By: Ollie Sears 06 January 2017
People are always asking us for recommendations on which beans they’re going to like. Coffee preferences over recent years have shifted, but with that shift we’ve seen many different roasting styles reaching the marketplace for consumers, often without much explanation for consumers.
Today, we’re going to help you shed some light on a subject that governs a large degree of what you will actually be able to taste in your coffee, which is the roast degree or roast colour as it is often known. To get started, see the graph below from Falcon Coffees’ Speciality team (a highly renowned green coffee importer in the UK). It shows the progression of a coffee roast over time with a general curve, and will give you a feel for what we begin to talk about below about the roasting process.
For the purpose of this post, we’re going to brief you on: the general characteristics you’ll find from different roast degrees/colours; their associated tastes; their potential benefits and drawbacks to you as a consumer; some examples of roasted products, and some coffee origins you’re likely to find with different roast degrees. We’re going to start with light roasts, and work towards the darker end of the roasting scale as we go along. We’ll also be honing in here on characteristics of Arabica coffee beans, which is where you are likely to see more of a variety in roast degree and colour.
Broadly speaking, without getting into the intricacies of coffee roasting as the scientific art it is, the terms ‘light roast’ or ‘lightly roasted’ refer usually to the colour of roasted coffee beans when they are removed from the coffee roaster. This sounds pretty simple, but is a matter of fine tuning when you’re on the production side of things. A large part of coffee roasting mastery comes through the art of hitting consistency from roast to roast in colour and bean development, of (usually many) different coffee beans. Light roasted beans will be a light shades of brown in colour, and may be considerably lighter than most coffee drinkers have ever seen, particularly given the way that mass market coffee has been roasted in the past. We’ll touch more on that later, but for now see the picture below of some of our lightly roasted Nicaraguan beans, both as whole beans and ground for use.
Light roasted beans that you’ll find in the specialty coffee market, like ours above, will usually follow with the structural and flavour characteristics as follows:
|Bean characteristics||Flavour characteristics|
|Colour: light shades of brown||There will be higher levels of acidity than darker roasts|
|Beans are quite dense, often difficult to split between your thumb & finger, not very brittle||Likely to offer delicately nuanced flavours, such as those normally described on coffee tasting notes|
|Beans may look & feel slightly more textured than their darker counterparts||Highly aromatic when ground & used within the recommended time period after roasting, with more delicately nuanced aromas too|
|Beans will not appear extremely shiny under direct light||Low levels of bitterness overall|
|Beans will not feel oily to the touch||Lower levels of body than their darker counterparts|
|Likely to be sweet in flavour (when roasted, stored & brewed properly)|
|They may not only taste like coffee, may be reminiscent of fruits, teas, chocolate etc|
Benefits to lighter roasted beans are found easily in higher quality, speciality grade Arabica coffees. They are deemed free from defects or taints and – if roasted and brewed properly – will show positive attributes in their flavour. They will be complex and interesting to taste. This is the degree of roast or roast colour that can really show off the poetic tasting notes you might find on coffee packaging. These beans being lighter in colour tend to be roasted for a little less time, and often more carefully than their darker counterparts might be.
You may find light roasted beans roasted and sold in smaller batches, which can mean lower consistency from batch to batch if a roaster is not managing their production or quality control. When using a highly complex product of delicate flavour, proper preparation of a roast batch means that you can ‘cook’ the coffee to a lighter colour, without under-developing flavours, and without sacrificing them one way or another. When you begin tasting lighter roasted coffees, your palate will quickly develop, and most coffee drinkers normally learn to prefer them over time due to their positive flavour attributes.
Drawbacks to lighter roasting are few, unless the green (raw) coffee beans that were roasted were of low quality to begin with, or if the roasting process has not followed the correct profile for the coffee. Light but poorly roasted coffees can be quite unpalatable and unpleasant to taste. They may taste a little vegetal, lack sweetness, lack body or many developed flavours at all. These characteristics are typically found in specialty grade coffees that were grown at lower altitudes such as a natural or pulped natural Brazil – a coffee that is all about low acidity and high body and sweetness. By roasting light in this instance, you are not going to be displaying those intrinsic qualities and are in fact trying to coax something out that was simply not there to begin with. The physical appearance of the whole beans will likely give you some clues towards the faults. If the colour is very very light and the texture wrinkled, there may not have been sufficient development of the beans during the roasting (cooking) process.
Don’t be afraid to ask a specialty coffee supplier how they roast, and how they manage quality from origin to cup. Skilled coffee roasters will learn about their beans and use whatever data they can to improve and optimise quality in the cup, with constant feedback loops and quality control through a process called cupping which you can learn about in our next blog post.
Most of our beans fall into the light roasted category, and we only ever take beans to a medium level in roast degree. This is due to the grade of coffee that we are purchasing which dictates our roasting approach – our aim is to showcase the inherent flavour of each bean which exists due to the terroir/altitude/process of the coffee. The beans that we source have been chosen for their interesting and unique flavour profiles and we feel the best way of showcasing these positive attributes is to use a light to medium roast profile. Some examples of lightly roasted North Star beans are below, with links to our online shop.
Lighter roasts at North Star currently:
The origins that are generally lightly roasted are likely to vary and change according to season. Coffee is an agricultural product and seasonality is another important aspect to take into account – different times of the year bring new and different arrivals from the most recent harvests which is a real benefit of drinking lighter roasted single origin beans. However, you might notice there are times of the year (like now!) when our online shop looks to be a bit depleted in terms of what is on offer. Our approach to sourcing means that we no longer sell a coffee once it is tasting past it’s best which is why we purchase our single origin beans in relatively small volumes. Some origins keep better and we always work with either vacuum packing or GrainPro for our green bean storage which can extend the shelf life of green coffee for between 9 and 12 months depending on the origin and process.
As you might guess, the change from light to medium roasting involves a little more of a colour change, so a slightly darker shade of brown than seen above, generally resembling the picture below. The beans are usually roasted a little longer than for light roasts, but not much longer.
Following the point called first crack in a coffee roast (a popping sound whereby the beans expand and release water vapour and CO2 pressure) the beans begin to develop flavours consistent with those of the sugar browning aromatic category – notes of roasted nuts, vanilla and butter! Medium roasted beans will develop flavours well, while not sacrificing too much of a coffee’s pleasant acidity or intrinsic flavours.
If a coffee is medium roasted, it is likely that the origin or process resulted in more body and sweetness for which this roast level is perfect for. An outline of the characteristics you’ll expect to find with these types of roasts is below:
|Bean characteristics||Flavour characteristics|
|Colour: slightly darker shades of brown than with light roasts, though not blackening at all||Lower, milder levels of acidity than in lighter roasts, but usually still a prominent characteristic|
|Beans still relatively dense & requiring some force to split beans between thumb & finger. slightly more brittle||Delicately nuanced flavours still evident, though less prominent than is found with lighter roast degrees|
|Beans look a little smoother in texture than their lighter counterparts, reflecting a little more light too||Highly aromatic when ground & used within the recommended time period|
|Under direct light, beans will still not appear extremely shiny||Higher levels of bitterness overall than in light roasts, still low overall|
|Beans will not feel oily to the touch||High level of body, notably more than in lighter roasts, providing a good base for most common UK cafes’ drinks, served with milk or brewed for emphasis on body|
|Likely to be sweet in flavour (when roasted and brewed properly) but at a lower intensity than with lighter roasts|
|Flavour more rounded overall, with a potentially higher level of traditional coffee flavour, amongst prominent notes of fruits, chocolates, nuts, caramels etc. Likely to favour richness over a very delicate complexity.|
Medium roasts are really popular in the specialty coffee industry due to their accessibility and capability for use in most common brewing methods while still retaining flavour and character. The vast array of flavours offered are palatable to most preferences – the intensity of acidity and delicate flavours found with lighter roasts are somewhat reduced, meaning more of an easy-drinking and balanced flavour for consumers.
This roast degree also benefits consumers and commercial baristas alike in that a high percentage of the UK coffee market drinks coffee paired with milk in one way or another. This warrants a reduction to any intense acidity in the roasted coffee, along with a slightly higher level of body in the roasted coffee so to blend well with a typically higher proportion of milk to coffee in finished drinks, yielding a sweet flavour overall even with only a little milk. So medium roasted coffee is a great way to enjoy an array of positive flavours without excluding anyone from the market who does not usually drink highly acidic coffees. For this reason, you’ll likely see a lot of medium roasted coffee coming from UK specialty coffee roasters in their mainstay offerings or house blends.
Drawbacks of medium roasted coffees, much like with light roasts, are few. Usually, coffee roasters that are roasting light to medium in roast degree will be aiming to show off specialty grade quality, rather than buying coffees that would show defects when roasted this way. That being said, it is still difficult to achieve consistency from roast to roast with medium roasting, and so you may find inconsistency where roasting, storage or quality control is improperly managed.
In general though, the differences between light and medium roasts will form the potential drawbacks based only on flavour preference. If you favour extremely high acidity in coffees or perhaps delicate, tea-like qualities and the highest complexity, you might prefer to drink lighter roasts than medium. Of course, if you prefer the flavours of darker roasted beans, you still won’t find the hallmarks of that roast degree with a medium roast.
Two of our medium-roasted blends are linked below from our online store if you would like to see if they fit your taste preference. They offer great balance and are easily accessible to most people, regardless of what they have been drinking in the past, without overwhelming acidity that those new to specialty grade coffees may not be open to, nor the kind of acidity that can alter a drink’s capability for use in certain drinks.
Medium roasted blends at North Star:
With regards to the origins you may see on offer, given the characteristics on show through medium roasting, you are still likely to see seasonal variation in coffees offered, in line with harvests as per the chart above. In the market for espresso coffee, certainly when roasting for accessibility and versatility, you’re likely to find a high proportion of medium roasted coffees being of Latin American origin, with occasionally African or Indonesian coffees making the cut for medium roasted blends or single origin coffees.
Due to the nature of how they are typically enjoyed in the market, flavours are typically chosen to work with milk or to be ‘accessible’ black coffees of a richer base, where notes may be chocolatey, or of caramels, nuts or rich fruits. You’re unlikely to find coffees prized for the wilder, sharper or highly delicate floral flavours in most medium roasts, given that such intrinsic characteristics would usually be diminished a little through the roast development, ultimately dulling what may be some of the key characteristics.
Within the specialty coffee market, high quality coffee from Brazil, El Salvador, Colombia and Guatemala is often used for medium roasting, along with occasionally Indonesian coffees and any of the more balanced African coffee of the season. Coffee is an agricultural product though, and changes to its processing, the infrastructure available on farms, coffee farming practices and many other factors can influence which coffees are chosen for different purposes. There are variations from year to year in quality, and often this brings about interesting developments in the market for great coffee, of any roast degree.
Finally we meet the darkly roasted coffees. Traditionally, coffees found easily in common markets have been of this roast degree and there is still a large market for it worldwide. It will be darker in colour as you will have guessed, and will likely be the most recognised by most consumers as it has been the most commonly found roast degree historically. Dark roasting is traditionally used to mask defective and lower grade coffees – by using a dark roast profile the coffee has been taken to a point whereby you would no longer be able to taste any of the intrinsic qualities – it is perhaps this reason that explains the popularity amongst the commercial market. Our business has developed naturally with light to medium roast profiles due to the grade of coffees we are working with and our preference for flavour profile – our approach has always been to bring out the intrinsice flavours of the bean rather than add to them through the roast process.
Characteristics of dark roasted coffees are to be found below in the table but make sure you refer to the graph at the beginning of the post to understand how the flavour attributes interact over time during a roast to appreciate the stark difference that longer roasting makes to the overall balance of coffee flavours present.
|Bean characteristics||Flavour characteristics|
|Colour: from very dark shades of brown to black in range||Low levels of acidity, notably lower than is found in light to medium roasts (very dark roasts lose most of their acidity)|
|Beans will be of lower density, not requiring much force to split open the beans between thumb & finger (brittle)||Few delicate nuances of flavour detectable, if any (dark roast flavours build as the roast continues)|
|Beans will be smooth in texture, reflecting notably more light than medium roasts||Dark roasts have a hallmark aroma familiar to most, of a varying intensity dependent on the specific coffee roasted and the degree of darkness. It can often be smokey, carbonic or even tarry if roasting continues for long lengths of time|
|Beans may appear shiny (the darker the roast, the shinier the beans will appear)||High levels of bitterness when compared to light or medium roasts, the composition of flavours when brewing favours higher bitterness, and requires careful brewing to minimise it|
|Beans will often feel oily to the touch (the darker the roast, the oilier they are likely to be)||Body peaks as dark roast flavours begin to grow in quantity|
|Flavour generally loses most of its delicate nuances, developing roasted flavours in varying quantities dependent on the length of the roast development. Notable flavours include: dark bitter chocolate; liquorice, some savoury flavours; spicy notes including black pepper or clove and often varying degrees of smoke or ash|
It is really easy for ‘dark roast flavours’ to become present in a roast and once there, they will not be missed.
Benefits to darker roasts tend to be in the level of body found within them, along with their perceived strength and the high quantity of ‘roasted’ flavours. If a coffee drinker prefers their coffee to simply be a real kick, without much attention to the intrinsic flavours of coffee, a dark roasted coffee can easily suit that purpose. In terms of virtues, darker roasted coffees can often be used in lower quantities compared to other roast degrees given the relative strength of dark roast flavours when they are developed.
Drawbacks of darker roasts, as you may be able to glean from the characteristics shown, are in their masking of intrinsic flavours. Dark roast flavours become intense and take the lead in terms of the overall flavour balance quite easily. By developing a coffee to a dark roast can mean you mask and reduce the quantity of certain flavours available for brewing and tasting in the coffee, in favour of adding roasted, carbonic flavours to the beans. This can be a virtue if you prefer them, however for many it is preferential to have other flavours taking the lead in coffee. Darker roasting can be used to cover up defects in coffees, as is the case with a lot of commercial coffee on shelves in stores across the country. It is advisable to check the quality of a company’s darkly roasted coffee, particularly investigating into whether it constitutes a speciality grade coffee, to ensure quality prior to purchase. Our advice to minimise drawbacks is to buy 100% Arabica coffees where possible, as it is often found that darker roasted coffee blends have a percentage of Robusta coffee included. It is a species of coffee that has a much higher level of bitterness due to the higher caffeine content, along with a heavier and often unclean earthy flavour to it, that most coffee drinkers nowadays do not tend to enjoy, particularly those seeking quality in their roasts. Furthermore, checking packaging for signs of ethical production is a likely sign that you are purchasing a higher quality product.
Generally speaking, the more factual information that is given to you as a consumer the better, and it often follows that companies broadcasting their sourcing and production practices with transparency tend to be prouder of their production practices, because they may be more ethical or of higher quality. However, this is not always the case, so query as much as you need to in order to be sure of quality before buying. We also advise trying to look at the roast colour prior to purchase, finding pictures online similar to those we have attached of our lighter roasts above, of both whole bean and ground samples. This will give you an immediate idea of how dark the coffee roast degree is, and ultimately that will dictate the quantity of dark roast flavours.
Certainly for us at North Star we take a preference for higher levels of complexity and more delicate flavours, those that would easily be lost or at the very least masked in dark roasts. Buying highly prized, specialty grade coffees warrants careful and attentive use to avoid diminishing their inherent virtues of flavour. It also warrants transparency of our commercial practices, which seek both quality and ethics, in a way that we’re immensely proud of.
Much like with other roast degrees, it is absolutely possible to find specialty grade, darkly roasted beans from various origins. However, it certainly tends to be less common to find full sets of information about a coffee or blend in the darkly roasted section of the roasted coffee market, and to find total transparency from companies that specialise in it, particularly where the coffee is found at a lower price point. Often coffee is roasted to this degree as a purposeful move to hide original flavours of the coffee used, for many reasons which are the subject of many consumer and industry debates.
What we do know for sure is that it is not as easy to accurately gauge the taste profile of an origin through sipping on darkly roasted examples of its coffee. Dark roast flavours cloud the flavours that the coffee takes form its growing region, those that we would be able to discern at lighter roast degrees. For this reason, despite it being common to find all sorts of countries of origin in the darkly roasted coffee market, we’d advise not to pass judgement on an origin’s typical flavour profiles by tasting darkly roasted variants of an origin’s produce. It would lead to many false conclusions about the quality of coffee from the producing country, as well as the specific groups of flavour that can be found within that country’s different regions, at different altitudes, through its different processing methods, and more.
So, roast degree is a leading factor in deciding the extent to which you will taste the intrinsic flavours of a coffee, and a governing factor in the overall balance of flavours on offer from the roast, as compared to its tasting notes.
To leave you with a brief guide of how to use it, we advise using roast degree as an indicator of whether you’re likely to enjoy a particular coffee, prior to purchase or tasting. If you like high levels of body and bitterness, and want coffee to give a real kick, darker roast colours will leave you with dark roast flavours delivering that for you. On the other side of the spectrum, lighter roast colours will leave you with many intrinsic flavours evident in the cup, bringing with them higher acidity levels, higher potential for sweetness and generally lower body.
In addition to roast degree, we’d ask you to think carefully about provenance in coffee, using information on packaging and research about a company offering coffee however you can, to ensure that ethical production is occurring and high quality beans are being sourced. It is possible to find high quality speciality grade beans being roasted to any of the degrees above, but identifying your preferred balance of flavour will lead you to make good decisions towards finding coffee you like, before you even start on brewing!