Types of Coffee Roasts
Unlike other fruits* like apples, oranges, grapefruit or strawberries, coffee isn't something you can just pluck and consume. In order to get the caffeinated goodness from the plant to your cup, the beans need to be roasted first. While the methods vary from simple (a frying pan over an open fire can do the trick) to the expensive and complicated air roasters found at many roasters and coffee shops, there's an art and science to getting the right roast. Mass-produced coffee, with its reliance on volume, churns out standardized coffee by relying on standardized techniques. Custom roasting, on the other hand, takes into account different bean varieties' flavor profiles and seeks to maximize them through the roasting process. There are, broadly speaking, three types of roasts. Whatever else your coffee might be called (breakfast blend, French roast, etc.), it's going to fall into one of the following categories.
Light Roast The most common varieties here are half city or cinnamon roast (also known as "first crack", since this is the first stage of expansion and cracking of the beans). The beans will be pale and dry-looking, resulting in a coffee with a bit less body and usually no traces of the roasting process. The coffee that results has more acidity and less body, but typically also has a more varied flavor profile.
Medium Roast includes full city, American, regular, or breakfast roasts. The beans are still dry, with more sweetness due to further carmelization. The body is fuller, and the acidity typically lower, but the flavor is somewhat more compressed, with more pronounced bitterness.
Dark or Full Roast includes Viennese, French roast, Continental and Italian Espresso. This time, the beans have come to "second crack," and the beans will begin to show an oily sheen. Darker roasts have a pronounced roasted taste. Spicy notes and a thicker, more oily mouth feel become pronounced.
Double Roast (French, Spanish and Turkish) takes beans to the point where they begin to smoke. As you can imagine, the taste is noticeably smoky or even charred, with little evidence of the beans' original flavor. There's a hint of sweetness, but less body than with a medium-dark or dark roast. It's worth noting that French roast as a term of art versus what's on your supermarket shelf are generally two very different things (supermarket French roast is typically a darker roast, but not as dark as a true French roast).
Espresso is in something of a class by itself. The higher temperature and pressure of an espresso machine combined with the carmelization of medium-dark and darker roasts makes Full City Roast, Vienna Roast, French Roast and Italian Roast best suited to espresso. Experience comes into play with darker roasts, since the difference between carmelized and burnt can be a matter of seconds. Click for a free sample of our Broadway Dark Nespresso Pods for a limited time!
Two analogies can be helpful in understanding why the type of roast matters. One of these is toast. As with coffee, the amount and duration of heat applied to bread can be the difference between something that's lightly browned, caramelized, and flavorful, and something that's a smoking, burnt mess. Interestingly, a similar series of chemical reactions (known as a Maillard Reaction) takes place in both cases, as the heat causes chemical changes to amino acids and sugars present in the substance being heated. We can also draw a close parallel between coffee and steak. The more rare the steak (or the lighter the bean), the more flavor it has. If the steak, or bean, is well-done or overdone, the amino acids and fatty acids that impart flavor are largely burnt out.**
There's a bit of irony in this, of course. Medium-dark and dark roasts are popular with coffee companies (the beans have a lower oil and moisture content, making them lighter and cheaper to ship), and have become more popular with consumers as well. Over the years, we've become conditioned to expect that dark, roasty, bitter flavor with "good" coffee, little realizing that we're getting rid of the best of the bean. If you're in the habit of falling back on darker roasts, try something a bit lighter. You may even be pleasantly surprised when you find that you don't need to reach for the cream or sugar.
*Yes, coffee is a fruit.
**One thing that's not burnt out is caffeine. Caffeine content is consistent among roast types, so you're getting the same "dose" whether your roast is light, burnt, or anywhere in between. See more here: http://www.kickinghorsecoffee.com/en/blog/caffeine-myths-dark-vs-light
Learn more: A fascinating (yes, really) video on the roasting process from Sweet Maria's Coffee If you're interested in roasting your own, you can get the job done with nothing more than a popcorn popper, a colander, and a kitchen timer.
Find out more here: If, on the other hand, you'd prefer to leave the roasting and the guesswork to someone else, try HiLine's fresh roasted whole bean coffee.