A Primer on Coffee Roast Levels

If you’re confused about how to discuss or interpret coffee roast levels, you’re not alone. In fact, there are so many competing scales and lists of terminology that some experts are left shaking their heads. And let’s not even get started (yet) on regional roasting preferences, or why “espresso roast” coffee doesn’t actually even exist, or any number of other related issues. We use a very simple system to classify roast levels for the coffees we sell: light, light/medium, medium, medium/dark, and dark. Here’s a primer.

Why Roast Level Matters

As green coffee beans roast, they undergo a series of chemical changes. Each of these changes creates and/or destroys different flavor compounds. Because of this, the roast level has a profound influence on flavor in your coffee cup. Some roast effects are very predictable and hold true across all varieties of coffee, while others are more bean-dependent. In general, though, you can expect the following:

1. Light-roasted coffees have light body and may feature sour notes, but this roast level can be ideal for a coffee with bright acidity and compensating sweetness. Often called Cinnamon, Half City or New England roast, it’s a popular target for breakfast coffee.

2. At the light/medium roast level, often called City roast, most coffees have fully developed flavor and body, but little caramelization to add sweetness to the cup. This is a preferred roast for many fruity, bright coffees, particularly Kenya, Ethiopian, Guatemalan and other South American coffees. Many coffee roasters will tell you that this is the level where a coffee is most truly itself, and what you taste in the cup is the untainted essence of the coffee. If you really want to taste the difference between two varieties of coffee, light/medium is often the roast level that lets the flavors and qualities shine through best.

3. A medium roast distinguishes itself from light/medium in the cup with additional sweetness and balanced acidity but does not veer into “roasty” territory.

4. Medium/dark roasts, often called Full City+, tend to have fuller body and often exhibit chocolate and caramel notes that dominate any underlying fruitiness or other subtleties. This roast level tends to stand up well to milk, which accounts for its popularity in milk-based espresso drinks.

5. Dark roasts, including those referred to as Continental roast or French roast, are very dark brown and oily. At this roast level, delicate flavor nuances have been burned away, and coffees often take on a burnt, coal-like taste that a lot of coffee drinkers nevertheless enjoy. Dark roasts are a traditional favorite for after-dinner coffees, and are also well-suited to milk-based espresso drinks. Many coffee aficionados find dark roasts too dark, and contend that by the time a coffee bean reaches this roast level there is little of the coffee’s individual flavor left to enjoy.

6. Very dark roasts, like Italian and Spanish, tend to be bitter, flat and have very strong charcoal or smoky flavors. No specialty roaster will roast coffee this dark (on purpose, at least), as it essentially destroys any individual character the beans possess.

Rough Guide to Coffee Roast Levels and Names


Cinnamon, Half City, New England

Light brown, dry surface; first crack not fully complete


American, Breakfast, Brown, City

Milk chocolate color, no visible oils; first crack fully complete


City+, Full City

Past first crack with a more even bean surface developing


Full City, Full City+

Medium-dark brown, some oils visible; on the verge of second crack


Continental, “Espresso,” European, French, New Orleans, Vienna

Oils coating the bean surface; second crack fully underway

Very Dark   (not sold here)

Full French, Italian, Spanish

Nearly black in color, very oily, fully carbonized

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