What's the difference is between dark roast and light roast coffee? Chances are, at some point you've found yourself wondering about this. It is probably the most common query to go through my inbox.
Light vs dark roast coffee… WTF?
Once, while helping an elderly lady in our shop choose a coffee, she very hesitantly asked about dark roasts. We looked over our offerings and I pointed out some darker coffees we had at the time. She then asked if it was ok to buy dark coffee, if dark coffee was good? Being a firm believer in guiding people to what they like rather than telling them what to like based on a trend or a rule, I asked her how she drank her coffee. When she explained she liked cream and sugar I confidently said that she would really enjoy any of our darker coffees prepared that way… At this point she started to tear up and was clearly trying to hide that she was upset. I asked what was causing this reaction. She explained that she had been in a different store and had asked if they offered a dark roast. The person at the counter had rolled their eyes to a coworker, told her she was in the wrong shop and that dark roasting was a waste of good coffee. She left empty handed, embarrassed and humiliated.
We ended up talking for quite a while and discussed the differences between roast shades. She asked why the people in the other shop felt that way about darker roasts and by the end of our crash course in light vs dark roast coffee she took home three different coffees with a variety of roast shades to brew them in different ways: Ethiopia as the lightest, the Fernwood Blend, a medium roast, and our West Coast Trail blend as the dark. She happily left the store with some great coffees and a brand new Aeropress to try out, too.
A guide to light roast vs dark roast coffee
I've made a simple guide to light roast vs dark roast coffee from the many emails I receive over the years.
- Lighter roasts highlight nuances and flavours in a specific coffee, dark roasts tend to lose individuality and showcase the effects of the roast on the coffee rather than the terroir.
- Different shades of coffee are better suited to different styles of coffee. If you love heavy cream and sugar in your cup you may enjoy a darker roast, like our West Coast Trail blend with more bitter roasty notes. If you want to sample a really nice floral Ethiopian coffee served black you will probably get more out of a lighter roast.
- The simple science is that natural sugars in the coffee caramelize to darken the coffee. Like caramelized sugar the darker it gets the more bitter and less sweet it becomes. Also like caramelized sugar, the coffee will become less viscous as it gets darker. So lighter coffees tend to have more mouth feel.
- Coffee brew strength has nothing to do with roast shade. Strength is dictated by the brew parameters. People often associate dark roast with very “bold” flavours. This tends to come from the increased bitterness.
- Coffee increases in volume and decreases in density as it gets darker. So a pound of dark roast will look much bigger than a pound of light roast.
- Espresso is a style of brewing coffee and not a roast shade. Any coffee can be brewed as espresso. Espresso blends are recipes and roast techniques that a specific roaster finds tasty brewed as espresso.
- Dark roasting will hide defects in green coffee better than light roasts.
While it is true that lighter roasts present a coffee’s natural flavours better, there are types of coffee and styles of brewing where dark roasts are really delightful. Be open to trying different roast shades and experimenting and remember that at the end of the day you need to enjoy what is in your cup. Don’t be swayed by trends or “rules.” Have fun experimenting and decide for yourself what suits your taste best.
Our roasters are friendly folk and are happy to talk about the process they love. Reach out to us with any questions, or to set up a coffee tasting event with your friends.