Coffee Roast Profiles: Behind the Scenes of Your Favorite Cup

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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Coffee roasters like to throw a lot of words around to describe their coffee roast profiles: Nordic style, Full City and French roast are just a few examples. But do these terms actually mean anything concrete?

Coffee roasters like to throw a lot of words around to describe their coffee roast profiles: Nordic style, Full City and French roast are just a few examples. But do these terms actually mean anything concrete?

The short answer is kind of yes, but mostly no.

Even calling a coffee a light roast or a dark roast coffee doesn’t offer much clarity. In many ways, the names attributed to popular coffee roast profiles are subjective definitions. What’s more, these definitions are based on a particular roaster’s preferences and their industry context.

Whether you roast coffee at home or want to better understand why you love the coffee you love, this guide is for you. Keep reading to learn more about the behind-the-scenes decision making and naming that goes into your favorite cup of joe.

What Is a Coffee Roast Profile?

A coffee roast profile is a result of the decisions that roasters make throughout the roasting process. Incidentally, roasters attribute certain terms to those decisions to categorize the roast profile of the coffee.

For example, coffee beans that are dropped (exit the roaster) during or just after first crack are often called light roasts. Meanwhile, coffee beans that spend enough time in the roaster to turn a dark brown color and exhibit an oily sheen are often called dark roasts.

Still, there is so much more to a coffee’s roast profile than its roasting time. Qualities like the final bean temperature and bean color are also used to categorize a roast profile under a specific roast level or name.

Small Coffee Roaster

What’s more, factors such as the batch size, drum size, drum speed, fan speed, charge temperature and the between batch protocol are also part of a coffee’s roast profile. Importantly, coffee roasters also change the gas input and airflow throughout a roast to speed it up or slow it down at certain points during the roasting process.

Does all this sound complicated? Well, it is. That’s why I’m not a fan of calling roast profiles by specific names like Full City or French roast. After all, those names don’t give you much context for what actually happened to the coffee while it was roasting.

Even calling a coffee a light roast isn’t clear. Roast levels are subjective; one roaster’s light roast could be another roaster’s medium roast.

And what’s with the business of calling a coffee a light-medium roast or medium-dark roast? These terms suggest that there are industry-wide agreed-upon parameters for different roast levels, and there just aren’t.

Common Coffee Roasting Terms

I’ll explain most of these when I get to them, but here’s a brief glossary of coffee roasting terms to hold you over:

  • Light, Medium and Dark roasts: A spectrum of roast levels, characterized by how toasty the coffee is.

  • First crack: An energetic release of steam and carbon dioxide from the center of the coffee beans, signifying the beginning of the development phase.

  • Underdeveloped roast: A roast that ended too soon, associated with vegetal flavors.

  • Baked coffee: A roasting defect caused by a stalled roast, associated with flat and cereal-like flavors.

  • Rate of Rise (ROR): Rate at which the coffee bean temperature is rising during the roasting process.

What Happens During Roasting?

Roasting coffee is no simple science. If you want to do it right, you need to understand all the steps and factors that contribute to the roasting process and a coffee’s roast profile.

If you want a super technical explanation, Scott Rao has a couple great books on the subject. Anyway, here’s a brief explanation of the roasting process.

Drying Phase

Brasilien Kaffeefarm 2022 Kaffeekirschen am Trocknen

This phase is a bit of a misnomer, because technically the drying phase never ends. 

Let’s start from the beginning. Green coffee generally has a moisture content of 8-12 percent, depending on the coffee variety, processing method and other factors. As coffee beans roast, their moisture content decreases because water trapped inside the cells evaporates or steams out.

This process begins as soon as the green coffee enters the roaster and continues throughout the entire roasting process.

That said, many roasters consider the drying phase to be over when the coffee beans start to turn yellow. This color change indicates that the Maillard reaction has begun.

Browning Phase

The Maillard reaction, which causes the browning phase, is responsible for many of the delicious flavors and aromas we love about coffee. It’s a series of chemical reactions that cause organic acids to break down, sugars to caramelize and the coffee beans to become more water soluble.

Just like when you caramelize onions and sear steaks, the Maillard reaction causes coffee beans to turn brown. It’s also what makes coffee taste sweet and toasty, like chocolate, roasted nuts and baked fruit.

You wouldn’t want to drink coffee that didn’t undergo the Maillard reaction, unless you’re a fan of white coffee.

First Crack

First crack is an unmistakable moment in the roasting process. Many new roasters wonder, “How will I know when first crack is happening?” Trust me, you’ll know.

Right before first crack, the bean temperature has a tendency to rise rapidly. If you have a home coffee roaster that can connect to a third party roasting software, you can see this happen. Good roasters know how to manage the roast to prevent this rapid increase in the Rate of Rise (ROR).

Then, first crack occurs. The coffee pops and cracks open as the increased bean temperature causes pressure to build up in the core of every coffee bean. This sounds a lot like popcorn kernels popping open, and in fact the process is very similar.

Measuring Cofee Beans

Water trapped inside the core erupts out in steam, causing the environmental temperature of the roaster to abruptly drop. If coffee roasters don’t know how to manage this moment, the ROR can stall or crash, leading to baked coffee that tastes flat.

However, good roasters know how to manage the bean temperature, gas input and airflow to ensure an even and steady roast. Still, every coffee reacts differently to the roasting process and some are harder to manage than others.

As you can see, first crack is a key moment in the roasting process. In some ways, how you prepare and react to it can make or break your roast.

For roasters that lean towards the light roast end of the roast level spectrum, first crack is like the grand finale. They’ll drop the coffee during or just after first crack, leading to a coffee that is light and bright. Others will continue developing the roast to bring out deeper, more caramelized flavors.

Development Phase

The development phase of the roasting process is characterized by how long the coffee beans stay in the roaster after first crack. Coffee roasters that prefer lighter roasts often keep the development phase to less than 20 percent the length of the total roast time.

In fact, some prefer a much shorter development time. Still, coffee roasters need to be wary of underdeveloped roasts, which taste vegetal and astringent.

Incidentally, the margin between an underdeveloped coffee and a bright, light roast is razor-thin. An additional half a degree or five seconds of development can make a huge difference in the flavor of the coffee.

Roasting Fresh Coffee

Coffee roasters also need to be wary of a “flick” in the ROR, or a rapid increase in the bean temperature, after first crack. A flick in the ROR is correlated with toasty flavors and a lack of sweetness in the final cup, which are generally not sought-after qualities in a light roast. 

Naturally, you can only witness a flick if you use a third party roasting software that collects data from temperature probes in the roaster. Incidentally, the further a roast progresses into the development phase, the darker it is. The coffee beans become larger in volume but smaller in mass, as the cell walls break down and sugars caramelize.

During the development phase, coffee beans start to take on a roasted and caramelized flavor profile, gaining body and depth.

Still, where a coffee stops being a light roast and becomes a medium roast, or when it becomes a dark roast is all up for debate.

Some coffee roasters wouldn’t even think to develop a coffee past second crack, while others claim that a coffee isn’t a dark roast until after second crack, when the beans are carbonized, oily and smoky.

How Do Roasters Develop a Coffee Roast Profile?

Though all roasts go through the same general steps, every coffee has its own roast profile.

After all, every coffee is unique. Many factors shape how coffee beans react to the roasting process:

For example, a very dense washed coffee that was grown at high elevation can withstand high heat from the beginning of the roast.

On the other hand, a softer natural processed coffee that was grown at lower elevation is at risk of scorching if it’s hit with high heat from the start.

What’s more, a coffee roaster’s preferences and specific roasting machine dictate how they will choose to roast a coffee. Every coffee roaster has their own roasting philosophy, informed by science and their experiences as roasters, baristas and coffee drinkers. Incidentally, the roasting machine and a roaster’s goals impacts roast profiles, too.

For instance, a home roaster with a small electric roaster is going to craft different roast profiles than a production roaster in charge of roasting 400 pounds (181 kilograms) of coffee each day on a large gas-powered roaster.

Caffeine and Coffee Roast Profile

Coffee Caffeine Formula

Allow me to dispel this myth here and now: the roasting process has a negligible effect on the final caffeine content of your cup. Some people claim that a light roast is significantly more caffeinated than a dark roast, but that’s not quite true.

While it’s true that the chemical compounds in coffee beans break down as they roast, in terms of caffeine there isn’t a huge difference between light roasts and dark roasts. In fact, the coffee variety and its growing conditions has a bigger impact on its caffeine content.

In my opinion, we should all just drink the coffee that we like to drink. If you’re worried about your caffeine intake, consider switching to a decaffeinated coffee, a half-caff blend or just reduce your coffee consumption.

On the other hand, if you want to kick-start your day with a huge dose of caffeine, you can seek out some specialty Robusta or down a few shots of espresso.

Honestly, I’m hesitant to even write this section. As I said, the names of different coffee roast profiles don’t give much context for the flavor or character of the coffee. Plus, the names are based on opinions and preferences, anyway.

Still, it can be useful to have a little bit of knowledge in your coffee toolkit for the next time you’re faced with these terms. With that in mind, I’ll give you a brief rundown on some of the most popular coffee roast profiles.

Just remember that these are my definitions, and another coffee professional will have their own set of definitions.

Very Light Roasts

Let’s start with a Nordic roast, one of the lightest roasts on the spectrum. Nordic roasts were popularized in Scandinavian countries and are now common among third-wave specialty roasters. A Nordic roast is characterized by a very short roasting time with little development time.

Often, Nordic roasts are dropped during or just after first crack. These coffees have a very light, tea-like body with pronounced acidity.

Next up is a Cinnamon roast, which is also dropped just after first crack. A Cinnamon roast has a vibrant acidity and a light body.

Light to Medium Roasts

Roasting Kopi Luwak Coffee Beans

After a Cinnamon roast is a City roast, which is developed a bit more than a Nordic or Cinnamon roast. City roasts are dropped after first crack, and are commonly used for espresso in specialty shops.

Again, they have a light to medium body with lots of acidity, but are starting to get more sweet and deeper notes. Some roasters say a City roast is a medium roast, but others say it’s a light roasted coffee. Who’s to say?

Medium to Dark Roasts

A Full City roast is roasted a bit longer than a City roast. Full Cities are also popular among third wave roasters for use in their espresso grinders. Some roasters would call a Full City a dark roast, while others would call it a medium roast. This coffee roast profile tends to be sweet and toasted with a full body and medium to low acidity.

You’ll recognize a Vienna Roast if you’re a Starbucks person, though other roasters use this term as well. This should be a familiar dynamic by now: some roasters consider a Vienna Roast a medium roast, while others consider it a dark roast. Again, it all depends on your context and preferences.

A Vienna roast often has a full body and deep chocolate and toasted notes, with low acidity and a bittersweet finish.

Very Dark Roasts

Finally, we’ve got the French roast and Italian roast.

I’m grouping these together because they’re very similar, since they are generally dropped after second crack. Coffee beans that have undergone a very dark coffee roast profile are oily and brittle, and either dark brown or black in color. They taste smoky and carbonized, with a very bitter flavor and a light body.

Final Thoughts

Coffee Tasting at Home Important Terms

I bet if you were to show this article to another coffee professional, especially a roaster, they’d likely find a lot to disagree with.

As I mentioned time and again, this whole business of coffee roast profiles and roast levels is very subjective. After all, some can’t stand acidic and tea-like coffee roast profiles, while others are appalled by French roasts.

We coffee people, like everyone else, are an opinionated bunch. All we can do is drink the coffee we love and be open to learning from each other!

What’s your favorite coffee profile? Do any of these terms and definitions surprise you? Let’s discuss in the comments!

Coffee Roast Profiles FAQ

Coffee roast profiles are the result of the decisions a roaster makes during the roast process. Factors include gas input, fan speed, charge temperature, air flow and more.

If you really wanted to break down coffee roast profiles into categories, I’d say there are three types: light, medium and dark roasts. But there’s so much more to it!

This all depends on your preference. Naturally, if you love dark roasts, you’ll likely think a dark roast is the best type of roast profile. Personally, I favor a very light roast.

Bean temperature, bean color and roasting time all shape a coffee roast profile.

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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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