If you’re just taking your first steps into the world of gourmet coffee, you might find yourself mystified by coffee roast. Does dark roast coffee have more caffeine? Is light roast coffee more flavorful? What’s the difference between a bean from Colombia and a bean from Sumatra? Worry no more — we’re about to demystify coffee roasting.
The Bean’s the Thing
Despite what you may have heard, roast level is not the most important factor when it comes to flavor. Flavor starts with the type and origin of coffee bean.
There are two basic types of coffee bean: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica beans are generally grown at high altitude and are deep green in color when harvested. Robusta beans are pale green and are easier to grow than Arabica beans. Robusta beans tend to be used in coffee blends, while Arabica beans, which have a more delicate and varied flavor, often stand on their own.
But the story of the coffee bean doesn’t end there. Where the bean was harvested will make a major difference in its flavor. Beans from Latin America tend to be sweeter with higher acidity, making them ideal for light roasting. African or Arabian beans are more suited to a dark roast, with a medium acidity and a variety of subtle flavors. Beans from the Pacific Island region generally feature the lowest acidity and heartiest flavor, making them perfect for a dark roast.
What Roasting Does to Coffee
So if the majority of coffee flavor comes from the bean, what difference does roasting make? A lot, as it turns out! The roasting process changes the aspects of the bean, which impacts the drinking experience. As beans are roasted, oil is released, acidity decreases, and bitterness increases.
A light roast maintains the most characteristics of the bean, while a dark roast loses those flavors in favor of the flavor of the roasting process. A medium roast strikes a balance between the flavor of the bean and the flavor of the roasting process.
The roast level of coffee will also influence the body of the final product. Body (viscosity or “mouthfeel”) increases as the beans get darker, but only up to a point — then it thins out again.
Light roast coffee tends to have the brightest, most identifiable flavors. If you drink a light roast coffee and know your beans, you’ll be able to taste the difference between a Colombian and an African bean. When you drink a dark roast coffee, you’re no longer tasting the distinctive flavor of the bean, but the roast itself. The darker a roast gets, the more consistent the flavor becomes.
Light and medium roast beans feature a light brown color, with no oil on the surface of the beans. Most commercial blends are light roasts. Your typical American cup of coffee will probably be a medium or medium dark roast, with less acidity and more sweetness and little to no oil on the surface. Dark roasts range in color from dark brown to black, with a visible sheen of oil on the surface. Dark roasts are also referred to as French roasts, Italian roasts, or Espresso roasts. The darker the roast, the more bittersweet and bold the flavor becomes.
Does Roast Level Affect Caffeine?
The short answer: not really!
Myths and opinions abound on which roasts offer more caffeine. Some will tell you it’s dark roast, others light. Often this corresponds with the drinker’s taste in coffee. Some will tell you that caffeine “burns off” during the roasting process (it doesn’t).
In truth, there’s little difference in caffeine content between a light roast and a dark roast coffee. There may be some variance in caffeine content based on bean type (Arabica beans in particular), but roasting has relatively little impact. Light roasted beans may have slightly more caffeine by the scoop because the beans are denser. But there’s no significant difference on a per-cup basis. You can enjoy your favorite roast in comfort, knowing you’re not getting less than the optimum amount of caffeine!
In Search of the Perfect Cup
Coffee drinkers who prefer brighter, more adventurous flavors gravitate toward a light roast. Those preferring a bittersweet taste and more body should try a medium-dark roast. Bean type and roasting aren’t the only determinants of flavor — how the coffee is ground and brewed will also make a difference.
So what’s the perfect roast for you? There’s only one way to find out for sure — try lots of different roasts and see which you like best.