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The Rundown on Coffee Roasts

By Cook's Illustrated Published September 2009

How does the roast of a coffee effect its final flavor?

As any coffee hound knows, roasting is the process that transforms the green beans into far more complex-tasting entities, and the degree to which they are roasted has as much of an impact on their final profile as their intrinsic flavors. While coffee roasters use a variety of names to categorize the darkness of their roasts (Italian, French, Viennese, or Full City, to name a few), there are no industry standards regulating this nomenclature. At best, these terms offer only general clues as to coffee flavor. We’ve found it’s more useful to categorize roasts by color. At one end of the spectrum are light roasts, characterized by their pale brown color and the bright, fruity, more acidic flavors that emerge in the early stages of roasting. As the beans continue to be roasted and their color deepens, the acids are broken down, and sweeter, more caramelized flavors begin to surface.

Choosing your roast is a matter of preference, but how you take your coffee is also a consideration. In taste tests, we preferred lighter roasts for black coffee, but when milk was added, our preference switched to darker roasts. That’s because the proteins in milk and cream bind some of the bitter-tasting phenolic compounds in these more deeply roasted beans, reducing both bitterness and intensity of coffee flavor.

    ROASTCOLOR/TEXTUREFLAVOR
    LightPale brown with dry surfaceLight body and bright, fruity, acidic flavor
    MediumMedium brown with dry surfaceLess acidity and the beginnings of richer, sweeter notes
    Medium-DarkDark mahogany with slight oily sheenIntense, caramelized flavors with subtle bittersweet aftertaste
    DarkShiny black with oily surfacePronounced bitterness with few nuances