Into The Darkness: A Look At Roast Levels

by Dave Hoffmann January 06, 2016

Descriptions of how light or dark a coffee has been roasted can appear arbitrary and confusing. Let's turn some light on the subject.


Dave Hoffmann, proprietor, Windward Coffee Co.Most people are used to seeing the coffees we enjoy described by such terms as light, medium and dark roasted. These common terms might convey an image of what the beans look like, but not much else. Further muddling the issue are roast names based on geographic references and the regional or the national taste preferences that spawned them, such as New England, American, Vienna, French, Italian and Spanish. Adding to the potential confusion is the fact that many share the same meaning.

You’ll also find roasts described as being City or Full City, descriptors that are said to have originated in New York City but, like most others, don't really say much about the roast level's influence on the final cup of coffee.

With all these terms running around out there, getting a handle on them is akin to making Jello stick to a wall — as soon as you think you've pinned it down, it moves. Of course there are scientific measurement tools available to the trade, but unless you're a roaster, a serious barista or a food scientist, knowing that a particular roast has an Agtron reading of 60 is probably pretty meaningless.

As I said. . . it gets confusing.

Here then is a brief attempt to help you sort through, and hopefully make sense of, the many different ways roast levels are described and how it all relates to what winds up in your cup.

Light roast coffee beansLight Roast: The beans are dry and light brown in color. Also known as a  Light City, Half City, Cinnamon, Blonde or New England roast, it’s often used in inexpensive commercial blends, primarily because it requires less fuel to produce. Since roast times also tend to be short, the beans retain more moisture which increases yields and further contributes to lower production costs.

In recent years, light roasts have become a major trend among so-called “Third wave” cafes and roasters. Such light roasts allow the beans’ natural flavors, those determined by its growth and processing conditions, to shine through in the cup without being muddied by the effects of darker roast levels. As a result, they tend to produce a drink that is more delicate and tea-like. It can also be more acidic with more green or grassy flavor tinges than are beans roasted to darker levels.

Lighter roasts can also lead to more sour, bitter and astringent flavors in the cup. A growing number of people, particularly younger coffee drinkers, prefer their filter coffees and espressos roasted to this level. On the other hand, it’s our experience that older consumers (35+) gravitate toward smoother brews that don’t present what can sometimes become a tasting challenge with lighter roasts.

My own opinion, shaped by many years of writing about trends in the confectionery and broader food industry (and absolutely zero confirming research), is that this is a natural extension of the taste preferences developed by a generation of kids who grew up with wildly popular sour candy. Their palates have become attuned, perhaps even somewhat desensitized, to the citric acids used to flavor their favorite Warheads, Sour Patch Kids and similar candies. These, and similar acids, are emphasized in lighter roasts.

We see a similar trend among craft brewers where more bitter drinks, such as IPAs, and those with added levels of citric acid (e.g. orange, lemon); malic acid (apples) and others, have become popular.

That said, specialty roasters such as ourselves are experimenting with approaches to achieve light roast levels without blowing the acid content out of proportion. It can yield some interesting results.

For example, two of our lightest roasts are of coffees that many roasters take to much darker levels ­− Peru and Tanzania Peaberry. Interestingly, they are among our most popular, bestselling beans, despite the fact that most of our customers did not grow up stuffing their mouths with sour candy.

Medium roast levelMedium Roast: Beans at this roast level are dry and medium-dark brown in color. This is also called American, Regular and City. At this point the beans' inherent flavors are usually well developed, acidity is clear and bright and the best qualities of the beans can show through. Many of our coffees are roasted to this level.

Medium dark roast coffeeMedium Dark Roast: These beans are a touch darker than a medium roast and they can be dry or show small drops of oil on the surface. Such roasts are also known as Full City, Viennese, Light French, Espresso, Continental and European. It's at this point that the defining flavors and acidity that can be tasted at lighter roast levels become subdued and more bittersweet characteristics start to emerge. This is a popular roast for many Northern Italian espresso blends and, with the exception of our French Roast, this is the darkest we roast our coffees. 

Dark roast coffee beansDark: Also known as French, Espresso, Italian and Turkish, this roast is characterized by very shiny, oily, dark brown beans. Often used in U.S.-style espresso blends, acidity levels are very low or non-existent and bittersweet flavors are common.

Very Dark: Essentially black and glistening with oil. Beans roasted to this level are, for all intents and purposes, burned and taste that way. Also called a Spanish or Dark French roast.

Which is best? That depends entirely on your personal taste and what you think makes a great cup of coffee. Just don't be afraid to try a new bean or different roast level than you might be used to. Coffee is full of wonderful surprises, particularly for those willing to step outside their name brand comfort zones.

Dave Hoffmann
Dave Hoffmann


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