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The Difference Between Light and Dark Roast Coffee

By Danya Henninger
July 15, 2013

When you order coffee, do you always ask for the dark roast? Or do you call Starbucks “Char-bucks” and disparage the chain for over-roasting? For Coffee Week, we invited Rival Bros. Coffee partner and roaster Damien Pileggi to help shed some light on what roast levels really mean.

Roast degree is one of the most misunderstood things in coffee. Instead of ordering “dark roast” or “light roast,” I encourage people to think about flavor profile, such as full bodied, rich, nutty, crisp or bright, and ask for that instead - you have a much better chance of getting what you're looking for. Good roasters use different roasts for different beans for many reasons, and a lot goes on in the transformation from light to medium to dark. Here’s a brief explanation of what you’ll find in different roast levels.

In a light roast, the difference between different origins is at its most distinct, and the unique qualities of each bean (Ethiopian vs. Guatemalan vs. Indonesian, etc.) are most obvious, and can be celebrated. At this point the bean also has the highest acidity and brightness.

As the cooking continues, you begin to add body, decrease acidity and see a slight drop off in origin distinction. This is where you'll find a medium roast, which gives a nice balance of bitterness, acidity and fullness.

When you approach the darker side of the roast, beans start to lose their origin distinction. A dark roast coffee will have flavor notes that rely more on the roasting itself than the unique character of the bean. It will also lose brightness, and gain bitterness, along with a fuller body.

However, you don't always have to look to a dark roast for great body and fullness. For example, a talented roaster who knows the craft well can get a great, full-bodied coffee from a good Sumatra coffee without having to roast too dark. Another note about dark roast coffee: it’s a myth that a dark-roasted coffee has a lot of caffeine. The truth is, along with a decrease in brightness, caffeine levels drop as roasts get darker.

These days there’s a trend in serving origin-specific coffees, made with beans from a single farm, or even a single lot from that farm. This is where a lighter roast makes sense, because it highlights the unique qualities of the coffee, and you’ll be able to taste floral notes, strong berry flavors, clove or chocolate. Lighter roasts may require some adventurous coffee drinking (and skilled roasting), but they’re definitely worth a try.

 
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