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How dark is a dark roast? What’s the difference between a City roast and a Vienna roast? Who the heck came up with all these roast names anyway? If you’re confused about the varying coffee roast levels, you’re not alone. Because there’s no standardized nomenclature for coffee roasts, it’s difficult to reliably tell how dark the coffee you’re buying is going to be just based on the name. Here’s a quick primer on coffee roast levels to help you make your way through the coffee rainbow.
Why Roast Is Important
The flavor of the coffee in your cup is determined by a wide variety of factors: the coffee variety, the place where it was grown, how it was processed, how old it is, the brewing method you use and even how long it has been since it was roasted. One of the major determining factors of the actual flavor of your coffee is how dark or light it is roasted.
As coffee beans absorb heat during the roasting process, chemical changes take place within the bean. Acids are released, sugars are caramelized and oils are formed – and each of these changes brings a nuance of flavor to the finished cup. Each of these changes tends to bring a specific coffee further away from its origin flavor – the notes of flavor, aroma and texture the coffee takes from the environment in which it grew – and closer to a generic “roast” flavor.
What’s Color Got to Do with It?
These changes are most obvious by the surface appearance of the bean, most notably the color. Lighter roasts have generally been roasted for shorter periods of time. The darker the roast, the longer it has been subjected to heat. Thus, lighter roasts are more likely to exhibit the flavors characteristic of the variety and terroir – the fruity, acidic, sweet, nutty and chocolate notes – while darker roasts are more likely to exhibit darker, smoky flavors and aromas. That’s one of the reasons that light roasts have become more and more popular as coffee lovers delve deeper into the different flavors and aromas present in various varieties and origins of coffee.
Speaking of Region and Roast Levels
Everyone understands that tastes preferences vary from region to region when it comes to food. We have defined regional food styles: Southern cooking, New England cooking, Tex-Mex, French – and even subregional cooking styles. Neopolitan Italian fare is far different from Sicilian fare, for example. Coffee preferences are no different. The U.S. East Coast is notorious for liking its coffee roasted light. The West Coast has a reputation for roasting coffee darker. That’s why many roasters use nomenclatures like French roast and Viennese roast to denote coffee roasted to the darker end of the spectrum – it’s the traditional roast level favored in those regions.
Despite its passion for precision – who else would weigh coffee on a scale as they pour it? – the specialty coffee industry has not yet agreed on standardized names and descriptions for the various roast levels. That’s why Starbucks has a “Blonde Roast,” for example, and why Rogers Family Coffee calls its medium roast Full City while another roaster may call the same degree of roast “Medium.” In general, though, these descriptions and common name can help you classify the various roast levels.
Light coffee roasts are the light brown color of cinnamon. They have a toasted grain flavor and pronounced acidity – not to be confused with sourness. They have the most caffeine, and retain most of their origin flavors, though some of them may not be well-developed yet. The roast typically stops just as the coffee enters first crack.
Commonly Called: Light, Light City, Half City, New England Roast, Cinnamon Roast
At a medium roast level, coffee beans are uniformly brown, close to the color of milk chocolate or cocoa. The surface of the bean is still dry because no oil has come to the surface yet. The grainy taste common to light roasts has been toasted away, but the origin flavors – those fruity, nutty, floral notes you see in the package descriptions – are still fully there. Medium roast coffees typically display a nice balance between flavor, aroma and acidity. Medium roast coffees are stopped between first crack and second crack.
Commonly Called: City, Medium, Regular Roast, American Roast and Breakfast Roast
Medium-dark roasts often have an oily sheen, and are close in color to dark chocolate. At this level, the fruity and floral origin flavors are muted and spicy, earthy notes dominate the cup. Many roasters favor medium-dark roasts for Pacific and East Indian coffees, which tend to have pronounced spicy notes in their flavor profiles. The body is generally much heavier than in lighter roasts, and the flavor and aroma of the roast is usually evident in the coffee.
Commonly Called: Full City (roasted to the start of second crack), After Dinner Roast, Vienna Roast (taken into the middle of second crack)
Dark roasted coffee beans are a deep brown, sometimes nearly black in color. The oily sheen is pronounced and they may have tiny droplets of oil on the surface. The flavor is smoky, somewhat bitter and may even have some charcoal taste. The darkest roasts are the lowest in caffeine, and typically have a thinner body than medium-dark roasts.
Commonly Called: French Roast, Italian Roast, Spanish Roast, Continental Roast, New Orleans Roast and occasionally Espresso Roast. Some companies align them in degrees, with Spanish roast being darker than Italian, which is darker than French, but the arrangement is by no means universal.