Ah the light roast, it almost seems like the perfect companion to start your day. Not only does it pack a bigger caffeine wallop than its darker brethren, but it’s also a much more flavorful bean which shines through with subtle hints of its true essence. Whether that manifests as a hint of orange zest, or just an indescribable brightness will largely depend on where the coffee was grown. As a rule, it’s the choice of coffee aficionados everywhere, who are looking for a complex flavor profile, rather than any old cup of mud to get them going in the morning. Popular names for roasts within this range include Cinnamon Roast, New England Roast, Half City, or simply Light Roast. But what is a light roast exactly? And what gives it its allure?
The Roasting Process
The roasting process is a delicate dance that can be ruined by just a moment’s inattention. Master roasters must remain ever vigilant to ensure they get their roasts just right. The beans are first heated to roughly 329 °F (165 °C); the beans are not yet roasting at this point but rather are said to be “drying”. Roasters listen carefully for an event known as the “First Crack” when the coffee beans reach a sufficient internal temperature and produce a cracking sound. This is crunch time for roasters as it signals the beginning of a small window separating light roasts from medium roasts. The beans continue to be roasted until they reach an internal temperature between 385 °F (196 °C) and 401 °F (205 °C) at which point they’re considered done. The beans are then quickly cooled to stop the roasting process and to avoid overcooking.
A characteristic, albeit and overstated one, of light roasts is that they tend to be marginally higher in caffeine content. This is because caffeine is cooked out during the roasting process. Given that dark roasts roast for longer; they naturally have more time to cook out some of the caffeine naturally present in the beans. With all that said, the difference is essentially negligible.
As we said, light roasts can be thought of as the closest thing to the natural flavor of the raw coffee bean. Light roasts are said to “sparkle” or exhibit “brightness”. Because the lighter roasts keep their natural characteristics the taste tends to vary greatly based on a number of different factors like the variety of plant , altitude, the composition of the soil, and even the weather can each play their part in altering the final product. Light roasts do not fall victim to the overwhelming smokiness of the roasting process, they can have very different, very complex flavor profiles that are highly dependant on the growing conditions.
With a light roast, a skilled coffee taster would probably be able to tell you the origin of the beans. This roast level is characterized by being higher in acidity, light-bodied, and should not have started to taken on the characteristic taste of darker roasts. These roasts are associated with having a grainy, grassy, or earthy flavor; they are characteristically higher in acidity, lower in sweetness, and have not released any of their essential oils yet. Light Roasts also tend to be a little bit higher in caffeine content since caffeine is burned off throughout the roasting process. At this point the beans begin to take on a lightly toasted or light brown colour.
Unfortunately, as we mentioned in another article [LINK TO ACIDITY IN COFFEE], light roast coffee also tends to be associated with a higher level of acidity. If you’re prone to hearthburn, it may be wise to pick a darker roast. For the rest of us, that extra acid is actually a good thing! Acidity plays a very complex role in the flavor of coffee, we describe it at length in the previously mentioned article but basically there are a handful of different acids which contribute their own unique properties within the coffee. The best known among these is certainly citric acid, which you were instantly able to imagine. Citrus, as I’m sure you know, will add hints of orange or lemon.
But this isn’t the only player at work! Chlorogenic Acid (nothing to do with Chlorine!) contributes many of the flavors we think of as characteristically coffee like; it’s also what provides the aforementioned “brightness” and “sparkle”. As if that wasn’t good enough, it’s an antioxidant and has been shown to help control blood glucose levels.
Meanwhile, phosphoric acid is among the sweetest of the acids, adding flavors reminiscent of tropical fruits like mango; while Tartaric acids can impart hints of wine or grapes.
The whole point of the light roast is to be able to taste the growing conditions of the coffee plant. Because we’re trying to get something as close as possible to the natural taste it stands to reason that light roasts are much less forgiving in terms of flavor than darker roasts which can be saved in the roasting process. All that to say, it’s imperative that you take some time and find some quality coffee beans, it really makes all the difference!
So what should you be looking for? Ideally, the best quality beans will be grown at high altitudes. This means you’re better off targeting beans which are grown in mountainous regions like Peru and Colombia rather than relatively flat areas like many that are produced in the middle east. The higher the altitude, the better the product generally.
Soil is also a very important factor, and as a rule, you want the most fertile coffee possible. This means ditching the aribica in favor of something grown in much more fertile soil. The ideal would be volcanic soil which tends to be extremely rich in nutriments and minerals, all of which is a good sign for your taste buds! Look for coffees from volcanic islands like Hawaii or the extremely accommodating lands of south east asia.
The light roast is certainly the choice of the more refined coffee palate. Whether you’re a hardened aficionado, or just taking your first steps into the wider world of coffee, we hope we were able to give you a little better understanding of the forces at play.