For many of us who used to pop into a coffee shop every morning before work, or usually make our coffee at work, the past few months have served as a form of coffee self-education. Because we are now forced to feed our caffeine habit at home, suddenly we’ve had to think about what kinds of coffee we really want and how to make the absolute best brews we can at home.
Maybe that has meant finally investing in a good drip coffee maker or coffee grinder, or understanding the many coffee trends out there — dalgona coffee, frozen coffee, gold coffee, gourmet delivered coffee and more. And probably somewhere along your journey to truly understanding coffee you’ve thought, “Wait, what is light roast and dark roast coffee, anyway?”
It’s much like wine. While some people prefer dark roast (like myself — I love the rich, chocolaty flavor), others, of course, prefer the lightness of a lighter brew, or even a medium that meets them right in the middle. To finally understand the different kind of coffee out there, we consulted with two coffee experts who broke down exactly what these various coffees really mean.
What exactly is light roast and dark roast coffee?
“In the simplest terms, the difference in light versus dark is purely about how long the beans have been roasted,” explains Brooklyn-based Driftaway Coffee founder Suyog Mody. “After a certain point, the heat energy that is applied to the beans is trapped and then released in a way that the beans ‘crack,’ giving off trapped energy — this is called ‘first crack.’ After this first crack, the amount of time the coffee is roasted before the process is stopped gives it a light, medium or dark roast level.”
Mody adds that lighter roasts generally have less body and are more fruity, while darker may be more chocolaty and roasty (for lack of a better word!). And roast level (meaning making it dark or light or medium) is just one of the many ways these these professional coffee roasters can affect the taste of the coffee, he says, among other factors including the beans’ country of origin (Driftaway encourages consumers to connect with their coffee’s growers), the quality of the beans, the processing, the transport and the storage.
Below, check out some expert-approved light and dark beans.
Kenya Nyeri Giakanja Beans (starting at $17; driftaway.coffee.com)
“Personally, I’m very fond of Kenyan coffees at a lighter roast level,” Mody says. “This is a delight as iced coffee on a summer afternoon.”
Perhaps fruitier than a lot of the coffees you’ve tried, this incorporates notes of melon and citrus.
Real Good Coffee Co Whole Bean Coffee Breakfast Blend Light Roast ($24.99; amazon.com)
A light roast favorite on Amazon, these whole beans have both notes of citrus and smoother notes of milk chocolate and cream. Ideal for a lazy Sunday morning.
Brazil Bahia Fazenda El Progreso Beans (starting at $17; driftaway.coffee.com)
“For dark roasts, I highly recommend Brazil Progreso,” Mody says. Notes include dark chocolate, almond and even toast.
Peet’s Coffee French Roast Dark Roast Whole Bean Coffee, 20-Ounce ($14.99; amazon.com)
Peet’s Coffee, known for its dark, brooding and almost syrupy drip, sells its infamous super dark French Roast as whole beans too, with notes like smoke and burnt caramel.
What brewing method you’re using also makes a difference in terms of which roast you want to pick, to some degree.
“Dark roasts extract more readily, so you need a little more agitation, time, temperature, pressure or fineness of grind to brew a great cup of light roast,” says Doug Welsh, vice president of coffee and roastmaster at Peet’s Coffee.
It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, Welsh asserts, but superficially, experts tend to think of the pour-over method as ideal for light roast, since it’s slower and by the cup, and French press as the more turnkey/low-labor option, good for dark roast.
In our cold brew at-home primer, experts warned against using light roast for cold brew (there’s no heat and little agitation), and Mody does warn that cold brew made with light roasts tastes thinner and fruitier. By the same token, he says, espresso made with light roasts can be very sour, and with very dark roasts can taste burnt.
Bodum Chambord French Press Coffee Maker ($39.19; amazon.com)
The French press is many professionals’ favored brew method for dark roast. It’s also available in plastic for a cheaper option.
While pour-over is good for light roasts, several of our experts recommend this Hario V60 setup.
Enamel Pour-Over Gooseneck Kettle ($66; food52.com)
Similarly, a gooseneck kettle is a must-have for the pour-over method, argue our sources.
Braun BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)
The winner of our drip coffee maker test, the Braun BrewSense edged out the competition with its sleek screen, compact design and total ease of use.
Baratza Virtuoso Conical Burr Coffee Grinder ($249; amazon.com)
And if you’re buying whole beans, a nice grinder is a must. After conducting our own coffee grinder test, this machine came out on top. If you want a slightly more cost-efficient option, this one came in second place, is less than half the price and has all the bells and whistles you’d want in a grinder.
DeLonghi Espresso Machine in Black ($149.95; bestbuy.com)
This well-priced and well-reviewed espresso machine would do well used with a darker espresso roast.
Callunaco Nordic-Style Ceramic Coffee Cup ($12.50; etsy.com)
Regardless of your roast preference, a cute ceramic cup makes the experience that much more charming.
As for the question of which is really better, dark or light roast, that’s truly a matter of personal preference for the coffee drinker. For those dark roast haters out there who say a darker roast masks the true taste of the bean or tastes burnt, well, Welsh begs to differ. “If a dark roast tastes only like char, then it is a poorly executed roast,” he says. “Does it taste like coffee — fruity, spicy, chocolaty, nutty — as well as burnt-sugar sweet? Bingo.”
Welsh also warns against the cult of “light is right.” “Apart from the insult to a broader spectrum of taste, light roast is just as easy to underdo,” he says. “Does the coffee taste cereal-like, or sour to the extent it ‘masks’ the origin nuance? Sweeten up, people.”
See below for some pre-ground coffee options in both light and dark.
Peet’s Coffee Colombia Luminosa Light Roast Ground Coffee, 12-Ounce (starting at $13.77; amazon.com)
“Luminosa” means “shining” or “bright,” and this one has notes of passionflower and stone fruit.
New England Coffee New England Donut Shop Blend, 11-Ounce ($3.78; amazon.com)
With more than 7,000 reviews, this is the light roast thousands of people reach for in the morning. It comes in a sweet little bag too.
Kicking Horse Coffee Hola Light Roast, 10-Ounce ($8.67; amazon.com)
Another light favorite, this has notes of juicy red currant and even honey.
Peet’s Coffee French Roast Dark Roast Ground Coffee, 20-Ounce ($12.69; amazon.com)
Again, Peet’s warns this dark roast is not for the cautious, but if pre-ground is more of your thing and you love smoky flavors, why not give it a shot?
Caribou Coffee Mahogany Dark Roast, 20-Ounce ($11.79; amazon.com)
Woody, with notes of vanilla and even sugar, this is all about preserving the flavor of the beans, which are sourced from El Salvador, Sumatra and Guatemala.
Mody strongly agrees that light versus dark comes down purely to personal preference, and the brand’s business model encourages consumers to taste every coffee to determine what pleases them, then narrow down to options they like.
“Some of this is because there is no industry standard for roast levels (our dark roast is likely to be other roasters’ blonde roast), but more importantly, coffee is a food product and the only way to know what you like in food is by tasting it,” Mody says.
We’ll drink to that.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailers’ listed prices at the time of publication.