Educational Primer: Degrees of Roast

by Mauro Cipolla Pic of Mauro roasting

Today's specialty coffee choices, made available by the many different roasting companies, are vast both in types of blends and in degrees of roast. This presents an opportunity for retailers to educate their customers on the different roasts and brewing requirements of the whole-bean coffees they offer. The retail shop-owner and every one of his or her employees selling whole-bean coffees must be knowledgeable about each offering and happy to pass this information on to customers. In order to properly guide consumers in their choices, retailers must address three very basic issues. The following information can help consumers make educated choices when purchasing coffees for particular home-brewing applications.

1. Whenever purchasing choices must be made among light-, medium- and dark-roasted coffees, one must consider that the degree of roast by itself does not constitute a standardized answer about the coffees flavor profile.

Thus, when comparing similar roasting degrees, consider that any individual coffees flavor profile will be dictated by a myriad of factors. These factors include the botanical species used by the roasting company, the type and quality of heat used in the roasting process, the speed and timing of the roast and the final blend (if any) employed by the roaster.

2. A retailer must also advise the consumer on certain general flavor profiles found in a particular roast, and should explain some of the basic reasons behind the expected flavor profiles. Here are some ideas:

    Darker roasts generally equate to:
  • Less fiber content of the bean and thus less viscosity and body in the cup.
  • Less caffeine in the cup, resulting in slightly less bitterness and slightly less strength.
  • More organic losses and, therefore, a loss in complexity of flavors and density of the coffee.
  • More sucrose will be lost, but more caramelization will be present, resulting in a more liqueur-like and sugary, caramelized flavor.
  • Less volatile aromas, less acidity and less aroma will be present, thus the loss of aromatic and acidic flavor components.
  • Less chlorogenic acids resulting in a silkier, smoother texture.
  • More dissolving properties of the beans, thus more extractability of flavors from the particular blend.
  • More oils on the outside of the beans, causing more problems with oxidation and/or concerns associated with extra smoke created in the roasting process. These elements could contribute to faster staling of the coffee and/or a more pungent flavor profile.

Pic of grinder 3. Coffee (and espresso) extraction takes water-soluble substances from the coffee beans, and emulsifies insoluble oils present in the roasted coffee. Because each degree of roast (light, medium, dark and everything in between) and individual roasting styles create different and unique coffees, one must marry the set up of the brewing and grinding equipment to the general taste expected from any coffee.

Most consumers will be limited by the type of adjustments that will be possible on non-professional home brewing equipment. Therefore, retailers should focus on four, easy-to-understand elements of fine-tuning for taste: Water, temperature, grind setting and amount of coffee used, and storage and purchasing patterns.

For example, taking points a through h above, one can say that, generally, the darker the roast the more pungent the coffee. One can try to minimize this pungency by fine-tuning the temperature in the brewing equipment to a few degrees lower than where it would be set for a less pungent coffee.

Another example may be the darker the roast, the more brittle the beans, the less moisture content and the less density in the bean itself. This requires a slightly coarser grind setting and possibly the use of more ground coffee per brew cycle. Finally, changes may also be advisable in the frequency of purchasing, since darker roasted coffees will tend to oxidize faster and thus have a shorter life cycle of freshness.

In any case, the whole-bean retailer must ensure the product delivered to the consumer is of the standard he or she would expect when serving a coffee beverage in his or her shop. Quality, in every aspect of this business, is what the specialty coffee consumer expects and deserves.

Mauro Cipolla is vice president of Caffe Darte, a specialty coffee roasting company in Seattle, WA. He can be reached at (206) 762-4381;

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