Roasting coffee is skill, art, and science that requires dedicated practice, experimentation, and experience to master. As a coffee buyer and consumer, however, it can take far less time to understand the different roast levels and find the one you enjoy most. If you purchase specialty coffees, for example, you’ll often find light and medium roasts chosen to complement the beans’ natural flavors and aromas.

Common Roast Levels

Coffee comes in four main roast levels: light, medium, dark, and darker than dark. Within these four levels, you’ll find varying degrees as well. Minimal standardization of roast levels across the coffee industry also leads many roasters to create their own names and definitions for their different roast levels. For buying purposes, this list includes the common names for each roast level along with the various degrees within them.

Light Roast

Intended to preserve a coffee bean’s natural aromas and flavors, light roasts represent the preferred choice of most of the specialty coffee community. They also tend to have a brighter flavor profile than darker roasts. With a dry, not oily, texture, these beans typically reach about 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and just barely obtain the first-crack stage.

Roasters typically refer to varying degrees of light roasts as:

  • Light City

  • Half City

  • Cinnamon

Medium Roast

While medium roasts still preserve a coffee bean’s natural aromas and flavors, they usually replace the brightness produced in a light roast with a sweet caramelization created by a longer roast time. This longer roast time also reduces the acidity and bright notes typically found in light-roast coffees. These beans remain fairly dry and rarely look oily. Raised to temperatures of between 400 and 430 degrees Fahrenheit, they typically pass the first-crack stage while never fully reaching the second crack.

Roasters typically refer to varying degrees of medium roasts as:

  • City

  • American

  • Breakfast

Dark Roast

At this level, the taste of the roast itself replaces the coffee bean’s naturally occurring aromas and flavors. This creates a bold, heavier flavor profile with low acidity. With an oily, dark brown appearance, these beans normally reach the second-crack stage at temperatures of between 430 and 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

Roasters typically refer to varying degrees of dark roasts as:

  • Full City

  • Vienna

Darker that Dark Roast

Coffees referred to as New Orleans, Italian, French, and continental feature beans roasted to such a dark level that no trace of the coffee’s original flavor remains. These beans have a high oil content, a glossy appearance, and typically taste ashy. Specialty coffee shops don’t use this roast level.

Tips for Choosing the Right Roast Level

Roast levels play an important role in a coffee’s flavor and aroma. However, choosing a light roast doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll always enjoy the coffee’s natural flavors. Here are four tips to help you decide on the right roast for your coffee:

  • If you prefer coffee with lower acidity levels and fewer bright notes, then opt for a medium or medium-dark roast.

  • To bring out the brightest and most powerful naturally occurring flavor notes in your coffee, opt for a light roast.

  • Dark roasts can provide a crowd favorite, so don’t hesitate to try them. Consider using a blend rather than a single origin for this.

  • For unbalanced coffees, consider a blend of several origins at a medium roast. Combining different flavor notes with the roasty flavor of a medium roast may just create a best seller.

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