dark vs medium roast
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Medium vs Dark Roast: What’s the Difference?

You don’t have to limit your palate to only one type of roast level.

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Venus Pino

Q Grader & Former QC Supervisor in the coffee industry

Coffee has a history of being dark roasted. However, as the specialty coffee scene emerged during the last 15 years, the pendulum swung the other way. It suddenly became trendy to roast lighter.

Because of the popularity of light and dark roasts, coffee drinkers might think it’s an either-or situation. But there’s a middle roast that may not get enough attention or praise from the public: the medium roast. 

Because it’s also a darker brown color, some might confuse the medium roast with a dark roast. So let’s dig into this a little bit and define the line between the two.

What Does Roasting Coffee Do?

First, let’s take a look at the process that creates both medium and dark roasts: roasting.

We can think of roasting as the journey taken by the green coffee bean as it transforms into the aromatic roasted coffee bean. This journey is led by the roastmaster.

Coffee starts as a green seed inside the coffee cherry. They are not beans (that’s just a misnomer) but rather seeds.

As you can probably imagine, these seeds are relatively dense. Roastmasters need to make sure the coffee beans (aka seeds) are roasted enough to be ready for brewing. That’s the practical side. 

However, of course, it’s a bonus if the coffee is also delicious; that’s where it becomes an art. 

The roasting process will create soluble compounds that give the coffee its signature taste and flavor. There will be visible, and smellable changes in the coffee beans as the roast cycle continues. We can group the most obvious ones into four stages:

  • Drying. The raw green beans have entered the roasting machine. Soon the moisture inside the beans will begin to vaporize as it absorbs heat. The grayish-green shade of the coffee bean lightens as they dry up.
  • Yellowing. Here the coffee beans take on different shades of yellow: pale, bright, tan, and golden. The scent of cut grass and hay will come to mind. This will then change into the familiar aromatics of the browning stage.
  • Browning. The beans have now considerably browned. 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.

First 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. 

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.

Reaching First Crack is a milestone. You can stop the roast here, if you want a very light roast. 

Second Crack

If the coffee beans continue to roast, they’ll enter another round of popping—the Second Crack. The bean structure will start to fracture because of high temperatures. The crack will be heard as quieter snaps.

Bean color changes will speed up as Second Crack continues. Oils inside the coffee bean will start surfacing, lending a glossy appearance.

Roast cycles that go this long are often stopped before Second Crack finishes.

The Importance of Freshness & Bean Quality

Freshness is a crucial factor in the food industry. From the ingredients to the final product, it’s only logical to think that “the fresher, the better.”

The raw, unroasted form of coffee called green beans is also bound by its length of freshness.

Green beans are sturdier than their roasted counterpart and will remain fresher for longer. Good storage practices are the key here. No one wants their cup of coffee to taste like burlap. This points to green beans stored too long under sub-optimal storage conditions.

The fresher the green beans, the lesser distractions there will be in your cup. On top of that, the more you can enjoy the flavors roasting has brought out in the coffee.

There’s a caveat to this: fresh will only taste as good as its level of quality. The two usually go hand in hand, but we’ve all come across technically fresh food products with inferior quality.

Green bean quality is a reflection of its farming and processing practices. By choosing higher-quality beans, we support and encourage coffee producers to continue what they’re doing.

A medium and dark roast side by side. Notice the how shiny the dark roast is. (Photo: Noah Nighswonger)

In roasting, this also means the bean flavor will articulate itself better. All the roastmaster has to do is guide it to completion. 

The roast level plays a role here. A medium roast will often do these premium beans justice more than a dark roast. Who would want to burn off the flavors of a bean that was painstakingly grown and processed?

No amount of roasting skill or brewing technique will transform poor-quality beans into a superb cup of coffee. It will be drinkable at best, but nothing more.

Once coffee beans are roasted, the window of freshness will be shorter. But coffee fresh off the roasting machine doesn’t taste as good as one rested for several days. From experience, I would only want to taste a fresh batch for quality control purposes.

The roast date is only helpful in letting you know how long you need to rest and degas your coffee. Don’t be too attached to it. You still have to consider the roast level and your preferred brewing method. 

If you want to preserve as much flavor as possible, try looking more into the best packaging and storage practices rather than obsessing over roast dates.

Flavor Differences Between Medium and Dark Roast

Medium roasts span a broad spectrum between light and dark roasts. This means it can take on some attributes of either extreme, depending on where the roast is stopped. 

Medium Roast:

  • Medium acidity and medium bitterness
  • More pronounced sweetness
  • Mouthfeel can be juicy to syrupy
  • Exhibits the origin characteristics mixed with roast flavors

Dark Roast:

  • Lower acidity and higher bitterness
  • Sweetness is usually mixed in with bitterness
  • Mouthfeel can be heavier but will thin out in very dark roasts
  • Displays more roast characteristics 

Because of the more balanced profile of medium roasts, they lend themselves well to several brew methods like drip, press, or espresso. Dark roasts are more used in espresso-based drinks or as standalone drinks.

Conclusion

A medium roast may be a middle-of-the-road option, but it is in no way a downgrade from a light or dark roast. Some coffee lovers might be chasing new flavors in the extremes too much that they forget how medium roasts reveal a lot of complexity too.

A medium roast is a good start for coffee newbies. Some even consider it the gateway into the specialty coffee world. Dark roasts can be too much for some people, but those who do take a liking to it become longtime admirers.

You don’t have to limit your palate to only one type of roast level. You may find that you enjoy different roasts for different occasions. Explore and experiment!


FAQ

Is a dark roast more bitter?

Yes, dark roasts are likely to be higher in bitterness than other roast levels. Prolonging the roast in high temperatures produces more bitter compounds.

Which roast of coffee is healthiest?

Coffee—at any roast—will offer the health benefits of caffeine and its antioxidant properties. Light and dark roasts have their advantages, but medium roasts may offer the best of both worlds.

Should you grind dark or medium roasts for an espresso? 

Both dark and medium roasts can taste great as espresso, although dark roasts are more common in big chains such as Starbucks. Try to experiment with both and see which one you like best.