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Light vs Dark Coffee: Facts You Don’t Know

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If you’re a casual coffee drinker, or you just started drinking it, you may be confused why some beans are darker or lighter than others. While many of us are content with reaching for the cheapest beans or defaulting to our standard Ethiopian or Columbian beans, there’s actually a huge range of different coffees. Different colors mean that the coffee has a different flavor, mouth fell, and even caffeine content. You can really perfect your morning brew by understanding what causes this color difference.

While coffee novices may be confused by the different colors, it’s actually a simple explanation. This difference is caused by the coffee roasting process. The amount it was roasted, or roast profile, will have a huge impact on how the beans taste, look, and brew. Most of us drink dark roasts, but over the past couple of decades, we’ve seen craft roasters embracing light roasts. Like the name implies, dark roasts are darker in color, and have been roasted for longer. Light roasts are more yellow, and haven’t been roasted as long.

The Coffee Roasting Process

Coffee roasting is an artform, with modern engineering and technology allowing for richer, more potent flavor and roast profiles. You take green coffee beans and roast them at extremely high heat, up to 700 degrees. After a few minutes, the beans will crack, much like popcorn. You can then pull them out for a light roast, or leave them in for a medium. You’ll then have a second crack, which means they’re ideal for dark roasts. Or you can leave them in for an extra dark roast. This may sound complex, but you can actually roast your own beans at home.

The Main Roast Types

The different roast profiles all have their own unique qualities that appeal to each coffee fan. While you may be a fan of an extra dark roast, your friends or coworkers may love light roasts. Fortunately, many coffee houses like Starbucks offer multiple roasts at a time. If you haven’t tried a light or medium roast, consider branching out to find more ways to enjoy coffee.

Light roast

Light roasts aren’t just made by taking them out of the roaster earlier. They usually involve a different temperature, different amounts of surface area, and other techniques to preserve the brighter, more acidic notes of the coffee bean. Because of this, your light roast will be floral, citrusy, and fruity, making for an excellent espresso or pour over. Contrary to popular belief, lighter roasts actually have more caffeine than darks, because the roasting process cooks out the caffeine.

Medium roast

Medium roasts are a great middle ground between dark and light roasts. They usually have a nutty, tempered flavor profile, making them perfect for drip coffee. If you’re usually overwhelmed by the powerful flavor of dark roasts, you may want to give medium roasts a try. They’re a great way to begin adding coffee to your routine.

Dark roast

Dark roasts are the most popular way to have coffee in America. These beans have a decadently toasty flavor with chocolatey overtones and a smooth finish. This is the classic cup of joe, and is what has kept people coming back for more. It’s not as caffeinated as a light roast, so if that’s what you’re after, opt for a medium or light. Dark roasts have a versatile flavor profile that works with any brew method. Plus, they’re easy to find in stores.

Extra dark roast

Extra dark roasts, also known as French or City roasts, is the strongest when it comes to that smokey flavor. They are roasted for much longer, and actually became popular during the Napoleonic Wars, hence the name French Roast. These beans have a specialized flavor, and are often the most affordable option. Fans of light roasts may scoff at the burnt flavor, but there’s a certain caramel hint to them that keep fans coming back for more.

What Is The Difference Between Roast Profiles

There are a few key differences between each roast profile that can impact what you want out of your coffee. Aside from looks, there are differences in flavor, caffeine content, and acidity. Let’s go over the key differences between all of the different roasts.

Unique flavor

The most distinct difference between lighter or darker coffee is the flavor. Because roasting the beans extracts some of the oils and acids, and caramelizes the sugars. This gives it that distinct, toasty flavor. Because coffee beans are a lot like a berry, they have a fruity flavor. So when you don’t roast them for as long, you get a fruity, floral flavor with a bright finish. Of course, there’s a spectrum of flavors, but typically you want to roast light and dark coffees differently to emphasize their unique flavors.

Caffeine content

Caffeine is another huge part of the coffee drinking process. It makes a perfect, delicious mid-afternoon pick-me-up, or can help pull you out of bed. Heat breaks down caffeine, so darker roasts have less caffeine. Of course, most coffee fans drink for flavor, but if you’re trying to get the most caffeine per cup, go with a light roast. Or, if you have a minor caffeine sensitivity, opt for a dark or extra dark roast. Of course, you can also get light and medium roasts in decaf.

Acidity level

Some people are concerned with how acidic their coffee is. Green coffee beans have a lot of citric acid and other acidic compounds in them, and that gets lost in the roasting process. So light roasts are a bit more acidic than dark roasts. If you have digestive issues and want to make sure your coffee won’t upset your stomach, opt for a darker roast.

Nutrition level

It’s worth noting that the roast profile has no impact on the nutrition, unless you’re factoring in caffeine and acidity. So both light and dark coffees are good for you in moderation, showing reduced risks of diseases later in life. This makes nutrition one less thing to worry about when you’re buying a fresh pack of beans.

Brewing Methods For Each Roast

Now that you know the basis about each roast profile, you can start to maximize your coffee’s flavor. Because of the chemical differences between roast profiles, different brew methods will have wildly different results. Things like coffee grind consistency, temperature, and surface area will extract different flavor notes from each roast. Some of these methods work better for different roasts than others.

Drip coffee

Drip coffee is the standard way most people make their morning cup of joe. It’s a straightforward process, and really brings out the darker flavors of each coffee roast. Because of this, it isn’t recommended for light roasts. You’ll get a muddy, sour cup of coffee because the water is typically boiling, and the grinds are pretty course.

Pour over

Pour over coffee seems similar to drip coffee, but you get a very different flavor out of it. It balances to dark, toasted aromatics with the citrusy acids, giving you a well balanced cup. Because of this, it’s perfect for any roast except for extra dark. An extra dark pour over may taste sour and flat. Light roasts, on the other hand, shine with pour over. You get the floral, effervescent flavors while still keeping the body from the darker flavors.

French press

French press is the simplest brew method, having souk course grinds in hot water for a few minutes before straining. Because of this, french press gets you the strongest flavor of any coffee, bringing out all of the aromatics and oils. This is great for any roast profile, getting a powerful mix of all of the flavors in each roast. Similarly, you can soak any roast in room temperature water overnight to get a refreshing cold brew coffee.


Espresso has the most luxurious flavor of any brew method. By forcing hot water through coffee that’s been tamped, you can get a powerful, compact shot of flavor. This method brings out both the darkest and lightest flavor of any given roast. If you use a light roast, you’ll get a fragrant, bright espresso shot that has floral overtones and a fruity finish. A dark or extra dark espresso shot will give you the signature dark, toasty flavor of coffee. But a medium roast will fall flat, coming out a little watery, without any particularly strong flavor tones.

Adding Variety to Your Coffee

You don’t have to pick a single roast profile for your coffee. You may feel like a medium drip coffee one day, and a light espresso the next. Whether its a French roast French press or a dark pour over, you can find a flavor profile that satisfies your cravings no matter what. Coffee is already such an enjoyable part of life, and you can add even more to it. Find out what roast profiles work for you, and experiment with different brew methods. Or, just try a new roast the next time you walk into your local coffee shop.

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