If you have seen different bags of coffee with Cinnamon, Full City, or Viennese roast written on them and wondered what it all means, you are not alone.
Roasting coffee beans is where art meets science, using heat to transform unroasted green coffee beans into the brown coffee beans that we know and love. Unfortunately, the roasting industry has very little standardization among the names it uses to label different roasts.
Light, medium, and dark roasts can all have different names depending on who you talk to.
In this article, I will explain and categorize the most common types of coffee roasts, describing their characteristics and how they are different or similar to one another.
Grab a cup of the good stuff and let’s make sense of this naming mess!
Before we get started, it’s crucial that you understand the basics of roasting coffee. The actual roasting process can be divided into three phases: Drying, Maillard, and Development.
All three phases affect the flavors and development of the coffee being roasted. Skilled roasters rely on software to precisely monitor the changes in coffee bean temperature and to produce consistent roasts after achieving the desired outcome.
The drying phase is the first part of the roasting process where the unroasted coffee beans are - you guessed it - dried using high temperatures. As the water moisture in the beans turns into steam, the beans become larger in volume while simultaneously losing mass and density.
Once the beans complete this phase, they go through the Maillard reaction. Caramelization starts here, and the beans turn yellow and then brown as amino acids react with simple sugars to create complex flavors and aromas. This occurs between 302-392°F (150-200°C) and is crucial to the development of coffee. (1)
The last phase of the roasting process, and the one that most affects the color or roast level, is the development phase.
It’s usually measured as a percentage of the entire roast, starting with the “first crack” of the coffee beans and going until the roaster “drops” the roasted beans into a cooling tray.
The development phase is what most people are referring to when talking about how light or dark a roast is.
If the development is shorter, the roast is lighter. The longer the development, the darker the roast turns, creating a dark profile like those found in French or Italian roasts.
It’s hard to talk about shades of brown when distinguishing different roast types, so most roasters use the final temperature that the coffee beans reached during the roast to talk about roast level.
Coffee roasts can be separated into four general categories: Light, Medium, Medium-Dark, and Dark. And each coffee roast has a few different flavor profiles, which brings the total to 13!
Each type tastes different and will highlight different aspects of the coffee bean or roast.
As a roaster myself, I feel the need to include two caveats that most articles leave out when talking about coffee roasts before we get into each type.
If you are curious to taste the flavors inherent to the coffee, a light roast will be your best bet. Light roast coffee beans reach temperatures between 380-401°F (192-205°C).
Since the first crack happens around 385°F (196°C), light roast coffee is normally roasted until this moment or shortly after. (2) In this type of roast, you will find dry, pale brown beans. There shouldn’t be any oils on the surface.
Light roasts tend to have bright acidity with fruity and citrusy notes. They are light-bodied with a potential for floral notes as well.
While these roasts may be too light for most people, they are great for those who want to appreciate single-origin coffees that offer unique and delicate flavors.
I recommend using a filtered pour-over brewing method for light roast coffee. Something like a V60 or Chemex will work perfectly.
Avoid mixing these roasts with milk, as the bright acidity and fruit-forward notes may not pair well with the flavor of milk. It’s better to appreciate this roast by drinking your coffee “black”.
A few common light coffee roasts are Cinnamon, Light City, and Half City.
This type of roast is the lightest that coffee can be roasted and still be brown. If you are looking for something even less developed, check out our article on white coffee.
In a Cinnamon roast, the coffee is pulled at the first sound of cracking, usually around 380°F (193°C), when the color is a light brown, like cinnamon.
Starbucks is rumored to have introduced the name Blond to this roast… or at least made it famous. While some coffee enthusiasts may disagree, Cinnamon and Blonde roasts are the same. Apparently, Starbucks decided to refer to this roast as Blonde since too many people were confused that Cinnamon roasts didn’t actually taste like cinnamon.
Either way, this roast produces coffee with high acidity and a light body. Sour citrusy notes are common and known to pack a punch! These roasts can also taste more floral and grassy than any others.
Light City (or New England) roasts reach temperatures between 375-400°F (191-204°C). They are a little darker than Cinnamon roasts but still very light brown.
This roast makes coffee that tastes bright, delicate, fruity, and floral. Acidity is still very apparent, but the hay-like flavors sometimes found in Blonde roasts have disappeared.
This type of coffee roast is generally done between 400-415°F (204-213°C), close to the end of the first crack. It’s probably the most common of the light roasts, losing some of the sour acidity found in lighter roasts, but still producing a very fruity and floral brew.
Many specialty coffee shops that roast lightly will include Half City roasts in their offerings.
The most popular roast type in the United States is a medium roast. For many people, it’s a great balance between flavor profile, acidity, and aroma. It also produces a stronger fragrance than light coffee roasts.
Who doesn’t love to start their morning with the smell of fresh-roasted, delicious coffee being ground?
Medium coffee roasts are roasted to 410-428°F (210-220°C), in between the first and second crack. The beans are medium brown in color and still dry with no visible oils.
Medium roasts work great as pour-overs or using brewing methods that use infusion, like a French press or AeroPress. If you want to highlight the body and bring out more sweetness, try using a French press or AeroPress. If you prefer to focus on complex flavor notes and acidity, try a pour-over.
Some common medium roasts are American, City, and Breakfast roasts.
American roasts are on the lighter end of the medium roast spectrum. Coffees roasted to this level tend to reach 410°F (210°C). The beans are now a darker brown like that of chocolate, but there still aren’t any oils present.
This style is accessible to many consumers due to it allowing the bean’s inherent flavors to shine through without any smoky flavors that you find in darker roasts.
This style, which is also referred to as a Regular roast, is generally used for coffees that reach 410-430°F (210-221°C). Think of the coffee at your local diner. This roast appeals to a wide range of people as it's not too light or too dark.
Depending on how you brew a Regular roast, you can highlight different aspects of the bean.
While a City roast may fall under a Breakfast roast, these coffee beans are roasted between 415-425°F (213-218°C) in between the first and second crack.
This is a very common type of roast found in grocery stores or at your local coffee shop. It’s a familiar, medium roast that provides the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity for many people. It has a nice body and can be enjoyed with most brewing methods, from pour-over to espresso.
As we enter the darker roast territory, the beans begin to reach even higher final temperatures. Medium-dark coffee roasts go to 437-446°F (225-230°C), from just before the second crack to slightly after.
Due to the second crack releasing more pressure from inside the coffee beans at around 435°F (224°C), oils that were under the surface now escape through the pores of the beans.
A medium-dark roast gives coffee a deeper, fuller flavor with more body and much less acidity. You also get more flavors from the roast, in addition to more caramelization. Some sweetness will turn into bitterness, and flavors inherent to the bean’s terroir or processing methods are much harder to notice.
Medium-dark roast coffees are great for making milk-based coffee drinks. We recommend dialing in an espresso shot and combining it with your favorite milk. If you prefer plant-based options, I recommend oat or almond milk for a creamier, frother milk in your cappuccino or flat white.
A Moka pot or French press will also produce wonderful full-bodied coffees with this level of roast.
Some common names for medium-dark roast coffee are Full City, Continental, and Viennese.
Also referred to as a Light French or Full Medium roast, Full City roasts are bold and full-bodied. They usually have notes of chocolate, caramel, and nuts.
Sweetness dominates any remaining acidity with high temperatures reaching 435-440°F (224-227°C).
This is also a very popular roast for people who like their coffee a bit darker, but not Italian dark.
We are now getting close to “dark” territory as Continental roasts go to the second crack. These coffee beans are deep brown and have visible oils on them. The second crack makes them a bit smokier with a heavier body.
Continental roasts reach 440°F (227°C) and the cut-off between Full City and Continental is very blurry.
Getting even darker, we have the dark, reddish-brown coffee beans from Viennese roasts. This type of roast produces coffees that have very low (if any) acidity with a heavy body. Notes of dark chocolate are very common, introducing more bitterness into the beans.
Beans are dropped during the beginning or middle of the second crack at approximately 445°F (229°C).
Last but not least are dark coffee roasts. These coffees are roasted to the second crack and beyond, exceeding temperatures of 446°F (230°C).
The beans are closer to black in color and are super oily. Almost all roasts at this level have a smoky flavor with no acidity. Any flavors from the terroir, coffee variety, or production methods are lost.
Due to a strong body, dark roast coffee works great as espresso and in milk-based coffee beverages. They produce a thicker and richer crema in espresso, which can be enjoyed by itself or mixed into a latte or cappuccino.
If you like bitter coffee with a full body, a dark roast is for you.
A few examples of dark roast coffee are New Orleans, French, Italian, and Espresso roasts.
In this category, coffee roasts tend to have names where the style gained popularity. A New Orleans roast calls for a slightly lighter coffee than a French roast. You get the “dark coffee flavor” without a burnt or bitter aftertaste.
French roasts, similar to the Starbucks French Roast, approach the maximum temperature that coffee beans can handle before degrading into an unpleasant taste. This style is also known as a Double roast and produces bitter, smoky, and strong coffee. Reaching 465-470°F (240-243°C), the beans are very dark brown with an oily surface.
While some sweetness may remain, French roasts are mostly bitter with notes of charcoal. They pair well with cream and provide a good balance to the sweet ice cream in affogatos.
Even darker than a French roast is an Italian roast. The beans are so oily that they appear greasy. This dark roast produces shiny black beans, and the only prominent flavor is that of smoke.
Italian roasts take beans to the end of the second crack between 470-475°F (243-246°C). You can taste the oil with each swallow.
There is no acidity or sweetness left in this type of roast, but Italians find that it makes a great espresso. Who are we to disagree with the creators of the espresso machine?
Roasters will usually call their darker roasts “espresso” roasts, but this isn’t always the case. While medium-dark and dark roasts tend to be crowd favorites for making espresso, you can pull a delicious shot using any level of roasted coffee. It doesn’t have to be a dark roast.
A Full City, Viennese, or even a Cinnamon roast might work great if you know how to dial in your espresso machine correctly. It all depends on what you are looking for in your espresso… acidity, sweetness, body?
If you want to buy a bag of coffee that has “espresso roast” written on it, I recommend you ask the coffee shop what they mean by that.
Oftentimes people ask me, “What is the best type of coffee roast? A medium roast? A dark roast?”
There isn’t one. Like with brewing methods, the best roast is the one you personally like the most.
While it’s true that some coffees pair better with certain roast levels, your personal taste preferences are unique and should guide you into choosing the coffee you like to drink.
If you enjoy more nuanced flavor notes, a light body, and bright acidity, lighter roasts will quench your thirst. If you enjoy a more bittersweet profile, a full body, and rich sweetness, medium or medium-dark roasts might be best for you.
What about espresso?
Even with espresso, the roast doesn’t matter. While a medium or dark roast may produce better crema, even light-roasted coffee can taste great as espresso if you are looking for a zingy acidity and fruity sweetness in your shot.
Skilled baristas dial in their espresso machines to make delicious light roast espresso all over the world in many specialty coffee shops.
Head to your local coffee shop and try the different roasts they have available to see what fits your style best!
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Most coffee roasts can be categorized into four general levels: light, medium, medium-dark, and dark. While there are many more names for specific roasting styles, there is very little industry standardization in the coffee world for types of roasts. For example, many roasters consider a Full City roast as a medium roast, but others will argue that it’s a medium-dark type of roast.
The best type of coffee roast is whatever you personally enjoy drinking the most. Some coffee beans may have inherent nutty notes from their terroir or processing methods that taste phenomenal as a medium roast. Other fruitier and more floral coffees like the geisha variety may taste better as a lighter roast. If you like more nuanced flavors, acidity, and a light body, a light coffee roast might be great for you. If you like coffee with a full body, more sweetness than acidity and notes of chocolate, a medium or medium-dark roast will make you happy.
Medium roasts tend to make the smoothest coffee and are the most popular roast level in the United States. For many people, it gives a balanced flavor profile with a pleasant acidity and aroma. Medium roasts also pair well with all brewing methods, from filtered pour-overs to Moka pot espresso. If you like some acidity, some sweetness, and nice body, and distinguishable flavor notes, a medium roast is the roast for you.
Medium roast coffee is the most popular coffee roast in the United States. It offers a great balance between flavor, aroma, sweetness, and acidity, without any smoky or bitter flavors from the roasting process itself. It pairs well with most brewing methods, from filtered pour-overs to espresso.
If measured by weight, the caffeine content in both light and dark roasts is about the same. There is a myth that caffeine is “roasted out” during the roasting process, but that is simply not true. As more heat converts the beans’ moisture into steam, the beans lose mass and become less dense. If measured by volume (like with scoops), lighter roasts will have just a bit more caffeine than darker roasts.
As you can tell, there are many different types of coffee roasts. The important thing to remember is that each name is connected to a final temperature.
While many of these names overlap and there isn’t a lot of clarity on specifics, you now know how to categorize each type in the four main categories of roast levels: light, medium, medium-dark, and dark.
While many more names are used by coffee roasters around the world to identify roast levels, the ones outlined in this article are the most commonly used.
I hope you have a better understanding of what you are getting when you purchase your next Half City or French roast coffee bag.