For a fresher and more flavorful cup of coffee, many people grind coffee beans for themselves either at home or at a store. However, far fewer people roast their own coffee beans, or even know much about what separates, say, a Vienna roast from an Italian roast. Knowing the different coffee roast levels and their flavor characteristics can be helpful when purchasing coffee, and is essential for home roasting coffee.
The Basics of Coffee Roasting
The process of roasting coffee is very important for the flavor and aroma it will have once it's in your coffee cup. According to several coffee origin myths, coffee beans were tossed out as worthless... until their aroma wafted from a fire and caught the attention of everyone around.
Certainly, there's something special about roasting coffee, but what, exactly, is it?
The degree to which coffee is roasted has a big impact on its taste. Generally speaking, lighter roasts are sharper and more acidic in flavor, while darker roasts have a fuller flavor. Beans that have been over-roasted have a burned, smoky or charcoal flavor (which some companies try to compensate for by adding flavorings).
Coffee Roasts & Caffeine Levels
Many people feel that darker or over-roasted beans are stronger in taste, so they must also be higher in caffeine. However, there is less caffeine in darker roasted coffee than in the lighter roasts.
When Roast Levels DON'T Matter
Roast level isn't the only important factor in determining how your coffee will taste. The bean's origin, processing, age, storage and coffee varietal will also have their own influences.
Today, many smaller roasters and specialty roasters do not roast to a certain "level". Instead, they focus on finding the optimal roast for the particular beans they are roasting and roast it no more and no less.
Coffee Roast Levels
These standardized coffee roasting terms are used across most of the coffee industry to describe particular roast levels. Whether you're buying from a Starbucks, a discount store or a boutique coffee roaster, the roasts labeled "Medium" will all pretty much be the same, as will the roasts labeled with any of the other terms outlined below.
Cinnamon Roast Coffee
Cinnamon roast coffee is the lightest of the coffee roasts. It's a very popular roast found not only in doughnut shops and diners across the US, but it's also used by many specialty roasters as a way to highlight the quality of the beans rather than focusing drinkers' attentions on a more roasted flavor. Coffee aficionados often love to sample single-origin coffees that are cinnamon roasted because their terroir will show clearly with this roast. However, cinnamon roast also accentuates any flaws in the beans, meaning that many cinnamon roasts have sour notes.
Typically, cinnamon roast coffee beans are light brown in color and "dry" (showing no oil visible). Their flavor is may be "bready", like toasted grain, highly acidic, and lacking in the caramel notes, mouthfeel and body found in darker roasts. Some drinkers describe it as "tea-like", though as a serious tea drinker I have no idea what that might mean except perhaps "not overpowering" (wink, wink).
New England Roast Coffee
New England roast coffee is less common than the other roasts listed here, but it can be found relatively easily on the East Coast of the United States. It's a little darker than cinnamon roast coffee, but still highly acidic.
Light Roast Coffees
Light roast coffees have high acidity and no obvious roast flavor. They include the two listed above, plus the less common half city roast.
American Roast Coffee
Popular in the Eastern US, these medium-light brown beans are often used for coffee cupping (professional tasting). It is commonly used for certain single-origin coffees.
City Roast Coffee
Just a few shades darker than cinnamon roast, city roast (or medium roast) is a medium brown color akin to milk chocolate. More common in the Western USA and amongst specialty roasters in general, this roast is typified by a lower acidity than cinnamon roast and the development of some caramel notes. You can still taste the coffee varietal and origin in this roast, even without a professionally trained palate.
Full City Roast Coffee
These medium-dark brown beans are only slightly darker than city roast coffee and they occasionally have an oily sheen to them. Full city beans have have slightly more caramel or chocolate undertones than city roast beans. Full city roast is starting to get into espresso territory, though many people use darker roasts for pulling espresso in order to get a less bitter shot.
Medium Roast Coffees
Medium roast coffees are smoother, sweeter and less acidic than light roast coffees. In addition to city, full city and America, medium roast coffees include regular roast, breakfast roast and brown roast.
Vienna Roast Coffee
Named for the coffeehouses of Austria's capital, this roast features beans which show some oily drops on their surfaces (which is called "sweating"), and which are characterized by a syrupy, full caramel flavor. With a well-developed palate, you can still be able to taste the varietal and origin in a Vienna roast, but it isn't predominant. Vienna roast is also referred to as Viennese roast.
Full Roast Coffees
Full roast coffees are somewhat spicy and have a heavier body and mouthfeel than lighter roasts. They include Vienna roast, continental roast and high roast.
Espresso Roast Coffee
Although espresso primarily refers to a coffee preparation method, it can also refer to coffee beans roasted to a good level for the espresso method of preparation. Due to the high pressure in espresso extraction, lighter roasts tend to be too acidic for espresso coffee, and will produce terribly bitter espresso shots. Espresso roasting is done at a lower temperature for a longer time, which yields a more balanced coffee bean.
French Roast Coffee
French roast coffee beans are very dark brown and shimmering with oil. In the cup, there is far less acidity than in lighter roasts, and there is a pronounced roasted note. Unlike the caramel characteristic of Vienna coffee, French roast has a charred note like charcoal. Many people think this is the darkest roast available, but there are darker roasts yet to come...
Dark French Roast Coffee
As the name suggests, dark French roast is similar to regular French roast, but darker and oilier looking, and with a stronger charred flavor.
Italian Roast Coffee
Espresso roast is a classic Italian roast, but so-called "Italian roast coffee" is darker than espresso roast coffee. The beans appear shinier or glossier than French roast, due to the slightly longer roast time increasing the amount of oils on the beans. It has much lower acidity and more bittersweetness than lighter roasts, but its body is thin.
Spanish Roast Coffee
Some like it hot. Some like it burnt. And for them, we have Spanish roast coffee. It's the darkest roast of all. Its color is nearly black and very shiny. Its flavor is flat with clear charcoal and tar notes. Strangely, like cinnamon roast (the lightest roast), this roast also has a very thin body.
Double Roast Coffees
Double roast coffees include the French roasts and Spanish roast coffee. They are intense and smoky-sweet, but thin. The roast completely overpowers the beans themselves.