Understanding coffee roast levels - An easy guide to tasting coffee


Whether you’re an espresso purest, filtered coffee fanatic or a latte lover, everyone likes to take their coffee, their way. Life would be a bit boring if we all liked the same things. Whichever form you prefer your coffee to take, they all have their own unique flavours and attributes.

Understanding the basics of how roasting affects the taste of coffee can set you on an enjoyable and drinkable journey of discovery. Whilst the variety of coffee blends now on offer can seem a little overwhelming, getting a grasp on the three basic roast levels will help you make a more informed choice about the coffee you like. 

What affects coffee’s taste?

Understanding what affects the taste of coffee is extremely complex. There are many alternating factors such as country of origin, growing environment and type of bean (Arabica or Robusta) which will make the taste quite different even when roasted to the same level. The age of the coffee, the processing method, the grind, and the brewing method will also affect the taste. But the roasting level provides the simplest guide to finding a taste you can expect. 

What is coffee roasting?

Raw green coffee beans, when harvested from the tree’s cherry, are soft with a fresh grassy smell and little to no taste. Roasting involves bringing these raw beans to high temperatures and then quickly cooling to stop the process which allows the flavours and aromas to be released from inside. This process turns them into the recognisable aromatic and crunchy beans we are familiar with. Once roasted, they should be used as quickly as possible before the fresh roast flavor begins to diminish. 

What are roast levels?

You don’t need to understand the specifics of the roasting process, which in itself is intricate and extremely scientific. Combining colour with a typical roasting temperature is the most convenient way to categorise them. While roast levels can be given different names and descriptions across the coffee industry, particularly depending what country you’re in, they can be most commonly referred to as light, medium or dark roast. 

Light roasts

Intended to preserve as much of the coffee bean’s natural aromas and flavors, light roasts represent the preferred choice for most specialty coffee because of the variety of flavours. Raised to temperatures between 180°C – 205°C (this is the internal bean temperature) the beans will start to pop or crack and expand in size. This is known as the first crack.

Look and feel

Light roast beans will look pale and dry, sometimes referred to as blonde. They are light in body, almost watery and highly aromatic.

Taste notes

Light roasts tend to have a more textured, grainy taste because the flavour is underdeveloped compared to darker roasts. You’ll also find more pronounced acidity. The varied flavours are fragrant and floral, with sweeter notes such as fruits, chocolate and tea.

Medium Roasts

While medium roasts still preserve the coffee bean’s natural aroma and flavour, they usually replace the brightness produced in a light roast with a sweet caramelisation created by a longer roast time. Temperatures are raised to 210-220°C which tends to be just before the second crack. This longer roast time also reduces the acidity and bright notes typically found in light-roast coffees.

Look and feel

Beans become more neutral in colour and have more body than a light roast.

Taste notes

Sugar browning flavours such as butter, nuts, caramel and vanilla add rich sweetness. This fuller compressed flavour is more balanced in aroma and acidity and can cause a slight bittersweet aftertaste.

Dark Roasts

Dark roasting was traditionally used to mask defective and lower grade coffees because you taste more of the roast than the coffee bean’s naturally occurring aroma and flavour. Heated to temperatures between 225°C - 230°C this takes it to the end of the second crack and the high heat reduces the quality of the bean.

Look and feel

Beans are dark brown like chocolate or almost black with a sheen of oil on the surface giving the beans a glossy appearance. The body of coffee gets heavier with roasting, until the second crack, where it’s then pretty much burnt away. Dark roasts become quite thin tasting.

Taste notes

The darker you go the less flavour is delivered making it simple with little to no variation. Expect bold flavours with a bitter, smoky or burnt taste.

Which is the strongest?

It is often misinterpreted that dark roasts produce the strongest coffee because of the bold flavours and dark colouring. The roasting process is said to diminish caffeine potency and because light roasts are denser beans, they tend to carry more caffeine than it’s darker counterpart. Many dark roasts are used for espresso blends so it’s easily misunderstood that espresso is a dark or full roast when in fact espresso is just a brewing method and not a type of roast

The Halo taste

Where dark roasts were the crowd-pleasers in the past, roasters don’t need to worry about hiding the bad flavours anymore but instead unearthing the good ones. Coffee quality has improved so dramatically where beans are well grown, extremely well processed, and masterfully roasted. Now it’s all about highlighting the unique and inherent flavours of the beans. Our roasting leads to a perfectly balanced, non-acidic coffee that provides an enjoyable drinking experience.

Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of the basic roast differences, it’s time to savour and enjoy the sensory elements of your coffee. The more coffee you taste, the more flavours you’ll be able to pick up on and your overall appreciation of delicious, fresh coffee will increase. Just take your time and pay attention.



National Coffee Blog

Craft Coffee Guru.com