For all of you coffee beginners out there, this is the home stretch of your coffee education. Now, we’ve finally arrived at the most familiar and one of the most important parts of the coffee making process: roasting.
As you know from “Coffee flavor profiles for beginners” parts 1 and 2, coffee isn’t really really coffee until it’s been roasted. Until then, it’s still a soft, green bean that smells a little grassy but virtually has no taste. It’s only through roasting the beans that the sugars, fats and starches in the bean get released, and we get the crunchy, dark caffeine bombs we all know and love.
There is actually little industry standardization on the naming of different roasts, and many roasters have specific names. But in general, coffee roasts can be put into four categories, characterized by color: light, medium, medium-dark and dark.
When coffee beans are heated, the beans crack and expand. The darker the roast, the longer they are heated and the more they pop. So, a light roast means the coffee has not been roasted past the first crack. These beans are usually lighter in color and don’t have any oil on their surface. Lighter-roasted coffee tends to have a grainier, more acidic taste. In addition, a lighter roast also retains the coffee’s original taste the best, so factors such as origin, altitude and washing play a larger role. Light roasts, however, can be less popular because of the lack of balance. Most importantly — at least for some — light-roasted coffee retains the most caffeine. Other common names: light city, half city, cinnamon, New England.
Medium-roasted coffee beans tends to have more body than light-roasted, though they also have no oil on their surface. Medium roasts also lack the graininess of lighter roasts, instead having a more balanced flavor, aroma and acidity. Because the coffee has been roasted for longer (usually between the end of the first crack and right before the second), the coffee is less caffeinated. Medium-roast coffee tends to be very popular, because the caramelization of the coffee brings out some of the beans’ best flavors without roasting it so much that there’s a burned taste. Other common names: regular, American, city, breakfast.
Medium-dark-roasted beans are a rich, darker color, with some oil beginning to come through the surface. The beans are roasted to the middle of the second crack. At this point, the flavors and aromas of the roasting begin to take over the beans’ natural flavors, and the coffee begins to have more body and can taste a little spicy. In addition, there can be a slightly bittersweet aftertaste. Other names: full city, after dinner, Vienna.
For dark roasts, the beans can be dark brown to almost black, with an oily surface that can be apparent even in the cup. The beans are usually roasted to the end of the second crack or beyond, and dark roasts actually have the least amount of caffeine. Dark roasted coffee tends to have a bitter, smoky or burned taste with more body and less acidity, and the beans’ original flavor are taken over completely by the roasting process. Other names: French, Italian, espresso, continental, New Orleans, Spanish.
So, hopefully, you now know a little bit more about coffee. While coffee generally tends to be a caffeine vehicle, why can’t we derive some enjoyment from it, too? Next time you go to a coffee shop or buy bulk beans from Berkeley Bowl, pause a moment and think about what you’re putting in your cup. Who knows, you could be the next coffee snob.
Image Sources: JoshNV under Creative Commons