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Light or Dark Roast Coffee? Here are the Main Differences

man sorting light or dark roast coffee beans

Whether you’re a beginner coffee drinker or an aficionado, you know that different cups of coffee taste different. Some have a bitter flavor with dark chocolate and nutty notes while others are fruity and acidic. While the growing region, climate, and soil all play a role in coffee tasting notes, the real differences emerge due to varying roasting levels.

Not sure if you prefer light or dark roast coffee? Here, we’ll break down the differences between the two. You’ll learn more about the caffeine content, tasting profiles, and acidity of these two types of roasted beans.

Light or Dark Roast Coffee: How Are They Different?

light or dark roast coffee beans

Trying to decide if you should order light or dark roast coffee? Understanding the difference between the two allows you to make an informed decision based on your taste preferences. Aside from the obvious visual differences — light roasts are light brown in color while darker roasts have a dark brown color — the two different roasts have several defining characteristics. Read on to learn more about the two and if you should order light or dark roast coffee.

Light Roast Coffee

Coffee beans take on different flavors when they undergo a roasting process. During roasting, heat is added, drawing out moisture and water from the coffee beans. Light roast beans are roasted at lower temperatures and for a shorter period of time. That means that lighter roasts still contain some moisture. 

Light roast beans are roasted until a single crack is heard — this is called the “first crack”. The beans are heated to temperatures between 350 and 410 degrees Fahrenheit. As the heat rises, the coffee bean will crack or pop, indicating the completion of the roasting process for a light roast. Light roast beans are also labeled as light city roast beans or cinnamon roast.

Flavor

These dense beans boast higher acidity — think of that more as brightness rather than mouth-puckering acid. Acidity in coffee is a good thing for some palettes. In this case, if you love coffee that has bright notes, a light roast is something you’ll like.

Light roast beans also tend to have more fruity and herbal tasting notes. They feature complex tasting profiles due to their higher moisture content. Light roast beans are smaller than darker roasts because the beans tend to expand the longer they are subjected to heat. The smaller the bean, the more compact and thus intense the flavor.

Caffeine Content

Light roast beans also have a higher caffeine content compared to dark roast whole beans. The beans retain more caffeine from the natural green coffee beans thanks to lower roasting temperatures. Also, since the beans are denser, when you portion out grinds for a cup of coffee, there is a higher amount of caffeine per serving compared to dark roasts. The brewing method will also change the caffeine content in a cup. Whether you’re enjoying a French press brew, espresso, cold brew, or latte will also impact the amount of caffeine you consume.

Dark Roast Coffee

Coffee roasters expose dark roast coffee beans to higher temperatures (typically 440 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to light roasts. The roasting time of the green beans  is also longer. The beans are roasted until a “second crack” or pop at which point they are removed from the roaster. These beans are dark brown or even black when they are packaged for sale. Many dark roast beans are also labeled as espresso roast, Italian roast, or French roast.

Flavor

The added heat creates a less dense bean that typically has only one or two forward tasting notes. The flavor of dark roast beans is less complex and nuanced compared to light roasts. Dark roast coffee beans tend to offer nutty, toasted, and caramel flavors. 

Dark roast coffee also has a thicker body compared to the relatively thin body of light roasts. During the roasting process, water is removed. This brings natural oils to the surface of the beans, which creates a thicker body when brewed. The oils also create a smoky, bold flavor that’s characteristic of dark roast coffees.

Dark roast coffees tend to have less bitter notes compared to both light roast and medium roast coffees. The heating process breaks down chlorogenic acid into phenylindanes, which create a bitter flavor. 

Caffeine Content

Since dark roasts undergo a longer roasting process, they have less caffeine compared to light roasts — something that surprises many coffee drinkers. The longer the beans are heated, the less caffeine there will be as this burns off naturally during the roasting process.

Find the Perfect Roast

coffee beans in a burlap bag

When it comes to light or dark roast coffee, the best coffee really depends on your flavor preferences. Understanding the different coffee roasts can help you pick the perfect cup of java. Light roast coffees tend to have layered and nuanced flavor profiles with a light body while dark roast coffees generally feature one main flavor and full body. Light roast coffees also have higher caffeine levels. If you want lots of caffeine and a drinking experience that offers several tasting notes, grab a light roast brew. 

If you prefer strong notes of one flavor or a full-mouthed feel when drinking a cup of java, snag dark roast coffee beans instead. Dark roast beans are heated at high temperature for a longer amount of time, removing most origin flavors and leaving a smoky, bold taste behind. It also has low acidity, for a less bitter taste.

The type of roast isn’t the only thing that creates different flavors in coffee. The growing region, soil types, and type of bean (arabica and robusta) all have an impact. Looking to learn more about coffee? Check out our Cup & Bean blog where we cover everything from the different types of coffee drinks and practical advice to highlighting coffee beans from various regions like Costa Rica and Bali.

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