Different roast levels change the characteristics of coffee beans in different ways, which is why you’ll notice that coffee beans are sold as either light, medium, or dark roast.
Out of the three, medium roast and dark roast are the most commonly used ones, as light roast coffee beans don’t really appeal to the majority of people due to the way they taste.
What Is the Difference Between Dark Roast and Medium Roast?
The main difference between dark roast and medium roast is the roast time. Dark roast coffee beans are roasted for a longer time than medium roast coffee beans, which causes the coffee beans to lose their acidic and sugary properties, resulting in a bolder flavor.
For this reason, dark roast coffee beans usually all taste similar to each other since coffee beans gradually lose their character as the roast time gets longer.
On the other hand, medium roast coffee beans will allow you to delve deeper into the individual characteristics of the coffee bean, retaining their original flavor profile for the most part.
How Are Coffee Beans Roasted?
To really understand why different roast levels can drastically change how a coffee bean tastes, we must take a closer look at the roasting process.
To put it simply, beans are roasted in coffee roasters until they reach the required level, cooled, and packaged.
During the roasting process, the coffee bean goes through certain stages, and the roast level of the coffee is decided by the stage where the roasting process is stopped.
The first stage is drying, where the coffee beans are initially placed into the coffee roaster. During this stage, coffee beans start to warm up with the heat coming from the coffee roaster, which makes them slowly lose their moisture. When the beans are completely dry, this stage comes to an end.
The browning stage starts after the beans dry out. At this stage, coffee beans start expanding and losing their chaff, (which is basically the dried skin of the coffee bean) while a color change occurs in the direction of a brown color. When the coffee beans are completely brown, the browning stage is concluded.
As you can tell from the name, this is the stage where coffee beans start to crack, which marks the first point in the roasting process where coffee beans are ready to be used. If the roaster decides to stop the process at this stage, the coffee beans will end up being light roasted where the acidity of the coffee bean is high, and the real flavor of the bean is intact.
The development stage is considered to be the heart of coffee roasting, as there is no set amount of time for the coffee beans to stay in this stage. As the roast time gets longer, the coffee beans start to lose their acidity and sweetness, taking up a more smoky flavor.
It is entirely up to the roaster to decide whether to end the roasting process at this stage or keep going. In the case where the roasting process is concluded at this stage, the coffee beans will be medium roasted.
Due to there being a lot of room for preference in this stage as we mentioned, it’s not uncommon for medium roasted coffee to be divided into sub-categories such as city roast (which is the average medium roast) or full city roast (which isn’t dark roast but is darker compared to city roast).
The second crack is the last stage of coffee roasting, where a secondary crack occurs in the coffee beans. At this stage, the beans look very dark and shiny as the oils in the beans start surfacing.
If the roasting process reaches this stage, the beans are considered to be dark roasted where they adopt more bitterness and lose their real flavor. Beans that have been roasted to this stage will mostly taste similar to each other regardless of their origin.
Dark roast beans are known for their low acidity and bold flavors. Most commonly used for espresso and espresso drinks, you’ll also find that these beans go by alternative names such as espresso roast, Italian roast, or French roast.
Since dark roast beans lose most of their characteristics during the roasting process, they are commonly found in the form of coffee blends as opposed to single-origin coffee, as there isn’t a lot to differentiate between coffee beans of different origins. For this reason, dark roast coffee beans are usually considered to be easier to produce, which makes them highly available.
As expected, dark roast beans contain bitter flavors since the roasting process eliminates the fruity notes of the beans by caramelizing the sugars and the acids contained within the bean.
The bitter taste of these beans is usually compared to dark chocolate, caramel, cocoa powder, and nuts. You’ll notice that all of these things blend extremely well with milk, which is why a lot of people prefer dark roast coffee for their espresso drinks.
Medium roast beans are known for retaining their acidity and original flavors without being too sour or too bitter. They are usually preferred by those who enjoy a slower brewing method such as French press or pour-over, as the flavor notes of the coffee beans are better extracted when brewed slowly. Since coffee beans get more porous the longer they are roasted, a faster brew won’t allow the entire flavor profile of the beans to be extracted.
As coffee beans can retain their characteristics when they are medium roasted, it’s possible to find them in the form of single-origin coffee as well as coffee blends. While coffee blends will be easier to find as they are easier to produce, single-origin coffee is more expensive and harder to find.
Medium roast coffee beans have a very balanced flavor profile consisting of sweet, sour, and nutty flavors. The original fruity flavor profile of the coffee bean which brings both sweet and sour taste is combined with the smoky flavor of the roasting process, resulting in a flavor profile that isn’t too earthy, but not too bitter either.
The flavors of medium roasted coffee beans are often associated with apples, berries, citrus, caramel, and peanuts.
Choosing Between Dark Roast and Medium Roast
Now that you are familiar with both of the roast levels, it’s time to decide which roast level would be more suitable for you. Since the only difference between the two roast levels is the taste, ultimately it all boils down to preference.
Even though some roast levels are considered to work better with certain drinks such as dark roast coffee and espresso, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using medium roast coffee instead if that’s what you prefer.
To put it simply, dark roast coffee will please the ones who are looking for bitter, smoky flavors that resemble the taste of dark chocolate. For the most part, this kind of flavor profile is what most people will associate with coffee, even though coffee beans inherently have a sweet and sour flavor profile. In reality, the flavor notes of dark roast coffee come mostly from the roasting process rather than the coffee bean itself.
On the other hand, medium roast coffee is more suitable for those who are looking for a more balanced flavor that is slightly sweet, sour, and bitter all at once. Since medium roast coffee is mostly used for specialty coffee, the flavor profile of this roast level will be foreign for most people who haven’t experienced specialty coffee before.
FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
Does dark roast have more caffeine than a medium roast?
No. Contrary to popular belief, the roast level has absolutely no impact on the caffeine content of a coffee bean as caffeine stays stable at the temperatures at which the roasting process takes place.
Does roast level change anything other than the taste?
No. While roast level alters the physical properties of the coffee bean, the only thing that will be different in your coffee experience is the taste. As the roast level gets darker, the coffee bean will start losing its acidity, sweetness, and original flavor, adopting a more bitter flavor instead.
It’s definitely interesting how different roast levels can have such an impact on the way our coffee tastes. By roasting the same coffee beans in different levels, it’s possible to bring out a lot of different flavor profiles, with each providing a unique coffee experience.
Experiencing different roast levels is a great way to enhance your coffee knowledge and discover new tastes. There is no right or wrong choice when it comes to choosing a roast, so feel free to experiment and find what you like the most.