Light, Medium and Dark roasting styles

Author: Head Roaster   Date Posted:1 June 2016 

Why has buying coffee become so complicated - we try to explain some key differences in light, medium and dark roasted coffees.



Why are brew methods important when selecting coffee ?

Within the quality segment of the coffee industry, there is ongoing vigorous discussion on what is the best roast style for coffee - particularly for different brew methods.  

The roast style, or more commonly referred to as a "profile" will ultimately depend upon the intention of the person roasting that particular batch of coffee with their desire, or attempt, to produce coffee that suits specific target brew methods.

There is no universal or general-purpose roast style that can be applied to every bean/blend that makes the coffee suitable for every brew method - despite the mass-market volume sellers and supermarket branding.

When you are ready to load the raw coffee into the roaster, you must already have the mindset that the coffee about to roasted is designed to best suit certain brew or extraction methods - not everything. Unfortunately, it's an all too common mistake both coffee roasting professionals and consumers think that you can use something great for anything and everything - not the case I'm afraid.

There are distinct differences between coffee roasted for espresso and coffee that is roasted for filter and it's these grey overlapping areas that are the cause of so much disappointment in the coffee universe.

I thought coffee is just coffee  - why is it now so difficult

You pick up a pack of coffee from a retail shelf and the packaging looks fantastic. You instantly recognize the tiny symbols for most of the popular coffee brewing methods - espresso, stovetop, filter, plunger and you believe the marketing message enticing you to buy.

That's the catch from a coffee company trying to sell more products deliberately marketed as being suitable for anything. Like many products available in supermarkets, there is just enough information to comply with basic product labelling laws, but rarely enough to help you make informed decisions or to match your requirements more accurately. Typically, the product is lower in quality because price and convenience are the only factors that matter.

If you have ventured into the wide world of specialty coffee, you may have either been referred to or tried some local roasters to evaluate whether their product suits your palate. Sometimes, the results have not been to your liking or you have been disappointed with a high price and a very basic or poor outcome.

In these circumstances, its likely that the person roasting and selling the coffee may not properly understand how the roast profile can be applied to the raw coffee and may naively think that what they have produced is ideal - when in fact it may not be suitable. The explosive growth of small roasters in Australia means there is a heck of inexperienced people out there still on their L-Plates.

Customers can also influence or pull a coffee roaster towards certain styles - particularly via the regular feedback loops that exist between large cafe customers and coffee roasters. Although most of the agitation around roast styles is driven from huge vested interests or agendas - a constant need to differentiate in a crowded and saturated market..........lobbying our senses with their own individual take on light, medium or dark.

Light, Medium or Dark

At times, there is a circular argument that goes round and round indefinitely - not limited to just the Australian coffee scene.

Lightly roasted coffee is worshipped by the 5% of coffee fanatics for it's clean, sweet, sparkling complexity whereas the remaining 95% of coffee drinkers are underwhelmed by sour, woody, lemony, tart, weak and thin flavours - especially in milk-based espresso so popular in Australian cafe culture.

How many times have we heard the story about the eager coffee lover excited to visit the latest "hot and trendy" hyped-up cafe to try their exclusively roasted specialty grade coffee only to hear that the coffee was so acidic and sour it curdled the milk, or that the cup was so milky and devoid of flavour they have tasted capsule coffee that was stronger.

It's an interesting debate with an enormous range of possibilities, however, we often find that the people deeply involved in the passionate arguments at the extreme ends of the spectrum are often blinded by their own beliefs and risk forgetting about the very reasons they are doing this in the first place - serving the coffee drinking customer a memorable cup.

The history of coffee is a story of a late rapid evolution - particularly in the last decade and more specifically in the last 5 years. The inherent growth of the quality market (loosely known as specialty) has seen the emergence of thousands of micro roasters challenge the traditional ways of coffee - sourcing, roasting and brewing.

These developments have in many cases been controlled experiments that have yielded both success and failure. We have seen the local Australian specialty cafe market push the boundaries of light roasted coffee for various brew methods - cold and hot - along with creating points of difference for the mainstay everyday beverage milk-based espressos.

Light roasted coffee is intended to preserve the original integrity of the bean's characteristics. The thinking here is to create sufficient development of the sugars and carbohydrates within the bean cell structure to eliminate the grassy, woody, sour elements from under roasted coffee. This area is a high risk segment for any coffee company as there is a fine line between getting it right and ruining expensive coffee. It's not presumptuous of me to suggest that in the middle of 2016 more than 80% of coffee roasters attempting this style of roasting are failing to produce consistent coffee that suits the coffee drinking public.

Medium roasted coffee is the safe haven for commercial viability - but it's not the soft option or a cop out by any stretch of the imagination. Let's not forget for a minute that roasting coffee is a manufacturing business and as such it comes with all those challenging aspects proven time and again that running a manufacturing businesses in Australia is a real struggle to battle with escalating labour and distribution costs along with highly aggressive competition.  

Medium roasted is where the Australian coffee palate sits today - it's evolve from dark and it's dipped the toe in the water of light and found it just a passing fad. Make no mistake, the average coffee punter wants a rich, smooth and creamy beverage with a chocolate aftertaste.

The dark roasted brigade is the past and regretfully the domain of cheap, mass marketed rubbish that is sold in supermarkets and many retail stores. It's fdark because the ingredients (raw coffees) used to produce the product are low in grade and cost. These are harsh, rough coffees with characteristics of leather, cedar, cigar, clove, etc. and must be dark roasted into a homogenous product so that the defects are roasted off as smoke up the chimney and you end up with a caramelized product with smoky, ashy and slight bitter taints.

Dark roasted coffees tend to sweeteners as both milk and sugar. Dark roasted coffees also oxydize faster (shorter shelf life) and the oils migrate to the outside of the beans that upon contact with oxygen quickly turn rancid and bitter.

Strong does not mean dark or bitter

Consumers have traditionally been of the mindset that a stronger coffee is one that is dark roasted - which is not the case. Strong can mean caffeine levels or it may be a function of the efficiency or effectiveness at which you brew or extract coffee.

Every single day for the last 10 years, we receive enquiries from customers - tell me your strongest coffee ?

Individuals have a different view of what makes strong - is it acid, is it bite (bitter), is it chocolate, body, crema, richness, length of finish ?

You would be surprised at the number of people who contact us that are accustomed to the many years of bitterness from drinking instant coffee that when converting to fresh roasted coffee beans, sometimes complain that it's not "strong enough" for their daily cup of 3 sugars and 300ml of milk !

The equipment you use and how good your technique in brewing or extracting coffee is the most influential factor affecting the "strength or flavor" of your coffee. It's also important to use quality, fresh roasted coffee beans.

Most arabica coffees have relatively similar levels of caffeine. Many supermarket coffees are from commodity roasters that use some quantity of robusta in their blends. Robusta has a stronger flavor and more than double the caffeine compared to the equivalent dosage of arabica coffee.

When roasting raw coffee, there is a point whereby no further flavour development is possible and once you past this point, the coffee becomes a caramelized homogenous product and bitter taints start to accumulate. Roasting darker will increase these bitter and ashy taints.

You can also read our article: Single Origins versus Blends