Educational Primer: Degrees of Roast
by Mauro Cipolla
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
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
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
- More organic losses and, therefore, a loss in complexity of flavors and density of the
- 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
- 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.
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