Interpreting the Info on your Coffee Bag (Part Six - Roast Level)

May 15, 2019

Are roast levels standard from roaster to roaster?

This is Part Six in a series about the information on your coffee bag and what the heck it all means.

Roast Level

Roast level describes how “cooked” the coffee is. Two main word scales are used to describe degree of roast:

  • Light, medium, and dark
  • City, City+, Full City, Full City+, Vienna

A useful comparison is the use of rare, medium rare, medium, medium-well, and well-done to describe how much a steak has been cooked.

Although objective definitions of coffee roast level do exist, the designations used by most coffee roasters do not conform to a universal standard. For example, one company’s “dark” roast may be more like another company’s “medium” roast.

To further complicate things, other terms are used to equate roast level and doneness. For example, breakfast usually means light, espresso and italian usually means dark, and french usually means very dark.

Generally, any roast level except the darkest roasts preserve unique flavor characteristics of the coffee bean. After a certain level of roast, more of these characteristics are “burned-off” and the coffee has a charred taste (referred to some as “nostalgic coffee;” think what grandpa drank. Other patterns related to roast level include higher acidity of light roasts versus dark roast, greater bitterness in dark roasts versus light roasts, greater sweetness at medium levels of roast, and greater body in darker roasts versus lighter roasts.

Roast level at a glance

What it is: A way of describing how “cooked” a coffee is

Why you might care: Roast level definitely influences the taste of coffee, but the descriptions used by roasters are rarely objective. Quality coffee roasters seek to roast each individual coffee in a way that showcases what’s unique about it. If you tend to seek out a certain degree of roast, step outside your comfort zone every once and awhile. You might be pleasantly surprised!

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