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Roasts Of Coffee Explained + Easy Guide To Coffee Roasting

hand with scoop in cooling tray of coffee roaster filled with coffee beans, roasts of coffee

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If you’re like us, a cup of coffee is more than a beverage; it’s an experience. But so many factors play a part in the quality of that morning cup of coffee, and it can seem overwhelming to attempt to master them all.

So here, we’ll break down the basics of coffee roasting and roasts of coffee to give you a clearer understanding of how the roast level and roasting technique impact the final flavor of your brew.

Coffee roasting is both a science and an art requiring skill and knowledge. The roasting process affects the coffee’s body, acidity, and flavor, among other things.

In this article, we will explore the different roasts of coffee, from light to dark, and everything in between. We will discuss the characteristics of each roast level, the roasting process, and how it affects the taste and aroma of coffee. Whether you prefer a light, medium, or dark roast of coffee or are just curious about the science behind coffee roasting, this article will provide the essential information you need about coffee roasts.

So let’s get roasting.

What are Roasts of Coffee?

Coffee beans are roasted to various levels, called roasts of coffee or coffee roasts. Each roast of coffee has unique flavor attributes and characteristics.

The coffee roast level is one of the most critical factors determining coffee’s taste, aroma, and flavor. Coffee beans are roasted to bring out their unique flavors and aromas, and there are many roasts of coffee to choose from.

man raking green coffee beans in sunny open space, coffee roasting

Green Coffee Beans

Before coffee beans are roasted, they are green. These green coffee beans have a grassy, vegetal flavor and are quite hard. Unlike roasted coffee beans, green coffee beans can be stored for long periods of time without losing their quality or taste.

Roasted Coffee Beans

Roasting is the process that transforms green coffee beans into the fragrant, dark brown beans that we all know and love. The beans are heated to high temperatures during roasting, causing them to expand and change color. Roasting also brings out the aroma and flavor locked inside the green coffee beans.

Roasted coffee beans come in a variety of different roasts, from light to dark. Each coffee roast has its unique flavor profile, with lighter roasts tending to be more acidic and floral, while darker roasts have a more robust, smoky flavor.

roasted coffee beans in trier of coffee roasting machine

The Basics of Coffee Roasting

This may be obvious, but the first step in coffee roasting is selecting the coffee beans. And while a critical step in the process, it isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

The growing region, type of processing, and type of green coffee bean all play a crucial role in the final characteristics of roasted coffee beans, so selecting the right beans is essential to achieving the desired flavor profile.

Green coffee beans vary significantly in size, density, and moisture content. All of these factors affect how the beans respond when roasted. Adjustments must be made to the roasting process to accommodate the characteristics of the beans in the roaster. It’s not a one-size-fits-all application, and each coffee bean variety must be roasted uniquely to suit its characteristics.

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The Roasting Process

The roasting process can be divided into three main stages: drying, browning, and development.

During the drying stage, the beans are heated to around 160°C, causing the moisture in the beans to evaporate. This stage is crucial because it removes moisture from the beans and prepares them for the rest of the roasting process.

During the browning stage, the beans undergo a series of chemical reactions that give them their characteristic brown color. This stage is where the beans develop their flavor and aroma.

coffee roaster examining roasted coffee beans in scoop under light

Giesen Coffee Roasters states, “During the browning process, we see the Maillard reaction taking place. This means the natural sugars and amino acids within the coffee beans start to react and create a distinctive color and flavor characteristic of the coffee bean.”

Many coffee roasters believe the time spent in the Maillard reaction dramatically impacts the final flavor and viscosity of the beans, as the Maillard reaction destroys the acids that produce fruity and sweet notes. However, this fact and several components of coffee roasting are widely debated among coffee professionals.

Toward the end of the browning phase, the temperature increases to around 200°C, around which time the first crack occurs, and the beans expand.

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The final stage of the roasting process is development. During this stage, arguably the most definitive roasting stage, the beans are heated to their final temperature, ranging from light to dark. The longer the beans are roasted, the darker and more intense their flavor becomes.

The roast level plays the most prominent role in determining a coffee bean’s final flavor and aroma; however, overall roasting time is also a factor. If coffee is roasted too quickly, fewer acids will break down, resulting in a darker roast that still bears a sour undertone. Determining the optimal roast of coffee and the method for each type of coffee takes experimentation and expertise.

four stages of roasts of coffee in a square on grey background

Chemical Changes During Roasting

When we roast coffee beans, we change their color and texture and transform their chemical composition. This much is obvious. However, several chemical changes within the bean aren’t as easy to spot.

One of the most significant chemical changes during roasting is the breakdown of carbohydrates into simple sugars. This process, called pyrolysis, is responsible for the caramelization of the coffee beans and the development of flavors such as chocolate, caramel, and nuttiness.

Another vital chemical change during roasting is the breakdown of chlorogenic acids, which are responsible for the bitter taste of coffee. As the beans are roasted, the chlorogenic acids break down into quinic and caffeic acids, contributing to coffee’s sour and astringent flavors.

The oils in coffee beans also undergo significant changes during roasting. The oils are forced to the surface as the beans are heated, giving darker coffee roasts their characteristic oily sheen. These oils also contribute to the body and flavor of coffee, with darker roasts having a more robust, more pronounced flavor due to the increased oil content.

roasted coffee beans pouring from coffee roaster into plastic bin

Coffee Roasts

The roast of coffee is one of the most critical factors that determine its taste, aroma, and strength. Roast level refers to the degree to which the coffee beans have been roasted, and it can range from light to dark.

Light Roast

Light roast coffee is roasted for the shortest time, characterized by its light brown color and high acidity. The beans are roasted until the first crack when a popping sound occurs, and the beans expand and release moisture. Light roast coffee has a mild flavor with hints of fruit and floral notes. It is also known as a cinnamon roast or New England roast.

light roast coffee beans close up full screen

Medium Roast

Medium roast coffee is roasted for a longer time than light roast, but not as long as a dark roast. The beans are roasted until the first crack is complete but before the second crack starts to appear. This roast level is known as regular, city, American, or breakfast roast. Medium roast coffee has a balanced flavor, medium acidity, and a slightly sweet taste. It is the most popular roast level in the United States.

Our favorite medium-dark (or full-city roast) lies between medium and dark roasts of coffee. Medium-dark roasts are roasted until just before the second crack or right up to the start of the second crack. They offer richness, reduced acidity, and a full body without the burnt or charred notes that dark roasts often present.

Dark Roast

Dark roast coffee is roasted for the longest time, characterized by its dark brown color, shiny exterior, and low acidity. The beans are roasted until the second crack, when a snapping sound occurs, and the beans are almost burnt. This roast level is also known as French roast, Italian, espresso, continental, or Vienna roast. Dark roast coffee has a strong and bold flavor with smoky and caramelized notes.

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Coffee Flavor

Aroma and Flavor

The aroma and flavor of coffee are closely related. A number of factors, such as the roast level, the origin of the beans, and the brewing method can influence the aroma and flavor of coffee.

The aroma of coffee can be described as floral, fruity, nutty, spicy, or earthy, depending on the type of beans used and the roast of coffee. Similarly, the flavor of coffee can be described as sweet, sour, bitter, or even salty, depending on the beans and the brewing method.

These are just a few examples of adjectives for coffee; specialty coffee professionals love to get uber-creative with their descriptive language (us included!). The wide range of nuance from coffee to coffee is part of what makes specialty coffee roasting and tasting so fun.

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Acidity and Body

Acidity and body are two critical aspects of coffee taste. Acidity refers to the sharpness or tanginess of the coffee, while body refers to the (perceived) thickness or heaviness. The body is often referred to as mouthfeel.

Acidity is an important aspect of coffee taste because it gives it a bright and lively flavor. High acidity is often associated with light roasts, while low acidity is associated with dark roasts.

On the other hand, the body of coffee is determined by the amount of oils and solids present in the brew. A heavier body is often associated with darker roasts.

Bitterness and Sweetness

Bitterness and sweetness are two other important aspects of coffee taste. Bitterness is often associated with over-roasted or over-extracted coffee, while sweetness is associated with well-balanced and properly brewed coffee.

A well-balanced coffee should have a pleasant sweetness that complements the acidity and body of the brew. The bitterness of coffee should be balanced by the sweetness and not overpower the other flavors.

The aroma, flavor, acidity, body, bitterness, and sweetness are all important aspects of coffee taste that should be considered when roasting, brewing, and cupping coffee.

coffee brewing in hario v60 with black and grey background

Roasting and Brewing

Roasting coffee is just one part of the coffee-making process. Different brewing methods can also affect the final taste of the coffee.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to roasting and brewing coffee. The best roasts of coffee and brewing methods for you depend on your taste preferences. Some people prefer a lighter roast with a bright, acidic flavor, while others prefer a dark roast with a bold, smoky flavor.

In the coffee industry, there is constant experimentation when it comes to roasts and brewing methods. Coffee roasters and baristas always look for new and innovative ways to bring out the best in their beans. Some roasts may taste better as French press coffee, while others shine on espresso.

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Caffeine Content

So we’ve determined that different types of coffee roasts have unique flavor profiles and characteristics, but how does roast level impact the caffeine content?

The caffeine content can vary depending on the roast level, brewing method, and serving size. Generally, darker roasts have slightly less caffeine than lighter roasts, which is negligible.

Regarding brewing methods, espresso typically has a higher concentration of caffeine than drip coffee due to the shorter brewing time and higher pressure. French press coffee can have a similar caffeine content to drip coffee, but this brewing method results in a more robust flavor, leading many to believe that the coffee itself is actually “stronger.”

Cold brew coffee is typically less acidic than other brewing methods yet has a higher caffeine content due to the longer steeping time.

It’s important to note that the caffeine content of coffee can have different effects on different people. Some people may be more sensitive to caffeine and experience jitters or anxiety, while others may not feel any effects. It’s essential to listen to your body and consume coffee in moderation.

Here’s a breakdown of the approximate caffeine content in different types of coffee:

Type of CoffeeCaffeine Content (per 8 oz serving)
Espresso60-80 mg
Drip Coffee95-200 mg
French Press80-135 mg
Cold Brew100-200 mg
Instant Coffee30-120 mg

Remember, these are just approximate values, and the actual caffeine content can vary depending on the specific bean, roast, and brewing method. It’s always a good idea to check the label or ask your barista if you’re unsure about the caffeine content of your coffee.

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Closing Thoughts: Roasts of Coffee

Personal preference plays a huge role in determining the perfect coffee roast and brewing method.

Lucky for us, there are no strict rules when it comes to coffee brewing. While some roasts of coffee might be better showcased as pour over and others as cold brew, ultimately, you are the only person who can determine the best-tasting coffee.

The key to finding the perfect coffee roast and brewing method is to experiment and try different options. It’s also the fun part. Whether you prefer a light, medium, or dark roast, drip, French press, or cold brew method, there is no right or wrong answer. You do you, boo.


Heather Calatrello

Heather Calatrello owner of ShedLight Coffee Roasters