What are the differences between light, dark and medium roasts?
If you want to get an enjoyable cup of coffee, understanding the difference between dark, medium and light roasts is critical.
Roast level is the one of the most important factors in how a cup of coffee will taste. We dive deep into each roast level in this guide, starting with the dark stuff.
Dark Roast Coffee
Dark roasts take on a dark brown, sometimes black color in the roasting process. Many organic compounds and cell structures of the coffee seeds are broken down imparting a distinct bittersweet flavor. Coffee seeds swell as the roasting process goes on, meaning that dark roasts take up more volume in the bag for the same mass, or weight. A bag of dark roast will occupy 20-25% more space than a light roast.
Dark roast's flavor is characterized by the bitterness brought out in the roasting process. This is commonly indicated as “bold” in tasting notes. This flavor is distinctive and pairs perfectly with sugar and cream.
The flavor balance of sweet (cream and sugar) and bitter (coffee) is what people tend to enjoy about dark roasts. For many coffee drinkers, this is the flavor that they associate with the comforting flavor of coffee. If that is you, you won’t be satisfied with the complex acidity of lighter roasts or lighter body of medium roasts.
Typical Dark Roast Coffee Characteristics
Flavor Notes: Bitter, dark chocolate, smoky
Bitterness Level: High
Body: Medium to high, depending on the brew
Pairs Best With: Sugar and milk
Flavor Variety: On the smaller side
Espresso: Passable, but can be extremely bitter
Cold coffee: Not recommended. We don’t like dark roasts for cold brew or flash brew methods. The bitter flavors are more pronounced in a cold cup and they can be difficult to tame.
More caffeine or less: Generally more, but it really depends on a lot of factors that we get into here.
How to brew dark roasts
We like a slightly lower brew ratio with our darker roasts compared to our lighter roasts. We recommend 16:1 or 17:1 brew ratios. This will minimize the concentration of bitter flavors.
How to choose the best dark roast
The quality of the green coffee matters in a darker roast. We always use high quality, fresh, dense, washed coffees in our dark roasts as we want our cups to have balance. We find that we can still preserve some sweetness and the acidity that gives the cup a rounded flavor.
There are also a lot of variations within the category of dark roast. We like to keep our Wagon Wheel French Roast on the lighter side, with minimal oils, while still hitting the dark roast notes.
Other roasters make their dark roasts so dark that the coffee exudes oils and the beans are shiny with oil. We tend to think that these roasts have too many undesirable, burnt, charcoal flavors.
Medium Roast Coffee
Medium roasts represent a wide range of roasts between light and dark. Physically, the beans will be harder than dark roasts, swell to less volume, and have more of a round smoothness in appearance.
A medium roast is characterized by chocolate notes. The chocolate flavor comes from the browning reaction during roasting. Medium light roasts will taste like milk chocolate and have notes of nuts and some fruited acidity, depending on the origin. Medium dark roasts will evoke darker chocolates and will have bittersweet notes. Medium roasts should not have the acrid sharpness common to dark roasts.
Typical Medium Roast Coffee Characteristics
Flavor Notes: Chocolate (milk to dark), caramel, nutty, brown sugar
Bitterness Level: Medium
Body: Medium to high, depending on the brew
Pairs Best With: Versatile, can be consumed black or with cream
Flavor Variety: Fairly Wide
Espresso: Easiest to work with, most reliable espresso roasts
Cold Coffee: Best for cold brew, particularly medium dark roasts. Good for iced coffee.
More caffeine or less: It depends on the origin and how you brew it... we go into detail on how much caffeine is in a cup of coffee on our blog
How to brew medium roasts
Any brew method and recipe can work for these coffees... an easy brew recipe to try is one we crafted for a Kalita Wave brewer... it will work really well on most medium roasts and brewers.
How to choose the best medium roast
Choosing the right medium roast will depend on your preference. Medium-dark roasts are great choices for espresso as the muted acidity balances well with the roast level.
Medium roast profiles depend a lot on the origin as medium roast coffees will show some recognizable origin character. For example, a medium roast from Kenya, Ethiopia or Colombia will have distinct acidity, whereas a medium roast from Brazil or Sumatra will have less acidity.
As you move away from dark roasts, the quality of the green coffee matters more. Medium roasts will not hide flaws in the green selections of the roaster. If a coffee is old, past crop, or poorly sourced it will be noticeable in medium roasts.
We are biased but our customers seem to agree that our Heartwood Blend is an excellent all around Medium Roast.
Light Roast Coffee
Light roasts, particularly single origin light roasts, have been growing in popularity over the last few decades. These flavors aren’t for everyone as the coffees tend to be lighter in body, higher in acidity, and sometimes taste more like fruited teas than what many people associate with the flavor of coffee.
The fact is that most award winning coffee is roasted light. There is no better way to feature the origin character and show off the diversity of coffee’s flavors than with light roasted coffee.
The coffee plant uses organic acids to protect itself from pests and survive and the development of those acids make coffee flavor unique and reflects terroir. Many light roast drinkers prize this diverse acidity.
To choose a light roast is a more challenging experience for the brewer. You must extract sweetness from the cup or your flavors will be sour. Fortunately, we have some brew guides to help you.
Typical Light Roast Coffee Characteristics
Flavor Notes: Diverse. From chocolate, cane sugar and caramel to floral, fruity and vegetal, light roasts run the spectrum
Bitterness Level: Low
Acidity: Medium to High
Body: Low to medium, depending on the brew
Pairs best with: Itself. Milk can dilute the terroir.
Flavor Variety: Extremely high
Espresso: Can be amazing, but takes a lot of skill to deal with the acidity
Cold Coffee: Best for flash brewed iced coffee, not as great for cold brew
How to brew light roasts: We like to brew high brew ratio drip cups, experimenting from 12:1 to 16:1 ratios.
More caffeine or less: Probably less, but it depends on the origin and how you brew it
How to choose the best light roast
In order to figure out which light roast you like best, you need to learn about your taste preferences. We have a great read on methods of figuring out which type of coffee you actually like.
Coffees from Brazil, for example, will be earthy, nutty and low in acidity. African coffees will have higher acidity and contain notes of fruit, particularly natural processed coffees. Coffees from Central America and Colombia will be balanced between chocolate notes and fruit notes.
Exceptions to each of these rules abound, especially as single origin sourcing and production gets better and better. We have tasted fruity, vibrant natural processed coffees from Colombia and Costa Rica that taste like Ethiopian coffees of the past.
The best guide to learning about light roasts is to try a variety of coffees and hone in your preferences. The Black Oak Tasting Club is a fantastic way to do learn your coffee preferences.