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Dark Roast vs. Light Roast: 5 Mind-Blowing Differences

blend of dark and light roast coffee beans close up, dark roast vs. light roast
difference between light roast and dark roast coffee

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Choosing the right coffee beans for you can be a bit overwhelming at times, especially if you’re new to the world of coffee brewing.

Maybe you’ve never considered dark roast vs. light roast and always just opted for a standard “breakfast” blend or French roast, never really contemplating the differences between them.

There is a lot of misinformation about dark roast vs. light roast coffee, so we’ll cut through the noise and rumors to help you understand what makes each roast unique.

So, what’s the difference between light roast and dark roast coffee? Is one better for you than the other?

Let’s get roasting and find out.

Dark Roast Vs. Light Roast

The first and most apparent difference between light roast and dark roast coffee is the beans’ color.

The coffee roasting scale includes light roast, medium roast, medium-dark roast, and dark roast. These may be referred to by various other names, including city, full city, full city plus, and more.

four small piles of coffee beans ranging from green to dark roast on a white background

Technically, there is also an extra dark roast category, but we can’t recommend those beans to anyone we like. 

Let’s examine each of these coffee roast levels more closely to help you determine which beans are best for your needs: dark roast vs. light roast.

What Is Light Roast?

Light roast coffee beans are golden brown in color with a matte exterior. They are sometimes referred to as City Roasts or City Plus Roasts.

Light roasts have recently gained popularity, as the quality of coffee beans has improved in recent years, and roasters can be incredibly creative with their lighter roasts.

light roast coffee beans close up, Is light roast coffee strong?
Does a light roast have more caffeine?
Light roast or dark roast

Light roast coffee beans are known for their complex, bright, and often fruity notes. They most closely resemble green coffee beans and retain more of the qualities of raw beans.

They are best used in manual brewing methods like pour over and cold brew.

What Is Dark Roast?

The second significant difference between light roast and dark roast coffee is the roasting time frame. Dark roast beans, often called espresso roast, are dark, almost black, with a gleaming exterior.

This shiny exterior results from oils released from the beans during the roasting process.

very dark roast coffee beans close up on wood surface, Dark roast has less caffeine
Dark roast versus medium roast
Caffeine in dark roast

Dark roasts are roasted for a more extended period than light roasts and offer more of the charred, smoky flavor notes that we’ve come to expect in espresso. Despite this flavor profile, they are smoother than other roasts.

Dark roast beans are traditionally used for pulling espresso and are not as well suited for standard drip brewing or other manual brewing methods (pour over, French press, etc.). 

Dark Roast Versus Medium Roast

Medium-roasted coffee beans are roasted slightly longer than light roasts but not long enough to release the oils from the beans (like a dark roast). They have a medium-brown color with minimal sheen.

Medium roasts are the most common coffee beans in America. They are the most versatile, work well with various brewing methods, and are quite a bit lighter than dark roasts. 

tray of medium roast coffee beans beside two plants

The nuances in medium roast coffee beans are primarily determined by where they are grown. Medium roast beans are the best coffee beans to try if you’re new to coffee brewing and want to try several brewing methods.

Medium-Dark Roast

Medium-dark roast coffee beans, also known as Full City or Full City Plus, are darker in color than medium roast beans, with a slight sheen to the surface due to the oils released during roasting.

Medium-dark roast beans have a more complex flavor profile than medium roast and offer more bittersweet, dark chocolate flavor nuances.

Medium-dark roast beans are another fantastic option for those who switch between brewing methods, as this roast may be used for espresso in a pinch.

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Is Dark Roast Stronger?

So, other than roasting timelines, colors of the beans, and general flavor profiles, what are some other differences between dark roast vs. light roast coffees?

Is dark roast stronger? It depends on what we mean by stronger. A dark roast will have a more robust flavor and roasty, smoky undertones. So dark roast could be referred to as “stronger” in flavor.

However, the roasting process changes the makeup of the bean, which, in turn, impacts the structure and composition of the bean itself. 

coffee beans dropping into cooling trey in large coffee roaster, Why does light roast have more caffeine
Is light roast coffee strong

As the bean changes during roasting, its caffeine and acidity levels also change. So, does a light roast or a dark roast have more caffeine?

The answer might surprise you.

Does A Light Roast Have More Caffeine?

The fourth and most surprising difference between dark roast vs. light roast is the caffeine content.

If you’re controlling your caffeine intake each day, chances are you’re paying attention to which coffee and how much of it you’re consuming. Contrary to popular belief, dark roast has less caffeine than light roast coffee. 

Yep, you read that right. Light roast has more caffeine than dark roast beans. 

But why does light roast have more caffeine? Light roast coffee beans spend less time under heat and have less caffeine extracted during the roasting process. Now, keep in mind that the difference here is marginal.

While the roasting process does impact the level of caffeine in the beans, the caffeine content in brewed coffee varies much more widely between dark roast vs. light roast due to the brewing process itself.

fellow opus grinder
The Fellow Opus Grinder

For example, coffee brewed as espresso has a much higher caffeine content than drip coffee. Cold brew, often made with light roast coffee, also contains a much higher caffeine content than the same coffee brewed via another method. 

So, if you’re sensitive to caffeine, we suggest choosing a dark roast vs. light roast and brewing it as pour over. Or, if your caffeine aversion is extreme, make the switch to a water-processed decaf and eliminate it altogether.

espresso brewing from double spouted portafilter into yellow striped cup,

Light Roast vs. Dark Roast Acidity

So now we know that when it comes to caffeine content, dark roast coffee wins the dark roast vs. light roast competition (unless, of course, you’re seeking maximum caffeine consumption).

But what about acidity?  If you have a sensitive stomach, comparing the acidity levels in dark roast vs. light roast is essential in deciding which coffee beans to try.

And, when it comes to acidity, dark roast comes out on top yet again. During the roasting process, acid is extracted as the beans roast. 

Dark roasts are roasted for longer than light roasts, so more acid is extracted during the roasting process. Dark roasts are gentler on your digestive system than light roasts and are a good choice for anyone who prefers a less acidic taste and… aftertaste (gross).

Airscape coffee storage canister in turquoise
Airscape Stainless Steel Coffee Canister

How To Store Coffee Beans Properly

Now that you know more about dark roast vs. light roast coffee, you’re ready to run out and grab a huge bag of coffee beans from Costco.

But before you do that, you should probably figure out how to properly store coffee beans.

It’s pretty simple, actually. If your beans came in a foil bag with a one-way air filter (let’s air out but not in), leave them in there. Seal the bag with a couple of clips (or the ziplock if it has one) and store it in a cool, dark place away from any heat sources.

The coffee will last you up to two weeks by doing this.

hand wearing black gloves holding open bag of roasted coffee beans with beans in focus, how to properly store coffee beans
how to store coffee beans properly

If your coffee comes in anything other than a foil-lined bag with a valve, transfer it to an airtight container and store it in a cool, dark place.

Whatever you do, please do not refrigerate your coffee beans. Whether dark or light roast, they will not benefit from being in the refrigerator. 

Refrigeration actually ages the coffee beans faster when condensation pushes the oils to the surface of the beans.

We recommend buying only as much coffee as you will brew within 2-3 weeks. Coffee loses flavor immediately after opening the bag and should be consumed immediately for the best results.

Bella 14755 12 cup coffee maker

And if you can consume an entire 2lb Costco bag in 2 weeks, you might be our new hero.

Always buy whole-bean coffee, never the pre-ground stuff. We could go on for days about why to avoid pre-ground, but, in summary, ground coffee is already stale when you buy it (yuck), and it limits your brewing options.

We also recommend choosing organic coffee whenever possible. Get yourself a decent grinder, and always grind your beans just before brewing.

Final Thoughts

If you’re making healthier choices and want your coffee to follow suit, you may want to reach for the reduced caffeine and acidity of a dark roast vs. light roast, which will contain more of these.

If you’re less concerned about caffeine content and acidity levels, try both (and everything in between) and see which moves you. We like to pick our roast based on what brewing method we’re in the mood for, as some brewing methods are better for dark roast vs. light roast and vice versa.

Love pour over? Try a light or medium roast! Obsessed with cold brew? Us too. We love a medium or medium-dark roast when we’re cold brewing coffee.

Get crazy with it. And if you need help deciding, let us know! We love to chat about all things coffee.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is French Roast A Dark Roast?

Yes, a French roast is definitely a dark roast. French roast, espresso roast, and even Italian roast are all considered dark roasts.

French roast is often marked by a smoky, charred flavor that some may find bitter. However, it holds up well to milk and sweetener and may be used for various brewing methods, including Moka pot, french press, and espresso.

Can You Use Light Roast For Espresso?

In short, yes! There’s a lot of debate about whether light or medium roasts perform well as espresso, but really, it’s entirely up to you!

While we prefer to use medium-dark or dark roasts for our espresso, there’s no harm in pulling a shot with your favorite light roast to test it out. It won’t be as rich and flavorful as a dark roast and may be easily diluted with milk, but you might find that you’ve found your new favorite bean for espresso!

Coffee is a matter of personal preference, after all.

We recommend using a quality burr grinder, as light roast beans are denser than their dark roast counterparts and are more challenging to grind to the fine espresso consistency. 

We also recommend pulling a more potent shot for maximum flavor. 

Happy experimenting!


Heather Calatrello

Heather Calatrello owner of ShedLight Coffee Roasters