Should you roast your beans light, medium, or dark to get the most potent flavors? Where should you start if you’re not an aspiring roaster but want to dip your toes into the third wave coffee scene? How can you find the roast level you’ll love most?
This guide will help you navigate the turbulent waters of coffee distinction and find the best roast for your palette.
On Deck (Table of Contents)
- Levels of Coffee Roast: The Basics
- Does the coffee roast level affect the caffeine?
- How the Coffee Roasting Process Works
- How to Find Your Ideal Coffee Roast Levels
- Specialty Coffee Roasted to Perfection at Fathom Coffee
Levels of Coffee Roast: The Basics
The primary levels of coffee roast are light, medium, and dark. Of course, for the coffee connoisseur, there are varying degrees of each. Once you understand the different coffee roast levels we cover below, you’ll be well on your way to finding your favorite.
Note: The roasting times below are estimates and could be different based on the type of roaster used.
Coffee Roast Levels from Unroasted to Very Dark
Source: Sweet Maria’s
Unroasted (or “green”) coffee beans can vary in color based on where they originate. For example, unroasted beans from Ethiopia may be greenish-brown, while Indonesian beans are typically dark green. Beans from South America tend to be lighter and paler.
You can eat a green coffee bean safely, but we don’t recommend it. It’ll taste like the ground – grassy and earthy – and be highly acidic.
2. Light Roast
Light roasts are popular in the specialty coffee industry because they (along with many medium roasts) can bring out the most potent flavors. Roasting your beans light helps preserve the bean’s natural aroma and taste profile. Lightly roasted beans also tend to be drier and brighter in flavor than beans roasted darker. They come out a bit lighter brown than medium roasts.
Roasting temperature: 350-415 degrees Fahrenheit
Roasting time: Around 10 minutes (during or just after the first-crack stage)
Common light roast names: Light City, Half City, Cinnamon
When to choose light roast: You want a bright, lively, and robust punch of flavor in your cup.
3. Medium Roast
Medium roast coffees preserve much of the bean’s original flavors and are the preferred choice for many Americans. Roasted a little longer than light roast beans, medium roast beans are slightly less acidic and remain dry after roasting. You can achieve various medium roast levels, depending on how long you leave them cooking after the first crack.
Roasting temperature: 400-435 degrees Fahrenheit
Roasting time: Around 11 minutes (after the beans finish the first crack but before the second crack begins)
Common medium roast names: Breakfast, American
When to choose medium roast: You enjoy tasting the natural, potent flavors of the coffee’s origin but want less acidity in your cup.
4. Medium-Dark Roast
Medium-dark roast coffee falls somewhere between medium and dark on the roasting spectrum. The beans adopt a darker, richer color and oil on the surface. You may notice a slightly bittersweet flavor in this roast.
Roasting temperature: 435-455 degrees Fahrenheit
Roasting time: Around 11:30 minutes (right before the second crack begins or just as it starts)
Common medium-dark roast names: Full City, Full City+
When to choose medium-dark roast: You don’t enjoy bright notes in coffee but prefer earthier, bolder flavors.
5. Dark and Very Dark Roasts
Dark roast coffee can lose some of the flavors of its origin, replaced with flavors of the roasting process itself. Dark roast coffees tend to taste heavy and bold, more bitter, and less acidic than lighter roasts. The beans become oilier as they reach this point.
The longer you leave your beans in the roaster, the darker they get (and the more original flavors you lose). Very dark roasts, like French and Italian, can taste smoky and have a high-gloss appearance.
Roasting temperature: 430-475 degrees Fahrenheit
Roasting time: Around 12 minutes (after the beans reach the second-crack stage)
Common dark and very dark roast names: Vienna, French, Italian
When to choose dark roast: You love the smoky, bold, less acidic flavors of coffees roasted longer.
Does the coffee roast level affect the caffeine?
Light roast coffees tend to have slightly higher caffeine levels than darker roasts due to greater bean density. The longer you roast your beans, the less dense they become. Dark roast beans are lighter in weight than light roast beans.
If you’re a dark or medium roast coffee drinker and want the same amount of caffeine as a cup of light roast, make sure you measure out your coffee by volume. If your dark roast coffee weighs the same as the light roast, you’ll achieve a similar caffeine level.
How the Coffee Roasting Process Works
Have you ever wondered how a green, raw coffee bean becomes the beautiful brown bean you pour from your bag into the grinder in the morning? How long does the process take, and how can you extract all of the original bean’s lovely, natural flavors?
Here’s a basic overview of the roasting process:
- When you stick them in the roaster, your beans start out a pale green color. As the heat rises in the first few minutes, the beans grow even paler.
- When the heat exceeds 300 degrees, the beans lose water (via steam) and become tanner.
- As the heat approaches 350 degrees, the beans continue to yellow and may get slightly darker. You’ll notice a marble pattern begin to emerge. The beans are less wet now, and you may emanate a toasty smell for the first time.
- Next is the browning stage. Temperatures continue rising, and beans start to expand. You might notice the chaff (silverskin) begin to fall away as the central crack of the bean opens ever so slightly.
- Beans are much browner at this point as their amino acids and sugars react (called the Maillard reaction). This event elevates the aromas and flavors of the beans.
- You should hear the first crack begin around 401 degrees. Listen for sounds like popcorn popping, which should last about a minute. After this occurs, you’ll notice a literal crack through the middle of the beans as they expand and the chaff finishes burning away.
- During the first cracking stage, the beans release heat and then take on heat again (leading to the second crack stage).
- Once the first crack stage finishes, the bean will release carbon dioxide. You can remove the beans from the roaster for “Light City Roast” coffee.
- If you want a “Full City Roast,” wait for the heat to rise even higher and the second crack to commence. The second crack is harder to hear, with a shallower snapping sound – the cellulose matrix of each bean fractures during this phase.
- If you want a dark roast, like Vienna or Light French, you can remove your coffee beans from the roaster right after the second crack, once the temperature reaches about 465 degrees.
- As you go darker than this, the sugars within the coffee beans become heavily caramelized and can quickly burn. Be careful not to start a fire or burn your beans!
How to Find Your Ideal Coffee Roast Levels
Pay attention to the taste profile of each roast to find your ideal cup. You’ll notice descriptions of flavors in different coffees, especially if you’re ordering from a specialty coffee shop.
Your coffee’s origin – where your coffee was grown and processed – will determine the final flavor profile. It will also contribute to the best way to brew your coffee of choice. Various characteristics – especially altitude, climate, and soil quality – impact how your coffee tastes and smells. The farming, processing, and storage practices also play a role. And, as we’ve already covered in-depth, so does the roasting level.
Flavor Profile Examples of Different Coffee Roast Levels
Specialty Coffee Roasted to Perfection at Fathom
At Fathom Coffee, we roast most of our coffees along the medium roast spectrum to bring out as much flavor as possible. We may roast some of our coffees slightly lighter or darker depending on the origin.
We can’t wait to help you find your favorite. Just read the descriptions under each single-origin coffee or blend, and then choose the flavor profile that sounds the most delicious to you!