With so many kinds of coffee roasts out there in the world these days, choosing the right one can be difficult.
But there are still three big categories of coffee roast: light, medium, and dark.
The main difference between light, medium, and dark roast coffees is the flavor. The darker the roast, the more intense and bitter the flavor.
Luckily, I’ve spent nearly five years in and around the coffee industry—so I know these roasts intimately.
Let’s take a deep dive into the world of coffee roasts and compare these three kinds of roasts against one another.
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What Is Dark Roast?
As the name suggests, dark roast coffee is roasted for a longer time at a higher temperature than other roasts.
As a result, dark roast coffee has a stronger flavor and a slightly smoky taste.
It's sometimes called an Italian roast.
Because a lot of the oils in the coffee are brought to the surface and somewhat burnt off during the roasting process, dark roasts tend to have lower acidity than lighter roasts.
You might hear people call the acidity in dark roasts “mellow,” “mild,” or “smooth.”
The process of roasting coffee beans involves exposing the beans to high temperatures for an extended period of time.
As the beans roast for longer periods of time, they become darker in color and take on more intense flavors during the roasting process.
Dark roast coffee is a popular choice for those who prefer a strong, bold flavor.
The flavor of dark roast coffee is bold and full-bodied, with a slightly bitter or smoky taste. It is often described as having a "roast" or "toasty" flavor.
That means that dark roasts are often seen as having a more bitter flavor than lighter roasts.
That’s because the longer a bean is roasted, the more oils are burnt off, leaving a roasted and bitter taste.
Dark roast coffee is characterized by its deep, dark brown color and shiny, oily surface on the beans.
But what does it smell like?
Imagine a classic diner-style coffee. That’s a pretty typical dark roast smell.
It smells strong, bold, and in your face.
Dark roast coffee might be the perfect choice if you enjoy a bold, full-bodied coffee with a slightly smoky or charred taste.
The aftertaste is intense and lasts a while. The coffee taste will likely stick around in your mouth long after your last sip.
What Is Medium Roast?
Medium-roasted coffee is a type of coffee roasted for a moderate amount of time at a moderate temperature.
Medium roasts balance the full body of a dark roast and the delicate flavors of light roasts.
It's sometimes called American roast.
The flavor of medium roast coffee is balanced and smooth, with a moderate acidity and a slightly sweet or nutty taste.
Medium roasts are often described as having a "bright" or "crisp" flavor.
Medium roasts are darker in color than light roasts and take on more intense flavors during the roasting process.
And the oils trapped in the beans start to rise to the surface.
During medium roasting, only a few of the oils are brought to the surface of the beans. It means that medium roast beans have a slightly matte appearance with few oils visible.
Medium roast profiles are meant to balance delicate flavors with a fuller body.
Medium roast coffee is a popular choice for those who prefer a balanced, smooth flavor.
There will be a little bitterness, but it will certainly not be overwhelming or overpowering.
You might be able to guess at this point what I’m going to say.
The smell of medium-roast coffee is pretty balanced. You might hear it described as “mild” or “like coffee.”
It’s a pretty classic-smelling cup.
A medium roast should leave you satisfied but without an overpowering taste.
The flavors might linger for a while, but they should start to fade after a bit.
What Is Light Roast?
Light roast coffee is a type of coffee roasted for a shorter time at a lower temperature than darker roasts.
Light roasts have become increasingly popular in the specialty coffee shop market. That’s because they tend to have more interesting and unique flavors.
It's sometimes called a blonde roast.
As a result, light roast coffee has a milder, more subtle flavor and a higher level of acidity.
Note that acidity doesn’t mean the Ph level of the coffee. Instead, acidity means the “brightness” or the “zip” a coffee has.
Think of something like pink lemonade or orange juice. Coffee is much the same.
And light roasts have the highest amount of acidity among the roast profiles.
Light roast-level coffees are roasted for a shorter time at a lower temperature.
They will develop light brown colors during roasting and will look dry.
Don’t be scared. That’s how they are supposed to look.
The point is to bring out interesting flavors. To do that, roasters will leave as much oil inside the coffee beans as possible.
The flavor of light roast coffee is mild and subtle, with a higher level of acidity and a bright, clean taste.
It is often described as having a "crisp" or "tangy" flavor. That means it has very little bitterness.
If you have a good coffee palate, you can start tasting the natural sweetness of coffee beans.
Smells vary a ton in light roasts.
That’s because such a range of variables changes how a coffee will smell.
With light roasts, the origin country has a much bigger impact on the smell of the coffee.
In general, though, light roasts will sometimes smell like tea or have a faint but present coffee aroma.
Light roast coffee is a popular choice for those who prefer a mild, subtle flavor.
It has nuanced and unique flavors.
If you want to get into the world of single-origin coffees, you should start looking for light roasts.
Dark Roast Vs. Light Roast
Dark roast level coffee and light roast coffee have the biggest differences.
After all, they are on opposite sides of the spectrum.
Here are some key differences between light and dark roasts:
- Flavor: Dark roast coffee has a strong and bold flavor, while light roast coffee has a milder, more subtle flavor.
- Aroma: Dark roast coffee has a bold, roasty aroma, while light roast coffee has a more nuanced aroma.
- Color: Dark roast coffee has a deep, dark brown color, while light roast coffee has a light brown color.
- Acidity: Dark roast coffee generally has a lower acid content than light roast coffee.
Dark Roasts: For people who like full-bodied coffee with a toasted or smoky taste.
Light Roasts: For someone who wants mild, subtle coffee with a clean and crisp taste.
Dark Roast Vs. Medium Roast
It can sometimes be hard to distinguish between medium and dark roasts just based on the taste alone.
But they do have some key features that set them apart from one another:
- Flavor: Dark roast coffee has a stronger, more intense flavor, while medium roast coffee has a balanced, smooth flavor with a slightly sweet or nutty taste.
- Aroma: Dark roast coffee has a toasty or roasted aroma, while medium roast coffee has a balanced aroma.
- Color: Dark roast coffee has a dark brown color and is oily, while medium roast coffee has a medium brown color and is matte.
- Acidity: Dark roast coffee generally has a lower acid content than medium roast coffee.
Dark Roasts: If you like cream and sugar in your coffee or want a smokier flavor.
Medium Roasts: If you want a balanced coffee that tastes better black.
Light Roast Vs. Medium Roast
Light roasts and medium roasts have a lot in common.
They are both fairly mellow and have mild and nuanced flavors.
But they are still very different types of roasts:
- Flavor: Light roast coffee has a mild, subtle flavor, while medium roast coffee has a balanced, smooth flavor.
- Aroma: Light roast coffee has a subtle, nuanced aroma, while medium roast coffee has a more balanced aroma.
- Color: Light roast coffee has a light brown color, while medium roast coffee has a medium brown color.
- Acidity: Light roast coffee generally has a higher acidity than medium roast coffee.
Light Roasts: For someone who wants natural sweetness or nuance.
Medium Roast: For someone who wants a slightly fuller body or more rounded flavors.
My Final Thoughts
There is a roast level out there for everyone these days.
But the three big categories are still light, medium, and dark.
The easiest way to remember the biggest difference: The darker the roast, the bolder the flavor.