Coffee Basics 101 - Coffee Roasts: Whats In A Name?

Having difficulty choosing the "best" coffee roast? Are the coffee roast names confusing you?

The assigning of names to coffee roasts can seem a bit illogical if not confusing at times, but when coffee roast names first began to emerge within the coffee industry, their application was based, to a small degree, on fact. For example, both the French and Italians had (and still have) a tendency to roast their coffee very dark, thus the emergence of the French and Italian Roasts. But, in today's marketplace, standard coffee roast names (if you can call them standard) seem to be giving way to individual roasters offering catchy, private label, brand names that don't really communicate to the consumer what the actual roast style is. And to throw more confusion into the mix, often times the roast style names vary by geographic region. An American roast in one region of the U.S. may not be of the same degree of roast as in another region, or the same degree of roast in one region may have a totally different name in another region. Are we confused yet?

The variety of names used to describe coffee roasts include: French, Italian, Viennese, Turkish, American, regular, regular city, half-city, full city, cinnamon, light-cinnamon, just to name a few. It all seems soooooo confusing -- how does one make sense of it all? Simply by associating the flavor of the coffee, with the color and/or appearance of the coffee beans, rather than relying on the roast name alone.

High-grown Arabica beans are chock full of complex, aromatic flavors that are just waiting to be released by the roasting process. Other than the origin of the bean, the degree of roast is the next most important factor in the flavor of a high-quality, gourmet coffee. The degree of roast is determined by the roaster, based on the origin and type of bean. Roasters try to emphasize those qualities of the bean that they feel are most desirable. But since everyone has different perceptions and tastes, including roasters, coffee roasts can vary to a large degree even when using the same coffee beans. Thus, the end result is that you wind up with a variety of very different tasting coffees.

When choosing a coffee roast, there really is no such thing as the "best" roast. Many factors affect one's choice in a coffee roast, the most important being your own personal taste preferences. What time of day you intend on drinking your cup of joe, or what type of food you will be eating it with, are other important considerations. A good rule of thumb is to follow the sunlight in your day -- lighter roasts go well in the morning with breakfast, medium roasts in the afternoon, and darker roasts in the evening, especially after a rich, spicy meal. But again, your own personal taste preferences will prevail!

Light RoastsLight roast coffees are of course light brown in color and the beans' surface is dry. Light roasts often preserve a coffee's origin or flavor characteristics specific to that coffee's growing region. Light roast coffees tend to emphasize the more subtle, complex flavors of a coffee, often floral and citrusy or fruity notes that denote a high acidity. These roasts are light-bodied, somewhat sour, and are characterized as "snappy."

Light Cinnamon -- the beans are very light in color and dry with no coffee oils visible on the surface. The coffee usually has little body and there are noticeable sour notes. There's also a baked or bready taste to the coffee.
Cinnamon -- the beans are still light brown and dry with no coffee oils visible. The hints of toasted grain remain and there are distinct sour, acidic notes.
New England or Half City -- the beans are a little darker than the cinnamon. The taste is still sour but not bready. This style is not as frequently used as other roast styles, but is common in the eastern U.S..
American or Light -- the beans are medium light brown in color. This is the roast used mainly in the eastern U.S. and is the roast style most often used for cupping or professional coffee tasting.

Medium RoastsMedium roast coffees are a dark brown color and may have some oily spots on the surface of the beans. The acidity factor, or sour-citrusy flavors are decreased in this roast and the more caramel-like, spicy and or nutty notes are accentuated. Most coffees reach their peak of flavor and complexity with this roast, and it is probably the most common roast used by today's roasters.

Medium or City -- the beans are a medium brown color. This roast style is most common in the western U.S. and is the recommended degree of roast for tasting the different origin flavors in a coffee.
Full City -- the beans are medium dark brown in color and show some coffee oils on the surface. This is also a good roast for tasting origin characteristics of the coffee. The taste is slightly bittersweet with caramel and/or chocolate undertones.
Light French, Viennese, Light Espresso or Continental -- the beans are a dark brown color and are shiny with light surface oil. There's less acidity in this roast and the taste is more bittersweet. There are caramel-like flavors with burnt undertones. This roast is often used for espresso.

Dark RoastsDark roast coffees have slightly less caffeine and are less acidic than lighter roast coffees. In dark roasts, the oils within the beans have been driven to the surface making the beans appear quite shiny. Some of the more subtle, complex flavors of lighter roast coffees are significantly reduced and/or destroyed with dark roasts. These flavors are replaced by more pungent, bittersweet sometimes tangy, dark roasted flavors that include chocolate and caramel notes.

French, Espresso, Turkish or Dark -- the beans are dark brown in color and they are somewhat shiny with surface oil. They have burnt undertones and their acidity is quite diminished. This is the most popular roast for espresso.
Italian, Dark French or Heavy -- the beans are a very dark brown color and the surface is very shiny or oily. There's a stronger burnt flavor to the bean and the acidity is almost gone.
Spanish -- this is the darkest roast of all. The beans are nearly black and very shiny. Burnt undertones dominate and the flavor has been reduced to a few weak, sweet notes. The taste can sometimes be flat, and the body of the coffee thin.

This plethora of roast names just scratches the surface, and often times some of the darker roasts included in the light and medium categories could easily fall into the subsequent category. There's a very fine line that separates one roast category from another -- and again, it's all very subjective, and we can only approximate the categories and the roast names that fall within them.

So if you're still not sure which coffee roast to choose -- take the plunge! Purchase a few coffee samplers from your favorite gourmet coffee retailer and start testing. Look for the degree of roast that brings out the best flavor and aromatic characteristics of the coffee bean. Also keep in mind the type of brewing method you will be using on your coffee -- select darker roasts for espresso, and light to medium roasts for your automatic drip.

While there are many factors to consider when selecting the "best" coffee roast, once you understand the differences in the degrees of roast, and the flavor characteristics associated with each roast style, and you try to ignore those catchy brand names, you will have a much easier time choosing that perfect roast.

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About The Author, Mary E. Macdonald
Mary E. MacDonald is the owner of The JavaPot, an online tea and coffee shop that offers a premium line of gourmet tea and coffee, with an emphasis on organic products. You will also find more great articles, some unique coffee and tea -related gift items, delicious recipes, and product reviews. Check out The JavaPot for more details about current coffee and tea offerings.