Roasting may seem complicated. There are many different roast types, all with technical and intimidating sounding names.
Who can blame the average consumer if they get confused?
Still, having an overview of roast types can be helpful regardless of your interest level.
In this article, we’ll talk about different roast levels along with their common market names.
Are you curious about coffee flavors? Do you want to develop an appreciation for coffee roasting? Or do you simply want to avoid confusion when buying coffee?
Then buckle up because we’re about to lay it all out for you in plain English.
Different Roast Degrees
Here’s a quick run-through of the popular roast types with their Agtron reading (a numerical value of a coffee roast’s lightness or darkness).
Variations and overlaps are common, so treat this as a rough guide rather than a hard-and-fast rule:
- Cinnamon. A term assigned to light roasts. Agtron values can range from 75-95. This roast type results from stopping the roast at the start of First Crack. You can expect the coffee’s origin flavors to come out with higher acidity and light mouthfeel. This roast type can be best enjoyed using filter brew methods like pour-over.
- City. This is under the medium roast spectrum but leaning more towards light. It will fall under a 65-75 Agtron reading. This roast type results when roasting stops as First Crack finishes. Origin flavors dominate the cup, acidity is tempered by a more complex sweetness, and the mouthfeel will be juicier. This will also taste good as a drip or filter coffee.
- Full City. This can still be a medium roast but leaning more towards dark. Agtron reading can range from 50-55. Roasting is stopped when the coffee beans have cleared First Crack and are now at the edge of entering Second Crack. The more complex origin flavors are muted and overtaken by chocolate and dark caramel tones, with lower acidity and syrupy mouthfeel. You can try this roast type on a French press, a drip coffeemaker, or an espresso machine.
- Full City+. Resembles Full City but has more or less crossed over to the dark side. Agtron values are from 45-50. As coffee enters Second Crack, roasting stops. Flavors resemble Full City but with a heavier mouthfeel. This will suit pressure-type brew methods like espresso or Moka pot.
- Vienna. This term is for dark roast coffees (although not yet the darkest). The Agtron reading is between 35-45. Several more seconds into Second Crack has passed before roasting stops. Roasty flavors have become dominant in the cup, with lowered acidity and a lingering bittersweet taste. Brewing this roast type as espresso will yield good results.
- French. This term is often reserved for the darkest roast level. Other European names are also used interchangeably. It has the lowest Agtron range of 25-35. The roasting stops as coffee progress deep into Second Crack. Origin flavors are gone, and the cup is dominated by roasty, smoky, and ashy notes. It also has the risk of tasting burnt and carbony. It has very low acidity and a high bitterness that can be harsh. The mouthfeel is also lighter now. This will often be brewed as an espresso or used as a base for other coffee drinks.
What Does Roasting Coffee Do?
All types of roasting have some elements and phases in common.
We can think of roasting as the equivalent of cooking in the world of coffee. Or you could see it as alchemy.
Regardless, this process transforms the plain green coffee beans into aromatic roasted beans. It requires heat, air, and movement over a specific length of time.
There will be color and odor changes in the coffee beans throughout the roast cycle. We can group the most obvious ones into four stages:
- Drying. The raw green beans have entered the roasting machine. The moisture inside the beans will soon begin to vaporize as it absorbs heat. The grayish-green shade of the coffee bean lightens as drying continues.
- Yellowing. The coffee beans will move through different shades of yellow: pale, bright, tan, and golden. The smell of cut grass and hay will fill the air. This will then change into the familiar aromatics of the browning stage.
- Browning. The beans now have a brown shade. The color and smell resemble freshly baked bread. Most of the moisture has evaporated, and many chemical reactions have begun. We’re now halfway through the roast cycle.
- Development. Different chemical reactions are simultaneously occurring at this stage. Any roast adjustments will impact the coffee flavor.
Stopping the roast anywhere along the development stage will determine its roast level. There are two audible milestones to look out for: the first crack and the second crack.
As the temperature climbs, the bready, toasty aromas become more sugary. Pressure builds up inside the beans and is finally released in an event known as the First Crack.
When you reach the beginning of First Crack, the coffee is at a stage where the roasting could theoretically be stopped (that is, if you like a super light roast!)
The forceful escape of gases and energy causes a loud popping noise (much like popcorn). The lively popping will go on for a few minutes before it quiets down again.
If the coffee beans continue to roast, they’ll enter another round of popping—the Second Crack. The bean structure will begin to fracture because of high temperatures. The crack will be heard as quieter snaps (much like dried twigs).
Bean color will darken much faster during Second Crack. Oils inside the coffee bean will start surfacing and lend it a glossy appearance.
Roast cycles that go this long are often stopped before Second Crack finishes.
What’s so special about Full City?
Some roastmasters find a Full City roast the most expressive in coffee flavor. It retains the origin characteristics and creates layers of flavor with the caramelly notes produced from roasting.
Some baristas think Full City lends itself well to more brewing methods than other roast types.
Why don’t we call it Light, Medium, or Dark?
Cinnamon, Full City, French—where did these fancy names come from? First of all, these names are not standardized in the coffee industry. Some of them are even used interchangeably, causing further confusion.
Nonetheless, their names do have a reason behind them:
- Cinnamon – based on how the bean color resembles the color of actual cinnamon
- City – refers to the lighter roasting style practiced in New York City; Full City is a more developed City
- Viennese, French, Italian, and Spanish roasts – these national names allude to the popularity of dark roasts in these European countries
In my experience, this kind of terminology is rarely used in a professional setting. Too much variation will only create quality control issues.
It would be more common for coffee professionals to use terms like light, medium-light, medium-dark, and dark. They also use Agtron machines to get numerical values corresponding to those roast levels.
But for the average consumer, Agtron numbers wouldn’t be all that interesting or helpful. There’s a reason the fancy names of coffee roasts are still prevalent. If the naming helps you navigate your way around the coffee world, then it has done its job.
If you read this article in full, you may be more curious than the casual coffee drinker.
Roast level is only another feature of the coffee experience that you can unlock. Other things can still affect the flavor of coffee, like bean quality and brewing techniques.
Roasting plays a significant role in coffee’s flavor development. Gaining an appreciation for it will only enhance your experience.
Read More: How to Brew Coffee According to Roast Level
Typically, light roasts will have high amounts of acidity. Coffee beans roasted at shorter times and lower temperatures will preserve acidity.
Sometimes these roasts are also referred to as Scandinavian roasts or cinnamon. If you’re cautious of acidity, then steer clear of these names.
French roast—being the darkest level—will also be the most bitter. Longer roast time and higher temperature will degrade coffee’s chlorogenic acids into its bitter-tasting components.
All roast types are going to have the same level of caffeine. Coffee roasting temperatures (even for the darkest roasts) are not high enough to break down caffeine.
Roast levels exist to explore and experiment with a coffee’s flavor potential. Some might find the sweet spot in a Full City; others will taste best with a Cinnamon roast. Ultimately, the best coffee roast is whichever makes the coffee most memorable to you.