Knowing How to Choose the Right Roast Is the Key to Brewing Coffee Like a Barista
Fun fact: Light roast is the most caffeinated, and dark is the least.
Let me guess: You have your ideal coffee order or brewing method down to a nonnegotiable science. From the brand of beans you buy to the grind size, temperature of the water, type of oat milk you pour in (and how foamy you like it) to the almost undetectable sprinkle of cinnamon you need to add at the end, it goes without saying that coffee is one food group where it's OK—even encouraged—to be highly particular (read: completely inflexible).
While working hard to nail the perfect bone dry cappuccino or cold brew concentrate makes perfect sense to me, no matter how you take your coffee, you're missing one of the biggest factors that affects the taste: The roasting process. Roasting brings out the aromas and flavors of the coffee bean, and how the beans are roasted will determine the true taste of your cup of coffee, as well as its caffeine content.
We spoke with Giorgio Milos, master barista and coffee expert for illy, to learn more about the roasting process, what the different types of roasts mean, and which roast pairs best with each brewing method.
Roasting (or Toasting) Coffee
Let's start with the basics: Coffee beans are actually not beans at all. Rather, they're seeds; green, hard, and barely aromatic. What we know as coffee beans—brown, fragile, and filled with strong, enticing aromas—come about from the roasting process. "I like to call it coffee toasting because that's really what it is," says Milos. "Similar to toasting a slice of bread, you're heating the coffee beans at the right temperature for just the right amount of time before the coffee beans can get burnt," says Milos. The end result should be a perfect shade of brown and deliciously fragrant coffee beans.
Knowing Your Roast Types
The most common coffee roasts are light, medium, and dark, and sometimes extra dark. Of course, many roasters have specialty names for their flavor roasts as well, such as Breakfast Roast or French Roast. Think of these as marketing terms rather than roast styles, because in general, the majority of roasts fit within the three categories of light, medium, and dark.
"There is very little industry standard when it comes to roasting, so each roast can be slightly different from another," says Milos. "You may need to try a few different varieties of roasts to find the one that matches your personal preference. As a starting point, I recommend looking for 100 percent Arabica coffee, which is higher quality with an inherently smoother taste."
“Light roasts have a mild taste similar to that of a toasted grain, with higher levels of acidity and slightly more caffeine than darker roasts, all because of the shortened roasting process,” says Milos. He suggests using a pour-over method when brewing a light roast coffee to give the beans more time in the water and create a “clean, light-bodied taste and subtle flavors.” You may find light roast also called Light City, Half City, or Cinnamon Roast, and it’s best to drink them hot, either as is or with a splash of your favorite milk or creamer.
Darker in color, medium roasts have a richer, more balanced flavor profile. “I find medium roast to be the most flavorful. I gravitate toward coffee blends like the Classico Coffee from illy because it's a well-balanced, complex coffee with a subtle natural sweetness, like that of a fine wine.” Medium roast is great for drip coffee brew, French press, or cold brew, where the long brew time will allow more of the flavor notes to come forward. “You can also use medium roast for espresso, thanks to its high-pressure extraction.” Other common names for medium roast are City, American, or Breakfast Roast.
“Dark roasts have a deep dark-chocolate coloring with a bold, toasted bread and cacao flavor profile, minimal acidity, and decreased caffeine,” says Milos. He explains that because of the longer roasting time, dark roast coffees are best for fast brewing methods such as an Aeropress or espresso where the water goes quickly through the grounds. “In Italy, I grew up drinking dark roast espresso and especially love a blend like this Ground Espresso Intenso Coffee, which has notes of chocolate and dried fruit, rather than something that can be too acidic or even burnt tasting,” Milos says. Also called French, Continental, New Orleans, Italian, or Espresso Roast, a dark roast coffee is perfect to brew into a latte, cappuccino, or mochaccino.
Choosing the right coffee roast is all about finding the flavors and aromas that fit your personal preference. Lighter roasts are light-bodied with delicate fruit and floral flavors and high acidity, medium roasts are full-bodied with balanced flavor and a subtle sweetness, and dark roasts are robust, with cocoa and caramel flavor notes and very low acidity. What's the roast for your perfect cup?