Perspectives on light, medium and dark roasts

Speciality coffee has, to some extent, run away from darker roasts, as far and fast as possible towards much lighter roasts. Although I love a good light roast, I think there are many instances when this can do more harm than good. I would like to encourage everyone to allow the pendulum swing back.

Do I love a good light roast? You bet. But too often coffees with a light roast would suit something with a little more development. Or, I’m sampling coffees that taste like cereal, vegetables and paper. In both instances, the roaster hasn’t achieved what they set out to do, that being, to create the most delicious coffee possible.

A really good light roast will be easy to brew and highlight the best aspects of that particular coffee.

There are many roasters out there that are executing incredible light roasts. They are usually most successful when they are also brewed by the roaster or roasting company. In these cases, they are in touch with their equipment and water and have learned how to tease out the best in each coffee, and will align the outcome of testing using that same equipment and water to how they adjust their roasts. In the end, they have a very specific roast tailored for that moment and as a customer, you can have a truly amazing experience.

Unfortunately, I have heard from many people at markets and events that they’ve struggled to brew a nice cup of coffee after buying a light roast from a professional roaster. These professional roasters are often evaluating their roasts using commercial equipment like EK43 grinders, complex filtered water, etc. Home equipment can’t match commercial equipment and if everything doesn’t go well for the end consumer, there isn’t a lot of room for error and the coffee won’t match their experience at the cafe. It’s a small sweet spot.

Another reason for the poor results is if the roaster “misses” a roast, or the roast doesn’t go exactly as well as planned. And because the window for a good light roast is so small, it can often result in a coffee that is under-roasted or underdeveloped. When this happens, the sweetness is reduced, the bad acidity is heightened and much of that unique character that was supposed to be highlighted is left behind.

A good medium roast will highlight the unique flavours within a coffee and have great body and sweetness. And that roast flavour begins to creep in.

As speciality coffee has grown in popularity it has become more and more focused on notes like “floral”, “grapefruit”, “clementine”, etc., and possibly to the expense of good roast development. These tasting notes do help set speciality coffees apart from commercial coffees. Only the best coffees will taste like, for example, grapefruit and jasmine flowers. And the easiest way to preserve, or highlight, these delicate notes and set that coffee apart from the “second wave” is to roast light.

But it’s possible that this has gone too far, and now it’s almost become unnatural to say “dark roast” or “medium dark”. However, we shouldn’t be scared to go beyond light. There is a huge amount of potential for a delicious coffee that is true to its origin and has some roast flavour. Also, my experience is that medium roasts are generally much more forgiving, both to roast and to brew. The “sweet spot” is larger.

I believe a lot of coffees offer more when taken beyond light. More depth, more character, more balance and more consistency. And I’m not suggesting this just for coffees that have been thought of as darker roast coffees, such as Brazilian or Indonesian coffees, for example.

I’m referring to coffees that have acidity and florals and more, as well. With a little more development, sometimes these coffees can explode with flavour and complexity. And there may be roast flavours in there too, but it works.

If the coffee is quality to begin with, a good medium roast will highlight how amazing it really is. And the best part is that it usually provides the home brewer more forgiveness in brewing so they can enjoy that coffee more often.
In addition, I believe some coffees just don’t suit a light roast. The inherent structure of the coffees tactile and flavour profile lend itself to a more developed roast. We shouldn’t force a coffee into a light roast if it just won’t taste good there.