October 07, 2022

The Definitive, Comprehensive, All-in-One Guide to Coffee Roast Levels

Read this guide to sound smarter when you order coffee at brunch.

“What kind of coffee comes from a cat’s butt?” The answer, my curious friend, is Kopi Luwak. Kopi Luwak is very expensive, mostly produced in Indonesia, and no, we don’t have any on our menu. We get asked this question a lot, but not nearly as much as we get asked about roast level.

How often have you been asked if you want the dark roast coffee or the light roast coffee ? It’s no wonder coffee lovers like you are curious about roast level. It’s also become an area where roasters are taking some creative liberties, using dozens of different words and phrases to describe their wares (think full-city roast, nordic roast, blonde roast, and more.) Frankly, it’s gotten confusing, even to the pros!

So, let’s explore the different properties in each type of roast, and how you can pick the right roast for you!

Let’s start with how coffee is roasted

Don’t overthink it, the coffee roasting process goes about how it sounds. We add raw coffee beans to a hot roasting drum, then roast it for roughly 10-13 minutes, depending on the roast level we’re looking for. Shorter roasts finish at a lower temperature and are considered light roasts. Longer roasts finish at a higher temperature and are considered dark roasts. Anything in between is considered a medium roast.

Coffee beans contain many complex sugars that ‘caramelize’ when heated. The longer and hotter these sugars are heated, the more caramelized they become and the darker the appearance of the beans. With the darkest roasts, the sugar becomes so caramelized that it actually turns to carbon.

Here are some (EXTREMELY OVERLY GENERALIZED) flavor properties of each type of roast:

Light Roast: Less caramelization means you will taste the individual nuances of the coffee itself more than sugary flavors like caramel or toffee. Typically the most acidic of the roast levels. Some examples of Light Roast Coffee on our menu include Schweik’s Blend and Breakfast Blend.

Medium Roast: Deeper caramelization creates more rounded flavors like caramel, toffee or graham cracker. Acidity is still present but somewhat subdued compared to light roast coffees. Some examples of Medium Roast Coffee on our menu include La Cordillera and Mocha Java Blend.

Dark Roast: Deeper caramelization still means flavors more like molasses and dark chocolate than toffee or honey. Acidity is muted nearly completely in dark roast. Some examples of Dark Roast Coffee on our menu include Spice Island and Skyway Blend FTO.

Darkest roast: In our darkest roasts, sugars turn to very dark, bittersweet chocolate or carbon. These flavors are intense. Acidity is almost zero. Some examples of Darkest Roast Coffee on our menu include French Roast, Project X, and Riverfront Espresso FTO.

The definitions of different roasts

Befuzzlingly, there is no set definition for each type of roast. Every individual roaster defines light roast, medium roast, and dark roast in their own way. One roaster’s medium roast will be another’s dark roast.

Some roasters eschew these categories completely, opting for flavor notes instead of roast level. However, at Metropolis we believe that roast level is one of the most accessible ways that our customers find the coffee they love, so we not only use these labels but try to be very specific and objective about their use.

We define light roast, medium roast, and dark roast using a nifty measuring tool called a Laser Color Analyzer. This device shoots laser beams into roasted coffee grounds, then gives a numerical reading for the roast level. Each of our coffees has a level that we roast too, and each level fits into the light, medium, or spark roast category.

It’s worth noting that there are ranges within the categories. For example, there are dark roast coffees that are on the lighter end, like our Spice Island Blend or Fair Trade and Organic Coffee Skyway Blend. Then there are the dark roast coffees on the darker end of dark roast, like French Roast or Cold Brew Blend. No matter what type of roast you like, you’ll have multiple different coffees to explore within your favorite roast category.


How does roast level affect caffeine levels?

Caffeine addicts coffee lovers always wanna know what kind of roast has the most caffeine and difficult people caffeine sensitive folk always wanna know what kind of roast has the least. Apparently, this is one of the most important questions to coffee drinkers.

tl;dr - bean for bean, light roast coffee and dark roast coffee have the same amount of caffeine. HOWEVER, a batch of dark roast coffee will have more caffeine than a batch of light roast. Weird right? Even though each bean has the same amount of caffeine, the batch of dark roast uses more beans than light, so more caffeine. Why more beans? The darker you roast, the more moisture is roasted out of the bean. Each bean thus weighs less, so it takes more beans to make a batch of the same size. #math.

Why do we Choose to a Particular Roast Level for a Particular Bean?

Light roast
There are certain coffees that we buy for certain flavors that would just be lost in a dark roast. A good example is Schweik’s Blend. This Blend is made from delicate coffees from East Africa. These coffees taste like jasmine, tangerine, and lemon. If we roast If we were to roast them any darker, these nuances would give way to a one-note taste of caramelized sugar.

Dark roast
There are some coffee beans that taste best dark, like our Cold Brew Blend. Because of the cold brew process, we like to use coffees from Brazil, then roast them dark to create a deep and rich milk-chocolate flavor profile with zero acidity and heavy body.

Medium roast
Medium is the goldilocks roast category to Metropolis. We love medium roast coffees because they are so darn approachable. We usually recommend medium roast coffee to people who are serving coffee to a wide range of people. These are great coffees if you want to just enjoy your coffee without thinking too long and hard about it.

If you are opening a hotel, and you need coffee to put in the lobby, we recommend a medium roast coffee like our La Cordillera Blend. Not too complicated and not too simple. Just smooth, sweet, and mellow.

Is French Roast different?

French Roast Blend, one of our darkest roast coffees, is a classic. Legend has it that many years ago, the French imported coffee from their West African Colonies such as Senegal and Gabon. The coffees were grown at low altitude and considered fairly low in quality so the French would roast them very very dark to cover up the imperfections. However, French Roast has become one of the most popular blends in the world, so the joke’s on them!

Even more complicated names for roast levels? Yes please!

City Convention
Some roasters use a system where the roast level is broken down into City, Full City, and Full City Plus. In this system, a light roast is equivalent to City. Full City is more like a medium roast. Full City Plus is on the darker side of a medium up to and including dark roast.

We find this naming convention pretty confusing, but if you run into it, now you know.

Geographical Conventions
There are many names for roast level based on geography.
Italian Roast = Dark (and Smoky) Roast Coffee
Vienna Roast = Medium Dark Roast Coffee
Scandinavian (AKA Nordic) Roast - Very Light Roast Coffee

Blonde Roast Coffee
Blonde roast coffee was originally a super duper light roast coffee. Nowadays, since Starbucks introduced Blonde Roast on their menu, it’s more akin to a regular light roast treatment.

Ok, enough with the Metro-Splaining. Cut to the chase and tell me what to order!

All in all, if you like bold and strong coffee with low acidity, try a dark roast brew. If you like an easy-going cup that keeps you pointed in the right direction, go with a medium roast. If you like an adventurous cup that’s brighter and more nuanced, try the light roast brew.

Luckily for you, Metro-friend, we break all our coffees down into roast level on our menu or, take our quiz to find just the right roast for your face.

Happy Brewing!

<3 Metropolis Coffee Company