higher levels of caffeine, but it can produce coffee that’s just as flavourful (if not more-so) as medium or dark roasts.
Alright, so how does the roast degree affect the coffee’s flavour?
Depending on the region where coffee is grown, it can be roasted to specific degrees to bring out the inherent flavours and aromatic characteristics of the beans. A professional coffee roaster will know, through research and practice, what degree at which to roast their coffees, to bring out their desired results.
For example, specialty coffee roasters might tend to roast on the lighter side for beans from Ethiopia or Costa Rica, and roast on the medium to darker size with coffees from Brazil or Sumatra. Trial and error has told us that coffees from certain regions shine, when roasted to certain degrees.
Different Region, Different Flavours
Every coffee from every region is different. You may enjoy a dark roasted coffee from Brazil, but might not enjoy a coffee from Sumatra as much, even if it’s roasted to the same degree. There are a lot of factors going into how your coffee tastes, but here’s a rundown of what to expect in terms of how the roast degree will affect the taste:
Light roasts typically produce more sweet, and “floral” characteristics.
Specialty coffee roasters will tend to roast their higher quality coffees on the lighter side to bring out these complex flavours and aromas. Some light roasts will have fruity notes such as peach, strawberry, or citrus. Some will have tea-like properties like bergamot. Because lighter roasts tend to be sweeter, nutty notes can lean more towards “marzipan” rather than almond, for example.
Medium roasts produce more richness, with longer-developed flavours.
A good medium roast coffee will still have nice character and sweetness, but the floral notes will be more subdued. Up front will be chocolate, ranging from cocoa, to milk chocolate, to baker’s chocolate. Notes that seem savoury can be present, such as nut butter or cinnamon.
Depending on the coffee, some medium roasts will retain some fairly up-front fruity notes too, like blueberry, apricot, or blackberry. Nutty notes come out a bit more in medium roasts: peanut, almond, and hazelnut are all common.
Dark roasts produce bold, rich flavours. Most who enjoy dark roast coffee, enjoy adding milk and sugar to balance out the bitterness.
During the roasting process, sugars in the beans are caramelized. The longer coffee’s roasted, the more those sugars are pushed beyond caramelization and are, for lack of better words: burned away. A good dark roast coffee finds a balance between sweetness and bitterness.
Bitterness can be a good thing when paired with other flavours (for example, bitter elements are used in cocktails and tonics to produce unique and pleasant drinks). A nice cup of dark roast coffee might have notes of toasted marshmallow, and dark cocoa or raw cocoa notes might give any bitterness a “dark chocolate” kind of vibe. Roasted nut flavours might be present, like peanut or walnut. In terms of sweetness, you might find molasses, dark brown sugar, or honey.
That’s basically a crash course on roast degrees, and how they affect your coffee!
Now, armed with this knowledge, you should be able to narrow down some coffees at your favourite shop which are right for you. And when seeking out that “strong cup of coffee”, we know just what to look for.
Author John Ohrn