​Understanding the differences of coffee roasts

I love coffee. I love learning about coffee and sharing with anyone who’ll listen, or even pretend like they’re listening.

Coffee roasting has a number of stages. The green coffee beans are cleaned, roasted, cooled, and sometimes ground before packaging. Everything that happens in the roasting stage takes a whole lot of attention to detail and practice, not to mention attention paid to the temperature and time that you’re roasting.

As the beans roast, they make a cracking sound, because each bean literally cracks and expands, from the little green seed you start with to the beautiful brown coffee bean you end up with.

One of the questions I’ve been asked a lot lately is, “What do the different roasts mean?”

There are lots of different names for the easy-to-understand terms of light, medium, medium, dark, and espresso roast – and we prefer to keep it simple. Many people like to call them by the other names.

Light roast can also be called Cinnamon Roast, American Roast, New England Roast, Half City Roast, or Moderate-Light Roast.Medium Roast can also be called City Roast, City+ Roast, Full City Roast. Full City Roast is typically a Medium Dark Roast, and what I tend to gravitate towards at any given time.

Dark Roasts are also known as Full City+ Roast, Italian Roast, Vienna Roast and French Roast.

I personally drink all of the roasts and varieties in my quest for education on each coffee. I need to be able to explain what the coffee tastes like, not just read words on a package. And yes, I’m highly caffeinated most days.

Light Roast (AKA “The First Crack”)
Light roast coffee can also be called “first crack” because the green beans are in the initial stage of cracking and expansion. When they start out, the beans look dry and pale. First crack/Light Roast results in a light-bodied coffee. It doesn’t really taste roasted, and is somewhat more acidic.

But that’s not a bad thing – the result is usually a light, aromatic roast with distinct fruity flavors or even floral tones, and the beans retain much of the original flavor notes that the experts tell us they have. There should be no oil on the surface of a Light roast coffee bean.

Medium Roast
Medium roast beans will still look and feel dry, have no oil on the surface, will be a medium brown color, and there is a much sweeter profile. The longer roasting brings more flavors to the beans and results in less acidity compared to the first crack. Medium roast will give you a fuller body, and a nice balance of aroma, acidity and flavor. Medium roast is preferred by most American coffee drinkers, according to some report I read somewhere… and that’s what earned it the nickname of American Roast.

Medium Dark Roast
Medium dark beans are dark brown color and have some oil on the surface. When it comes to the flavor profile, the extended roasting destroys all the acidity and allows most of the beans’ aromas to come up on the top. The flavors are deep with a touch of bittersweet aftertaste. I love the rich, full profile of the medium dark roast.

Dark Roast (AKA “Second Crack”)
Second crack, or Dark roast beans are black, shiny, and very oily, which hints at their unique flavor profile. If you like pronounced bitterness in your cup, then you are a Dark roast person.

On top of the bitterness, you can taste that second crack has been roasted well. The notes are thick and a bit spicy. Generally, the rule of thumb is that the darker the beans, the less acidic they are.

French Roast and Espresso
French roast and espresso are often labeled as dark roasts. French might fall into the double roast category with almost charred beans. There’s a fine line between charred beans and charcoal, so the roaster must be very focused when creating a French roast.  

Espresso can be made from both dark and medium-dark roasts – it all depends on your taste. The super dark, oily beans have been known to clog up some espresso machines, so don’t feel like you have to stick with the darkest beans for your espresso.

The Truth About Caffeine and Roasts…
People often comment that they like light roast because it has more caffeine… and I carefully explain to them (because no one likes finding out they’ve been wrong about something) that it actually depends on whether you scoop your coffee or weigh it when you’re preparing your coffeemaker.

Since light roast is barely taking the beans to the first crack, they still contain most of the moisture that their green state started with. This means that the beans – whole and ground – are denser than they would be if they were roasted longer and more of the moisture had been roasted out.

If you scoop your light roast, you are going to have more dense, lightly roasted coffee than in that scooper than you would have of a dark roast, which is “fluffier” since the beans change so much during roasting. If you use a scale to weigh your coffee and water (like I do), then your caffeine would be the same regardless of the roast because you are using the same weight of coffee. This, of course, is assuming you’re comparing the same variety of coffee beans roasted different ways.

I like to show people a bag of light roast coffee in comparison to a French roast – the light roast bag doesn’t appear to have a lot of coffee in it, and the French roast is filled to the brim. Both bags have 12 ounces (or 340 grams) of very differently roasted beans.

Coffee is so interesting and dynamic. I hope this has given you insight into what’s in your cup. Please send questions, comments and requests to johnskrysta@gmail.com


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