Dark roasts are often overlooked, especially among coffee connoisseurs. Light roasts typically get many accolades for their natural flavors and extreme growing conditions. Medium roasts on the other hand are general lauded for their balance and complexity.
Meanwhile dark roasts are often pushed to the fringes due to a perception of being too “strong”. But there is much more nuance than that. Within this one level we can find a great deal of variations between the different roast levels ranging from French Roast, to Italian Roast all the way to Espresso.
The Roasting Process
We’ve finally reached the final stages of the roasting process. The difference between a light and dark roast is literally a few minutes and a couple of degrees, it really is an art form. A light roast is generally heated to between 385 °F (196 °C) and 401 °F (205 °C) while what we characterize as dark roasts typically range from 240 °C (464 °F) to 245 °C (473 °F).
At this point the essential oils have burst through the skin and are generously coating the beans; these oils are what give your espressos their thick, luxurious creams. A light roast can essentially be thought of as the closest to the natural taste of the coffee bean. As the roasting process continues, the beans begin to take on the characteristics of the roast which soon overtake the natural flavors and aromas. All hints of the bean’s origin have been lost, to be replaced by the robust smokiness and full bodied complexity of the roast. The coffee begins to take on a distinctly bitter quality, is lower in caffeine then their light roast counterparts, and has lost virtually all of its acidity. The beans range from dark brown to pure black and will be shiny with oil.
With light roasts, much of the natural flavor of the bean is preserved. This makes it highly susceptible to outside influences. Because the final product is so dependent on it’s growing conditions, light roasts can often be said to exhibit very extreme flavors, leaning towards a certain characteristic in each batch. Dark roasts, in contrast, are thought of as more balanced, essentially meaning they display a better balance of acidity, body, and accents. The beans begin to take on a bittersweet flavor, and the aromas of the roast become prominent.
When talking about light roasts we’re dealing with flavors associated with other vegetation, light roasts coffee often finds themselves wearing descriptors like, “earthy”, “floral”, “nutty”,“citrusy”, and “fresh”. Dark roast, in contrast, are often described as “Smokey”, “Full Bodied”, and “Woody”. Often they take on the characteristic of the wood used in the roasting process and are described as having notes of “Oak”,“Ceder”, or “Maple”; not unlike a fine wine or whisky. At this point, little of the original characteristics of the bean remain. For this reason, dark roasts are thought of as more forgiving to grow, as the roasting process can hide any defects in flavor.
If you’re a fan of smoky flavors, like those often found in barbecue, then I urge you to give dark roasts a try. While they do lack in some of the more natural flavors like sweetness, and citrus; they more than make up for it with the complexities imparted by the roasting process.