Make perfect coffee at home: Your guide to dark, light, and medium roasts

Making coffee at home is the ultimate money-saving hack for the caffeine lovers of the world. Two or three cups of coffee at the coffee shop may run you $10-$20, but make your cup at home? You’ll save money and get your coffee exactly the way you like it for less than $3 per cup!
You’re probably thinking “how do I know which coffee I’ll like?” The answer is that you’ll never really know until you try, but there are a few details on the bag that can help you make an educated guess. One of those details is the type of coffee roast.
Looking at the coffee aisle, you’ve likely seen many words to describe roasts, some of which include: light, medium, dark, French, Italian. What do they all mean, though? The best place to start is why we even need to roast beans in the first place.

Where do coffee beans come from?

Before we talk about the “why,” here’s a quick primer on the “where” as in “where coffee beans come from.” Coffee comes from a coffee plant. The plant’s origins are in Ethiopia, where the climate is most ideal for the plant’s growth. The coffee plant produces coffee cherries that contain two seeds. Those green seeds or “beans” are what we roast to make coffee.

There are a number of ways to remove the coffee from the bean, AKA processing, that will affect the finished cup. Regardless of the process, what ends up being a hard, brown bean was once soft, squishy, and grassy smelling.
If you tried to brew the beans before roasting, you’d have something much different than what we think of as a traditional cup of coffee. It’s the heat from the roasting that causes the chemical change that actually makes the bean coffee.

Why are coffee beans roasted?

Roasting coffee causes a chemical reaction that transforms the squishy, green beans into the brown, flavorful coffee beans we know and love. Once roasted, each bean’s flavor profiles and characteristics are based on the coffee-growing region that the beans are from. So, how do we know when to stop roasting beans? The short answer is that we don’t know. The goal when we’re roasting coffee is to discover the best flavor for the bean. It takes trial and error, but once we figure that out the process is smooth. 

How are coffee beans roasted?

To keep it simple, coffee beans are roasted with two different factors in mind- heat and time. When roasting coffee beans, they pop. It’s not uncommon for people to compare coffee beans popping to popcorn.

There are two common types of coffee roasters in use today- drum roasters and air roasters. Whichever one you use, once the coffee is roasted it must be cooled rapidly. There are two methods for the cooling process, too. You can use either a vacuum or quench the beans with water.

Pernell standing behind a coffee roaster with a jacket and hat on smiling as he looks somewhere off camera

What’s the difference between light, medium, and dark roast coffees?

In general, different roasts are for different outcomes. Dark roasts are notable for their oily texture beans and bold, roasty flavor. They don't focus so much on the flavor qualities of the region as much as the flavor that roasting can bring to the bean.

Light and medium roasts focus more on the inherent flavor qualities of the bean. That’s why when you look at light and medium roasts, you may see more unique flavor descriptions.
Often referred to as the “American roast,” medium roasts have a moderately oily texture with some sweetness and acidity. Closer in characteristic to medium roast, light roasts are known for their sweetness and flavor depth with hardly any oil on the bean.
Now, are light, medium, and dark roasts the only way we categorize coffee roasts? Not at all! These classifications are just the tip of the iceberg. Within each roast, there are more specific names like “light city” or “cinnamon” for light roast or “french” or “espresso” for dark roast. No matter what you decide to call them, you’re well on your way to choosing the perfect coffee for you.

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