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Coffee Roast Levels
These days, it seems like every coffee company is making up new names for their coffee roast levels and colors. When we began roasting our own coffees, we realized we needed to clarify how deeply our blends were roasted. We immediately ran into trouble: no two coffeeshops seems to agree on the definition of "dark roast." Telling our customers that our coffees were "dark" or "medium" or "Italian" wouldn't be helpful if those words no longer have any meaning.
To that end, we have made the roast comparison chart below. This scale will be consistent throughout the store, so if you're ever unsure what we mean, just check back here. Hope this is helpful!
If you'd like more information about roasting, please continue on and read the article below the chart.
Text descriptions of the color levels and how they are achieved:
1. Cinnamon Roast - most people don't like Cinnamon Roast, so you might want to stop right here on that one. The reason is, the coffee has not had a chance to develop most of the caramel and butter tones we associate with coffee here in the USA. Cinnamon Roast occurs usually about the middle of what we call "First Crack", when the beans are popping like popcorn. The brew will not even "taste like coffee" to most people.
2. Light Roast - This is generally achieved when you shut off the roaster at the end of first crack. Predominant taste characteristics of hard beans (high altitude) at this roast will be fruity, brown sugar, spicy. Soft beans (low altitude) will have a mellow, sweet character, usually less fruity than hard beans. "Donut shop" coffees are often multi-origin blends of soft bean coffees at light or city roasts.
3. City or Medium Roast - everybody argues about what level this really is, but in our definition this is achieved usually about 1-2 minutes after first crack, well before any significant smoking or sound of second crack. (Second Crack is when the beans expand and crack again, but the sound they make is quieter, more like Rice Krispies when you pour in milk.)
4. Full City Roast - a step above City, some still call this Medium, it is achieved by shutting the roaster down at the very first sound of second crack. This is usually about 30 seconds after level 3.
5. Dark Roast - probably the most misunderstood roast level. We see roasts labeled as "Dark" anywhere between Full City and French Roast. In our definition, it occurs in the middle of second crack. We turn off the roaster after the frequency of second crack starts to slow down, before it is over. Generally as the cooling cycle begins, second crack will mostly finish out. We define Dark Roast as the darkest you can get without creating a "smoky" or toasty taste.
6. French Roast - achieved by allowing second crack to end, and then waiting maybe 20-30 seconds before starting the cooling cycle. The beans begin to look black as much as brown, but if you compare them to a color swatch of true black, you will see the beans are still brown. Definitely a smoky, toasty edge to the profile. Caramel and butter notes are enhanced. The sugar is caramelized and somewhat broken down, so fruitiness and sweet notes are greatly reduced or absent.
7. Italian Roast - this is basically coffee that has been burnt. It is actually black, or close enough to look black. It will create a strong "attack" on the tastebuds, have a lot of character, but will be somewhat one-dimensional in taste. All of the fruity, natural sweetness of the coffee is gone. This roast is not very healthful, as it breaks down oils and sugars into compounds that some people exhibit sensitivity to. In sensitive persons, this roast can cause heart palpitations or other symptoms. Probably 50% of the people who say "I can't drink coffee, it gives me palpitations" are actually experiencing a reaction to burnt coffee. When we give them lighter roasts, they are often surprised that they tolerate unburnt coffee just fine. Roasting at this level greatly reduces the healthy anti-oxidants in the coffee as well.
Myths and Truths about roast levels
Myth: All the best coffees are dark roasts.
This is a lot like the commonly stated "All the best chefs cook over high heat." You can't cook ice cream over high heat, and not every bean benefits from a dark roast. The most delicate beans, including most Kopi Luwak (civet) coffees, should not be roasted darker than City/Medium, or subtle flavor elements and aromas may be lost, burned away in the high heat.
Common Misunderstanding: If you like French Roast coffees, then French Roast is what you like.
An amazingly high percentage of people we meet at markets and coffee tastings who tell us that they like French Roast were actually looking for the strongest or most intensely flavorful coffee. After years of exposure to mass market American coffee, they learned that the most reliable way to get the intense experience they desired was to go straight for the darkest roast. French roast is often used as a way to "punch up" lackluster coffee beans, which is why many coffee chains' darkest roast is their strongest-tasting coffee.
However, when roasting beans that are already inherently flavorful, the "strength" (by which we mean flavor, NOT caffeine content) is not improved by roasting it past Medium-to-Dark roast. In fact, as mentioned above, in some coffees the subtlety can be lost, reducing the overall mouth-filling intensity of the flavor.
This is not to say that French Roast is bad. French Roast adds an element of smokey, slightly bitter caramel, which is the natural coffee sugars being caramelized in the high heat. Some people really respond to this and crave it in their coffees, and that's great!
But many of our other customers find out after some experimentation that French Roast was just a means to an end, a way of seeking the strongest-tasting coffee. If this sounds right to you, then we suggest trying a multi-bean blend in a medium roast, ideally with Robusta in it.
Myth: Dark roast is lower in acid.
As with many myths, this one has a basis in fact. Light roast coffees are often quite acidic. Roasting the beans a little darker, to Medium or City roast, can temper that acidity. But once you go past Full City, the acid starts to rise again, because the sugars are being scorched. The darker you go, the more of the natural sugars are blackened. The result can be extremely hard on a person's stomach, and many individuals have an allergy-like reaction, experiencing headaches, stomachaches, and generally not feeling good.
For this reason, we recommend Medium roast coffees to any person who has a sensitive stomach, wants to protect their teeth, or simply prefers the taste of a lower-acid coffee.
But even more important than that is to seek out a naturally lower-acid bean. Arabica tends to be the highest in acid, then Excelsa, Liberica, and finally Robusta. This is itself an oversimplification, so we suggest seekers of low-acid coffees look for the words "Low in acid" in a coffee's description, or browse our Low-Acid Coffees collection.
Myth: Dark/Light roast is higher/lower in caffeine.
We've heard this myth both ways! The truth is that roast level has but minimal effect on caffeine content in comparison to other factors. What determines caffeine content is the species or altitude of the bean itself. Arabica, which is generally considered the "baseline" or average, contains ~90 mg of caffeine per 6oz serving of brewed coffee. Robusta is higher, averaging ~150 mg, and Liberica and Excelsa are both lower. Super-high-altitude beans like our Costa Rica and Philippine Robusta have less caffeine than lower-altitude beans of the same type (maybe by a factor of 20%).
We hope this helps to guide you toward the roast levels you will enjoy the most. It's our firm belief that every individual's palate is unique, so don't be surprised if you like things that self-proclaimed coffee pundits (like us) don't. Diversity is a beautiful thing!