How to Understand Coffee Roast Levels
Not all roasters define roast colour the same: for us at Smile Tiger, our Black Tambourine is a dark roast, but to other roasters it may be seen as more of a medium roast. Coffee production is both an art form and a science and, particularly when it comes to third wave roasters, this allows for slight variations between practices.
The darkness of each individual roast is determined in the few short minutes following what is known as the first crack. With the high heat levels inside of the roaster, pressure and gases build up within the walls of the beans. Eventually, the pressure and gases will release, popping the skin and parchment off of the beans, and resulting in a cracking sound similar to that of popcorn. Once this occurs, there is a small window of time for the roaster to determine when to stop, or drop, the roast.
Roasting is typically stopped between 1-2 minutes after the first crack: the longer the beans are left to roast, the darker the final product. If you ever see a roaster with their head up against their machine, it’s best not to disturb them: they are likely listening for this very pivotal sound that their entire product revolves around.
Light Roast Coffees:
Light roast coffees, also referred to as city roasts, are dropped very quickly following the first crack; typically between 1-1.5 minutes after. This is the current roast level trend among modern roasters, and is historically the standard in nordic countries. These coffees are characterized by their light brown or tan colour, as well as a lack of oil on the roasted beans. They boast the highest acidity and the most brightness of the three roast levels. The distinctive characteristics of different origins are the most pronounced in light roasts, as are the specific qualities unique to each individual coffee. Light roasted beans typically present tasting notes that are acidic, wine-like, and juicy, with floral and fruity aromatics, a caramel sweetness, and a lighter, tea-like body. We tend to roast our single origin coffees to a lighter degree, really letting the unique natures of each origin shine through in every cup.
Medium Roast Coffees:
Medium roasts, or full city roasts, typically drop between 1:30-1:45 after the roaster hears the first crack. They are a darker brown colour than a light roast coffee, and will look richer, with little to no visible oil. At this roast level, the coffee’s qualities begin to give way to the roast’s flavours and aromas, with more of a balance between acidity and body. With general tasting notes of caramel, fruit and dried fruit, and a medium body, you’ll still be able to taste the individuality of the coffee, but the bean’s brightness will be complemented by the fuller body introduced by the longer roasting process. We tend to roast most of our signature coffees and blends this way as many people prefer the balance between the delicate aromatics and powerful flavour notes.
Dark Roast Coffees:
Dark roasted coffee, sometimes known as Viennese or french roast, is roasted the longest, dropped anywhere from 1:45-2 minutes after hearing the first crack. True to their name, dark roasts are dark brown, sometimes almost black, in colour. You will also be able to see the oils on the beans at this point. At this roast level you can almost exclusively taste the notes from the roast itself, as many of the original qualities of the coffee are lost the longer they are exposed to the intense heat. These notes are typically described as bold, nutty, spicy, and chocolatey, and are accompanied by a heavy, or full, body. Our signature Black Tambourine coffee is a dark roasted coffee from Brazil. While still classified as a dark roast, we typically roast it to a lighter degree than that of a standard dark coffee. We find that most dark roasted coffees tend to taste quite similar and it can be difficult to denote the difference between two different coffees when they are roasted this way. By roasting our dark roast a little lighter, we find that we can still accomplish a unique wine note in every cup, while still finding those typical darker notes of chocolate and nuts.
Rao, S. The coffee roaster's companion.