Think of the last coffee description you heard or read. Did the words "dark," "light," or "medium" come up? Or maybe you noticed terms such as "French," "Italian," or "espresso?" All these words can be used to describe a coffee roast: the particular way in which a coffee was transformed by heat from green seeds to the dark-brown beans you find at the store or your neighborhood café.
But what, exactly, do roast levels mean? And how important are they to picking the perfect coffee for you?
Beyond country of origin or even flavor descriptors, roast levels are the primary factor by which most consumers decide which coffee to buy. It's a simple and straightforward criterion—though a "roast" can only go so far in describing a coffee's actual flavors. That's why we're here to give you a quick n' dirty cheat sheet to how we at Olympia Coffee talk about roasting: the terms we use, what they mean, and what they translate to in the cup.
So, what is a "roast?"
As mentioned up top, a coffee’s “roast” refers to the use of temperature and time to toast green coffee and turn it that deep, delicious brown we associate with good and beautiful things. In some regions and traditions, this is done in a pan over a fire, not far removed from the earliest preparations of coffee as we know it. In our roastery, though, we use drum roasters to turn the temperature up on our beans while closely monitoring their progress.
To get the results we want, we adjust two variables: temperature and time. Roasting at a higher temp for longer, for example, will result in a "darker" roast, while roasting at a lower temp for a shorter duration will yield a "lighter" roast. A roast profile simply describes the particular parameters we use to achieve our intended outcomes. They're kind of like recipes: part formula, part sensory evaluation and intuition.
So a hotter and longer profile results in "darker" coffee, and a lower and shorter profile results in "lighter." This is what’s often thought of as a roast: whether a coffee's light or dark, and what that means for flavor. Truth be told, it’s not quite as simple as that! Still, it's one way we describe the effects of a coffee’s roast profile: by placing it on a lighter-to-darker scale.
Why "darker" and not "dark," you might ask? Don't plenty of coffees describe themselves as dark roasts or light roasts? Sure, and that's totally fine. Our take, though, is that dark and light are relative — there's no standardized roast meter to evaluate toastiness. So, since we can only accurately compare a coffee's roast level to others of our own coffees, we refer to them as "lighter," "darker," and "medium."
Roast, flavor, and acidity
Though roast profiles only go so far in determining a coffee's flavor, roasting does in fact have a significant effect on how coffee tastes in the cup! We tailor roast profiles to suit each lot's particular characteristics, such as origin and varietal, to help bring out the flavors we really want to shine.
A lighter roast profile can be expected to highlight more of the fruity, sweet flavors of a coffee bean, drawing out floral or herbaceous aromas atop a light and silky mouthfeel. They'll tend to have higher acidity — which, in coffee-speak, refers to a broad range of naturally-occurring chemicals that open up your salivary glands. This juicy quality of lighter roasts often makes them feel more adventurous and exciting to the palate.
By contrast, a darker roast profile will bring out more bitterness and toastiness, resulting in flavors such as chocolate, cocoa, and nuts with a rounder, heavier body. Generally speaking, these coffees will be lower on acidity, often evoking that cozy, comforting quality that many associate with a "classic" cup of joe.
(Note: some folks who find coffee hard on their stomachs will translate "darker" as lower acidity, meaning easier on the tummy. This isn't necessarily the case! If your system seems sensitive to coffee, you can try switching from lighter to darker or vice versa, or going decaffeinated. In the end, though, we're not doctors. If in doubt, please consult your health professional.)
Roast, brewing methods, and the final cup
When picking out a coffee and checking out the roast level, here are two final things to consider. First, you'll want to think about how you're planning to brew it. Going for a faster-brewing, full-immersion method such as espresso or French press? Roasts on the darker side will be your best bet. If you're more into filter coffee, though, you might want to choose a lighter roast. If in doubt, you can't go wrong with a solid medium. Also, we highly encourage just playing around and seeing what works for you!
Finally, think about how you like to take your coffee: black, with a splash of milk or cream, or maybe with a dash of sugar. Medium-dark to darker roasts, owing to their lower acidity, tend to play more nicely with milk. And, thanks to their bitterness, they can often handle a little sugar. Lighter roasts, on the other hand, will offer plenty of their own sweetness and tongue-tantalizing acidity, making them best enjoyed straight-up.
And in case we haven't stressed it enough: all these are guidelines, not rules. Find the coffees and combinations that work for you, and enjoy them with unapologetic abandon. So long as you're savoring your cup to the very last drop, then you're doing it right.