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Coffee Roasts: Shades, Names and Flavors

Jul 18, 2009 · coffee · dark roast · espresso · history · how-to · roasting
Coffee Roasts: Shades, Names and Flavors

Back in May, we wrote a little bit about Italian vs. French Roasts, but lately we have been sampling a lot of different roast and blend types and decided to read more about the basic theory behind roasting and blending. In our research, we ran across Kenneth Davids' excellent table describing the different roast styles and their corresponding flavor, so we thought we'd reprint it here for easy future reference. The big question that was on our mind was in regard to dark roasts: Peet started an American tradition back in the 60's by taking his roasts well into the very dark brown degree and we wondered why. Particularly because, for us, the darker roasts just aren't as complex flavor-wise, so we were curious about his roasting theory -- one that would ultimately be imitated by the founders of Starbucks and eventually influences hundreds of small specialty roasters around the world. It seems that it's largely due to the fact that, when taken to a darker roast, the oils and sugars caramelize in a manner which imbues the roast with a bittersweet tone -- if it's not taken too far, it will still retain much of its richness and will also feature less caffeine. However, and we think this is where we have often found ourselves, when the beans are taken to a really dark black brown, they're just charred at that point -- dried out little husks with little to no coffee oil or sugar leftover, so very little can be imparted during extraction. So while we personally prefer something in the medium brown range, we're glad we now understand why all the dark roast lovers out there are such ardent fans. If you want to learn more about roasting and blending -- as well as pretty much anything else to do with coffee -- we highly recommend picking up Kenneth Davids' book. Right now, however, you can check out his handy reference table after the jump.

Coffee Roasts: Darkness, Names and Tastes

Roast Color Bean Surface Common Names Notes
Light Brown Dry Light Cinnamon New England Can taste sour and grainy. Typically used only for inexpensive commercial blends.
Medium Brown Dry Medium American Regular City The traditional American norm. Flavor is fully developed; acidity is bright; characteristics of green coffee are clear.
Medium Dark Brown Dry to tiny droplets or patches of oil Viennese Full City Light French Espresso Light Espresso Continental The normal or regular roast for the US West and for many newer specialty roasters. Acidity and characteristics of the green coffee begin to mute and sweetness and body increase. The norm for northern Italian-style espresso.
Dark Brown Shiny surface French Espresso Italian Turkish Dark The normal or regular roast for many roasters in the US West and Southwest. Acidity is backgrounded; the characteristics of the green coffee muted. Bittersweet tones dominate. The norm for most American-style espresso.
Very Dark Brown Very shiny surface Italian Dark French Neapolitan Spanish Heavy The normal or regular roast for Peet's Coffee and its imitators. Acidity is gone. In tactful versions of this roast, muted but clear characteristics of the green coffee survive; in aggressive versions, all coffees taste the same: Bittersweet with hints of burned or charred tones.
Black-Brown Shiny surface Dark French Neapolitan Spanish All differentiating characteristics of the green coffee are gone; burned or charred notes dominate. Body is thin. Flavor is reduced to faint sweet tones.
Source: Coffee - A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, Kenneth Davids

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