Light Roast, Dark Roast, Medium Roast? What should you expect when comparing different roast levels?
If you've spent any time around coffee shops, Starbucks or browsing the aisle at the supermarket, you've likely come across different roast levels of the coffee you're buying. It can be overwhelming making a decision with all of the terms and information listed on a bag of coffee, especially specialty coffee. One of the most common terms you'll come across when making a decision whether it's craft coffee or something more common, will be "Roast Level" or "Roast Definition."
Luckily, this is one of the easier categories of coffee to wrap your head around. The roast level of a bean is simply how long the bean has been roasted (and you can tell by the appearance the bean itself). Roasting coffee is an art form of it's own, and there are a number of ways a roaster can craft a single bean to achieve different outcomes - so the roast level of a bean is entirely up to the roaster and what they are trying to accomplish with their roast.
A light roasted coffee is typically very light-brown in color and will have been through the roaster for the shortest amount of time compared to other roast levels. These coffees are usually more representative of the actual bean/region in taste - rather than the taste of the roast (which some will refer to as burnt). You'll often find notes of grass, corn and grain.
Medium-Light coffees are more complex and representative of the origin which they came from. The roast is more developed and you'll find your coffee becoming more acidic and fruity. Notes to expect in this range are spices and more caramelized brown sugar in addition to those fruity notes.
A medium roast will bring out even more sweetness in the roast, and a full body. You can expect much more obvious sweet notes and darker caramels, spices and sweet fruits. Often blended coffees are roasted in this range.
Dark roasted coffees start to represent the taste of the roast much more, with more bitter tastes than you'll come across in lighter roasts. You can expect notes of tobacco, cocoa and woody tastes. On the even darker side you'll come across smoky notes reminiscent of cigar smoke or burnt oak.
This is where you'll find coffee that is generally roasted beyond the ability to discern an origin of the bean, and you may find some french roasts (which are likely to be even lighter). There is no longer any flavor of the bean at this point aside from smoke, charcoal and ash. There will be very bitter and burnt notes.