When it comes to coffee roast, if you’re not really sure about the difference in flavor between light, dark, and medium roast coffee beans, here’s a handy guide to help you decide which one is best for you. And there’s no time like National Coffee Day on Sept. 29 to figure it out!
coffee these days. Across the country, your favorite cafés, from the Chances are you’re brewing a lot more of your own ubiquitous chains to the beloved mom & pops, have pivoted to delivery/to-go models or are shipping their beans and blends to loyal customers.
If you’re a caffeine fiend, hopefully you have a machine at home and can DIY your daily cup o’ joe. But even in that case, maybe you’re accustomed to your very specific “usual” at your neighborhood spot and aren’t exactly sure what they put in it. Is it a dark roast? A medium roast? A light roast? What sets those roasts apart? Which should you buy?
We spoke with A.J. Barish, owner of Culver City, California’s venerable The Conservatory to get the lowdown on the process behind roasting, and which type might be right for you.
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Why and How Is Coffee Roasted?
In its raw state, coffee is a very hard seed similar to a cherry pit; somewhat moist but very dense, not grindable and certainly not brewable. There are myriad ways of roasting it to potability, which you can even do at home. To churn out large quantities, The Conservatory uses a drum roaster, which Barish describes as being similar to a tumbling clothes dryer.
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“You get up to where the temperature hits 380 or 390 [degrees] and there’s this release of pressure, which we call first crack,” he says.
About nine minutes in, the beans will brown, change shape, pop, and open up a bit. This stage lasts for a little over a minute. The coffee can now be considered a light roast and is at the very earliest point where it can be drinkable.
“Then,” Barish continues, “there’s a quiet period and the coffee is still progressing and it’s darkening and it’s caramelizing.”
As it approaches second crack, the coffee becomes more of a medium roast. Past that, you begin to approach the dark side.
So which roast is right for you?
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A favorite among java geeks and a fixture of the third wave movement, light roasts offer coffee in its purest state. Similar to eating an expensive cut of steak on the rarer side, if you have very good coffee, applying minimal heat will keep its essence pure.
“You have a ton of acidity, brightness, and liveliness,” enthuses Barish. “The origin’s fingerprints are the most clear at that point.”
But light roasted coffee can be off-putting to many casual drinkers. Barish specifically advises against adding dairy to it—the fruity and acidic notes often confuse his customers into thinking the milk is sour.
Recommend Beans: African-sourced beans, particularly from Ethiopia and Kenya, consistently garner high ratings in blind taste tests and Barish recommends them lightly roasted to appreciate their raw attributes.
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While it’s all a matter of personal taste, beans that just reach the second crack phase can offer the best of both worlds. In a household with varying palates and preferences when it comes to coffee prep, finding middle ground is a safe bet.
“The white sugar sweetness is turning into more of a bitter caramel sweetness,” says Barish. “The original nuances are still intact, but you start to add a toastiness.”
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You can even opt for a medium-dark roast if you want to amp the intensity of your coffee without going full throttle.
Recommended Beans: Coffee from Central America and South America, particularly Brazil which is far and away the largest producer on the planet, are often a great bet for medium roasts. They’re also the base of many espresso blends which Barish describes as “just kind of coming up to second crack where the acidity has mellowed and the body’s increased.”
If you prefer adding milk to your coffee, a dark roast is likely the right choice. Its strong flavor stands up to the dairy (and its nutty alternatives) and shines through.
“A good quality dark roast is rich, thick, very full-bodied,” says Barish. Its flavor profile can include notes of caramel, chocolate, maple syrup, rum, and brandy. But, on the flip side, a bad dark roast can taste like charcoal or ash.
If the beans appear a bit oily, don’t be concerned; that’s a common result in dark roasts. A lack of oiliness suggests they were roasted a long time ago and are past their prime.
If you’ve come across Italian and French roasts, these also fall under the dark banner. But here’s where things start to get confusing. “On the West Coast, French roast is the darkest roast,” explains Barish. “Italian roast is a little bit lighter, but still very dark.” Across the country, however, that’s reversed. “On the East Coast, it seems like Italian is darker and French is more continental, medium-dark,” Barish adds.
You also may be familiar with the pitch black espresso roast, not to be confused with an espresso blend (mentioned above).
Recommended Beans: Central American coffee is grown at high altitudes and is hardy, dense and able to withstand high heat. Barish recommends seeking them out if you’re a fan of dark roasts in addition to Colombian and Indonesian beans.
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“How do you like your coffee?” There’s a reason why this is a common refrain in restaurants, diners, and eateries around the globe. Now you’re on your way to answering that question with confidence.
Header image courtesy of Sarah Gardner