The Difference Between Light And Dark Roast Coffee

Light Vs Dark CoffeeCoffee roasting is an art form in, and of itself and when you are looking for the right roast to purchase, it can be confusing.

There are many names that coffee roasts go by, Breakfast, French, Dark, Medium just to name a few.

How do you know which one to choose?

Is there a difference in how each one tastes?

We are here to help you find clarity and understanding of these roast levels as well as how best to use them.

Coffee beans start as little hard, dry green seeds, but we’ll call them beans since everyone knows them as coffee beans.

As they are roasted, they start to lose moisture, release carbon dioxide and increase in size. This process is sped up once you decide to grind your coffee which is why all professionals recommend grinding whole beans them just prior to use.

Various changes occur to the bean as the temperature increases.

Some think that the roasts change caffeine levels but if you weigh out your coffee, the level is negligible.

You are going to get more caffeine from a pour over than espresso due to the fact the coffee has more time to infuse the water.

Cold brew has the most caffeine as some recipes say to leave the coffee up to 12 hours in the water.

Light (New England, Cinnamon, Light City)

This is the first roast level that is considered drinkable though some could argue otherwise.

As the name suggests, light roasts have a light brown or cinnamon color to them.

The beans in this roast have not yet undergone the first crack, a necessary chemical reaction caused by roasting where the beans pop almost like popcorn.

Due to this underdeveloped roast level, the coffee has a lightly toasted grain taste that is earthy, and quite acidic.

The flavors of origin are the most pronounced though not quite developed.

This is the best option to get the fruity notes if you are using an automatic drip machine or percolator.

Please note: It is harder than your average roasted coffee bean so if you are using a burr grinder, it will wear the burrs of your grinder down much faster than other roasts will.

Medium (City, American, Breakfast)

This roast has just undergone what is called first crack, and the beans are uniformly brown.

It is the soonest the beans can be removed from the roaster after they have undergone first crack and still have a recognizable tasting cup of coffee.

It will have the most enjoyable flavors of origin but with a bit of roast character maturing it all.

The cup from this roast is going to be acidic yet have some body.

Think fruity and floral.

There are not a lot of oils present if any on the surface of the bean.

This is a perfect roast to enjoy as a pour over.

Medium Dark (Full City)

This roast is going to be the most easily recognizable of the roasts for drip coffee.

The beans have been brought just up to the beginning of second crack.

The beans are a uniformly medium dark color and have a smooth surface with some slight oil development on the surface of the bean.

The acidic notes have diminished and are replaced with spicy, earthy tones.

The coffee will have a nice roast flavor with good body.

Single origin beans can be enjoyed as espresso at this level because the roast level is enough to give it a nice body yet still allow some of the flavors of origin to remain.

Sumatran coffees come into their own at this level and have the most flavors of origin than other coffees at this point in the roast.

This is an excellent roast for automatic drip or french press as well as pour overs.

Dark Roasts

These go by many different names: Continental, French, Italian, Spanish, or Vienna.

They have all started if not already finished the second crack process of the roast and have lost a lot of their mass.

The beans are dark and oily and are best used for espresso unless you prefer a strong coffee from your automatic drip machine.


This roast is brought into the beginning or middle of second crack and eclipses the flavors of origin for roasting flavors.

If you want to enjoy flavors of origin, you may want to steer clear of this level as the nuances of these flavors will be lost.

Vienna is a common level for espresso.


At this level, the sugars in the coffee are heavily caramelized (or burned).

Roasting this far results in a very heavy body in the cup and the flavors tasted are going to be that of the roasting process and not from the bean.

The beans appear almost black or dark chocolate in color.

Oils abound on the beans, and you will need to wipe out your grinder periodically and clean your brewing equipment thoroughly because of the oils left behind.

Espresso is often brewed from this level and stands up to the addition of lots of milk and sugar.

Italian or Spanish

At this point, the beans have completely gone through second crack and are very dark and oily.

European coffee houses are more likely to serve you this as their espresso.

The only taste you are going to get from this cup is from the roast.

The body is heavy, and the brew is dark.

It All Comes Down to Preference

We prefer to taste our coffee’s natural flavors so if you were to ask us, we would direct you to the Medium roasts.

They are going to afford you the best possible ability to taste those floral and fruity notes.

Equipment is another consideration.

There are so many ways to enjoy coffee from pour over, automatic drip, french press, to espresso that the equipment begs for certain roast levels for them to shine in their duties.

No matter what you decide, make sure that your coffee is as fresh as possible.

No matter how well the coffee is roasted, the flavors will diminish with age.

We suggest that you buy enough whole bean coffee that you will use in a few weeks, store those beans in a good container, and grind right before use for the best flavor possible.

Coffee is like wine, what matters more than the opinions of others is whether or not you like it.

Brian Mounts

Head blogger, editor, and owner of "Top Off My Coffee", a website that has been educating readers about coffee brewing techniques and equipment since 2012.

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