Coffee Basics: Light, Medium & Dark

Friday, 10 February, 2023

Getting To Know Your Coffee: An unofficial beginners guide to knowing the difference between light, medium and dark roasts.

by Ayanda Dlamini

I sometimes think the world of coffee is best understood as a type of language. Like learning a language, the world of coffee is complex, multifaceted and intimidating when put into practice. Likewise, understanding the coffee world requires lots of practice, to eventually build yourself up to a point where you grow confident in your ability to speak the language of coffee.

Having immersed myself in the world of coffee over the past few years, as a lover of coffee and later as a Barista. I have learnt that there are two types of people in this world. Unpretentious coffee drinkers, where coffee is just coffee and to them it all tastes the same. And then there are captivated coffee drinkers, where coffee is more elaborate and meaningful to them - some might go as far as calling them “coffee nerds”.

As an individual that falls under the “coffee nerd” category. I see how having an understanding of the coffee you're drinking may just enhance one’s already existing love for coffee, and I have also gained sight of how knowing more about the coffee you are drinking, can indeed awaken the love and curiosity for coffee - especially in those that maybe didn't really get the hype in the first place.

So, a good place to start when getting to know your coffee, is simply knowing that coffee can be roasted in 3 different ways. Light roasts, medium roasts and dark roasts.

Image credit: Ignite Coffee

When describing light roasts, I think of the experience of eating a fruit just before it's perfectly ripe. More development can be done, but tasting it at this point is a whole other flavour experience, often bringing out a lot of acidity. When roasted, light roasts experience less heat and therefore present a much paler shade of brown. Coffee drinks that seem to bring out the best qualities in a light roast where the flavours flourish, are in the form of a pour over or a cold brew. Its sweetness and bright flavours can serve as a very fulfilling and delicious experience, but some might argue a light roast struggles to achieve balance and a full bodied mouthfeel.

Medium roasts on the other hand, can be compared to a riper fruit. A fruit that is sweeter and contains a fuller body of flavours. Medium roasts are exposed to higher temperatures in the roasting process, presenting a brown that can be comparable to chocolate. Medium roasts are great in the sense that they are quite flexible and typically good in numerous forms of coffee based drinks. It really depends on your mood or preferred pairing with regards to a medium roasted coffee. Whether that be a Hario V60 that day, an espresso or a latte.

Which brings me to the last type of roast. Dark roasts to me are like dark chocolate. When roasted, the beans are exposed to a higher level of temperatures compared to the process of light and medium roasts. Producing beans that are rich, less sweet with an appropriate amount of lingering bitterness. Dark roasted beans are a deep brown colour, with an oily and shiny finish. This type of roast is stereotypically paired with milk based coffee drinks. The combination of smooth creamy milk and a dark roast espresso creates great balance and an iconic duo. Its richness in flavour isn't however limited to this pairing. Dark roasts on their own (depending on your preference) can be equally as delicious. So, never be afraid to explore your options.

As I had mentioned before, the world of coffee is best understood as a type of language. Understanding the coffee world requires lots of practice, so knowing what you know now, challenge yourself at your next cafe visit to ask questions like “what type of roast are you serving today?”. You very much risk coming across as a coffee nerd but it’ll definitely make your coffee drinking experience more memorable and meaningful, bringing you one step closer to understanding the language of coffee.

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