Light Roast vs Dark Roast Coffee
We are creatures of habit. We find comfort in our routines and find safety in what we know. This may be your route to work, your Netflix binges, your wardrobe, and certainly in your morning coffee.
Coffee lovers usually drink one way or the other: light roast or dark roast. We pledge allegiance to either a light or full-bodied brew, fruity or caramelised tastes. The adventurous go for a light roast, while the traditionalists take it dark. Neither is a wrong answer, but we strive to unite the java junkies. Open your horizons to a new flavour profile or roast, and maybe you'll surprise yourself. There's a world of coffee to consume, and we want you to embrace it all.
Why Do We Roast Coffee?
For anyone unaware, "roasting" is heating green coffee beans at a specific temperature for a certain amount of time. When done correctly, the result is delicious-smelling browned beans full of flavour ready for a grinder. Simply put, roasting is responsible for enhancing taste and making your coffee enjoyable.
The heat affects the beans' sugars, proteins, acids, and caffeine, each altering as the temperature rises. This is known as the Maillard effect, the same thing that causes bread to rise, cookies to solidify, and meats to sear. A roast uncovers the flavours that wake you up and hit your soul.
A common misconception is that roasting affects caffeine levels. It doesn't (unless terribly burnt during the roast, but more on that later). You can grind dry, unroasted beans for a green coffee, and you'll still get a buzz, but your drink will taste acidic and woody (and if that sounds appealing, all the power to you).
Caffeine may be the destination, but the roast makes it a beautiful ride.
Which Roast has the Most Caffeine?
There's lots of misinformation about which roasts have the most caffeine. It's a dark roasts' strong flavour that's often believed to hold more caffeine, but that's simply not true. Coffee beans all contain about the same amount of coffee regardless of roast. Why the confusion, then? There are a few myths we need to bust here:
- Most moisture within lightly roasted beans doesn't escape because the internal pressure stays too low to be forced out. On the other hand, dark roasts are cooked at higher temperatures and for more extended periods, causing pressure buildup and moisture to escape. Therefore, light roast beans are denser by comparison.
- Coffee beans expand when heated. Since dark roasts spend comparatively more time in a roaster, they tend to be much larger than lighter beans.
These two factors are essential only if you're buying beans by the scoop. You'll get larger quantities of smaller, denser beans per scoop of light roast beans than dark, so, yes, there will be more caffeine in a scoop of light roast coffee. However, when buying coffee beans by mass, there is no difference in caffeine levels between the roasts*.
If you want more caffeine, add more grounds to your brew.
* We've already discussed that roasts have nothing to do with caffeine levels. It is, however, possible to burn the beans so severely that the caffeine evaporates. That said, the beans would be so ruined at this point you wouldn't drink the coffee anyway.
Types of Roasted Coffee
The three main types of roast coffee we'll explore are:
- Light roast coffee
- Dark roast coffee
- Medium roast coffee
What is Light Roast Coffee?
Light roast coffee beans are roasted at lower temperatures or shorter exposure to high heat. They're often yellow to golden brown and have a matte finish because most of the oils haven't melted and leaked out. As mentioned earlier, these beans are typically smaller and denser than the longer roasts.
When beans hit somewhere between 190C-200C °C (375-390 °F), moisture will start to evaporate through the bean's shell. This is called the "first crack" and signifies a very "light roast," exposing the light-body, bright elements of the bean's origin. It's at this point that the beans begin to enlarge.
The draw of a light roast is called the bean's "origin", something like a fingerprint explaining where and how the bean was harvested. Climate, precipitation levels, nearby crops, and natural elements all contribute to the origin and the beans' naturally complex flavours of fruits and herbs. When properly lightly roasted, the heat will emphasise these beautiful flavours and present them in your cup.
This isn't your grandpa's coffee. Light roast beans will have a bright taste at first sip and a lighter, thinner body when drinking. They're often brewed in small batches and offer unique and innovative flavours. Traditional coffee drinkers may find it a hard adjustment, but we promise it's worth the adventure.
What is Dark Roast Coffee?
Dark roasts are for everyone who wants a coffee that tastes like "coffee".
These beans are roasted longer than light roast beans and are therefore much darker and larger. The higher temperatures force the oils from within the bean to its outside, giving it that oily finish. Because these oils have escaped, the beans are much lighter by comparison (think of popcorn).
Dark roast beans reach internal temperatures of 430-450 degrees Fahrenheit (220C - 230C). Beans undergo a "second crack" at about 225C (435 °F), making them even drier and more fragile. It's here where the bold, bittersweet flavours and smells of traditional "coffee" become evident. There's a tradeoff, though; the darker the roast, the harder it is to recognise any of the beans' origins. They'll continue to enlarge until removed from the heat.
Dark roasts often consist of a blend of origins, making it harder to identify quality dark roast coffees. Some big coffee companies will blend beans from all over the world and essentially burn them to a uniformly dark roast. This is also effective when masking and selling lower-quality beans. Instead, good roasters will seek beans with deep, full flavours worth uncovering, such as chocolate, nuts, and caramel.
Call me old school, but I'll always be a fan of dark-as-night espresso. A fresh, gurgling Moka pot still reminds me of dinner at Nonna's. It's the first thing I do every morning.
What is Medium Roast Coffee?
Well, a medium roast can be anything in between. These beans are roasted to a light brown with little to no oil exposed. We find a lot of compromises in medium roasts: what's missing in its brightness it makes up for in a fuller, richer body. Where we won't get super-rich flavours, we will get hints of the origin of the beans. You'll taste the caramelised sugars but not much acidity. Finding the happy "medium" is an art and matter of preference.
Medium roast coffees reach 400-430 (205C-220C) degrees Fahrenheit before being taken from the roaster, which is a little beyond the first crack. These have a balanced flavour, aroma, and acidity and are often sweeter than light roasts. The darker the brew, the less you'll notice the acidity or "brightness" in the first sips. This is replaced with fuller flavour and more decadent smells.
A medium roast is a great starting point when experimenting with new brews. We suggest buying a medium roast and drinking it black. Decide what it is that you like and dislike, and let that guide your next coffee-buying decision. And if you despise your coffee, at least you can soften the blow with cream and sugar well.
So, what's the best coffee? The answer may sound vague, but the best brew is whichever makes you excited to wake up and drink it. It all depends on what you prioritise, whether that's colour, smell, origin, brightness, body, flavour, or something else. Given that caffeine levels are the same, you can put that attribute aside and focus on what you want. The only way to find out what that is is to do some research. Brew a few cups of each different roast and let your taste buds do the rest.
Written by Spencer Gowan