Matt is a self-professed coffee fanatic. He doesn’t start the day without a cup of coffee and he has a meticulous approach to making every cup. If you get him going on the art of coffee preparation, he’ll go on about the differences between pour over coffee, drip coffee, cold brew, iced coffee, single cup coffee makers, french press…I’d say one of his favorite topics is roast and what makes a delicious cup of black coffee undiluted by milk or sugar (vs. one that’s terribly bitter). This marks the first of a series on how to make coffee. —Kasey
How to Make Coffee Step 1: Selecting Your Coffee Beans
So what’s the difference between light roast coffee and dark roast coffee? Superficially, that’s an easy issue to address. Dark roast refers to coffee beans that have been roasted longer. Light roast refers to coffee beans that have been roasted for a shorter period of time. Meanwhile, medium roast would refer to something that falls somewhere in the middle. Nonetheless, the most important difference to most coffee drinkers would be the difference in flavor.
Lighter roasts are higher in caffeine (which decreases slightly during the roasting process), less bitter, brighter overall, and retain more of the specific flavor characteristics of the region where the beans were grown. Like a good wine, the flavors in a light roast coffee are typically influenced by factors like climate, soil, and so forth.
Conversely, in dark roast coffee much of the flavor is the result of the roasting process. As a result, you’ll notice that most good light roast coffees are named after the plantation where the coffee beans were grown, the region where the plantation is located, and other geographic descriptors. Meanwhile, many dark roasts are named after the roasting process applied to the coffee (i.e. Italian Roast, French Roast, etc.). This is because the roasting process itself brings out specific flavors from the coffee bean as it cooks (just as toasting bread will bring out new flavors in the bread) while simultaneously cooking out the unique characteristics of the bean. In the end, dark roasts are generally fuller bodied than light roasts as a result of the roasting process.
Which is better? I believe that’s a matter of preference. After all, not everyone drinks their coffee the same way. For example, some people like sugar in their coffee. Some people like milk in their coffee. Even these type of factors will affect your preference. Personally, I prefer my coffee to be light to medium roasted and with no additives. I drink my coffee black. In cities like New York, San Francisco, and Portland there is a clear trend in favor of light roasts which is what you’ll find at places like Blue Bottle, Stumptown, Four Barrel, and Sight Glass.