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A Simplified Guide to Light Roast vs Dark Roast

Learn what the different roasts levels actually mean.

by Ever Meister | August 31, 2022

A Simplified Guide To Light Roast vs Dark Roast (And Everything In Between)

Ever wonder about the “colors” of the roast rainbow and what they mean? In this blog, we’ll talk about the differences between light, medium, and dark roasts — as well as a few other classifications — and offer tips, so you know which coffee subscription to choose from.

What Are Roast Levels?

Similar to how a chef might cook beef to be rare, medium rare, or well-done, a roaster may decide that they want their coffee to be light, medium, or dark. Like with other forms of cooking, this roast “level” is determined by a combination of the bean type, the amount of heat the beans are exposed to, and the length of time they’re in the roaster.

The common names of roast levels—light, medium and dark—are actually quite literal. Light roast coffee tends to be reminiscent of the color of cinnamon; medium roasts are more like milk chocolate or hickory, and a dark roast coffee bean medley looks almost brown-black. You may also notice that the darker the roast level, the smoother and shinier the beans themselves are.

While some roasters classify their beans with these three common roast-level names, others use a slightly more formal scale to describe the roasts they create. Here is a list of the types of roast levels that are sometimes used, though there is no real “standard” that delineates one from the other, and not all of these terms are used or used consistently:

Light roasts Cinnamon: One of the lightest roasts, this style of coffee bean is described by its light cinnamon-like color, not necessarily the flavor it expresses.

Scandinavian: Coffees from northern European countries like Norway, Denmark, and Sweden tend to be roasted very lightly, in an attempt to express the inherent flavors of the coffee beans themselves rather than mask or change them with the flavor of the roast.

Medium roasts American or City: The lightest of the medium roasts, these tend to be recognizable as “breakfast” coffees.

Full City or City+: Just past City are these slightly richer, rounder, and more milk-chocolate-colored roasts.

Dark roasts Vienna roast: Medium dark roast beans. This roast has a deep mahogany color.

French roast: These beans tend to be dark, shiny, and sometimes oily.

Italian roast: A very dark roast that gives the beans an almost brown-black tint.

How Do They Taste?

Whether you're choosing between espresso vs coffee, the roast level alone will not tell you how the coffee will taste, but it can give you a clue about the profile that you can expect.

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The flavor notes in the coffee are determined by a combination of factors including the variety of the coffee itself, the elevation where it was grown, the way it was processed, its freshness at the time of roasting, its freshness out of the roaster, and so on. There are also several flavor variations due to the roasting machine itself, as well as how long the coffee was roasted and at what temperature.

That said, here is a little bit of what you can expect from a coffee’s roast level.

Light roasts There is a wide range of “light” roasts, but most will taste somewhat unusual at first if you haven’t had them. They often display delicately fruity and floral flavors but can also taste like cereal or lightly toasted nuts, honey, or freshly baked bread.

Medium roasts Because of the caramelization that continues to happen in the bean between the light and medium roast levels, you’ll often taste more gently “cooked” flavors in these roasts. Caramel is common, as well as toasted nuts and milk chocolate. The fruity flavors might be more rich and developed in flavor —think plum and peach rather than lemon.

Dark roasts Dark roast beans will taste as much like the roasting process as they will the inherent characteristics of the coffee. You may taste more bittersweet chocolate notes and drier nut flavors like walnut or pecan, and often there will be less fruity or floral flavors present.

Caffeine Content

One of the most common questions is whether light or dark roasted coffee has more caffeine. And — like with most other things in coffee — the answer is somewhat confusing.

Studies have shown that, yes, lighter-roasted coffee does in fact contain more caffeine than darker-roasted coffee. However, it’s interesting to consider the fact that darker-roasted coffees are also more soluble than lighter ones, which means it is easier for the caffeine from a darker coffee roast to wind up in your cup. Add to that the fact that different coffee varieties can contain differing caffeine levels, and, well, you’ve got yourself a complicated set of math.

Ultimately, the amount of difference in the caffeine content between light and dark roasts is pretty minimal and nearly impossible for the average roaster or the average consumer to accurately know about any given coffee. If you feel that the caffeine in a dark roast coffee affects your body more, consider drinking a medium roast instead, but remember there’s no surefire guarantee that your reaction will be different.

How to Choose Your Roast

Now that you know a little about the different roasts of coffee, how will you know which one you like best? From Cuban coffee to Turkish coffee, you’ll want to consider a few things before selecting the right roast.

First, check the flavor notes that the roaster has put on the bag. If the flavors they use to describe the coffee are ones you generally like, you may find the coffee pleasant to your tastes regardless of the roast level.

Second, consider how you like to drink your coffee. If you prefer to add some kind of milk, cream, or sugar to in your mug, then a light roast coffee might not taste like much at all. Medium and dark roasted coffee tends to maintain their taste better when adding milk and sugar.

If you’re still unsure about what coffee you prefer, take our coffee quiz to determine the best brew for you.

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