Coffee 101: Which Roast is for You?

Source: Mike Clarke/Getty Images

Source: Mike Clarke/Getty Images

If you’ve ever held up the line at a Starbucks, you know how important it is to have your coffee facts straight before you reach the barista.

But who can really blame you? Mellow, light, bold, balanced, dark, French, Italian, Espresso, Colombian — with all these kinds of coffee roasts, it’s tough to keep the flavors straight. It’s amazing how coffee culture continues to be so prevalent (even beloved), yet still so few of us seem to understand the flavors behind it. Many of us may know our roast preference by name, but do we really know the subtleties of what makes a “dark” a dark?

Below is our guide to the basics of what characterizes each roast. You may be surprised!

Cultivation: Where your beans begin

As consumers we’re accustomed to seeing brown coffee beans, we are typically exposed to the beans following the roasting process. But long before they reach our cup, those same beans are cultivated in the equatorial and subtropical climates found in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, according to the Coffee Research Institute.

Raw coffee beans are actually soft and spongy seeds, and appear green in color prior to roasting. In this state, beans “can be kept without loss of quality or taste,” and for this reason are generally shipped raw, being roasted nearer to distribution for maximum freshness. According to the National Coffee Association USA (NCAUSA), roasting is “what turns coffee into the fragrant, dark brown beans with which we are most familiar … once roasted, however, they should be used as quickly as possible before the fresh roast flavor begins to diminish.”