Medium Roast vs. Dark Roast Coffee, Explained

medium roast and dark roast beans compared

The warmth and comfort that come with the first cup of coffee in the morning cannot be matched. The simple joy of this roasted-bean drink has had people perfecting their cup of coffee for thousands of years. But, everyone has slightly different preferences when it comes to coffee, and those often revolve around the type of roast.

Understanding the differences between a medium and a dark roast can help you choose the cup that you will most enjoy. The differences in flavor, caffeine content, and appearance all play a part in finding the best cup of coffee. Once you see and taste a few of the differences between a medium and dark roast, choosing between them will be much less daunting. 

Choosing Between a Medium or Dark Roast

There are three main categories of roasts: light, medium, and dark. Each category depends on the internal temperature of the bean and if it has cracked when it is finished roasting. The roast of a bean affects many things, such as:

  • Acidity level
  • Flavor profile
  • Bitterness
  • Caffeine content
  • Appearance: color and visible oil
  • How many cracks the bean has

Medium Roast

Often considered the gateway to the specialty coffee world, a medium roast will give drinkers a delightful balance of the bean’s origin flavors and a roasted flavor without getting acidic or bitter. Medium roasts often have a tinge of sweetness to them; many people describe it as a molasses taste. This is paired with a lingering hint of the flavor of origin, such as blueberry or chocolate, making a medium roast one of the most popular types of coffee.

To achieve this balance of flavors in a medium roast, the coffee beans are heated to an internal temperature between 410 and 445 degrees Fahrenheit. This range allows the beans to darken a bit without becoming oily, giving them a medium brown color similar to a loaf of whole wheat bread.

As beans roast, they move from being grainy to become a smoother, more oily bean. This changes the taste, making the beans a bit more earthy tasting too. In addition, beans begin to crack as their internal temperature rises. A lightly roasted bean only cracked once, in comparison to a medium roast that will be approaching its second crack. 

Medium roasts are incredibly common. Popular names for a medium roast are:

  • Full-city Roast
  • Vienna Roast
  • After Dinner Roast

Dark Roast

In contrast, a dark roast of coffee will have a bold and deep aroma and flavor. Having spent more time in the heat, a dark roasted bean will usually have cracked twice. To ensure a proper dark roast, beans are heated until their internal temperature reaches at least 464 degrees, although some dark roasts go as high as 482 degrees Fahrenheit. 

All this roasting produces a dark and shiny bean, looking very similar to molasses. Most of the oil is now exposed, contributing to the more earthy taste and a heavily-toasted smell. Many coffee connoisseurs believe dark roasts taste burnt and prefer medium or lighter roasts where the flavor from where it was grown is more prevalent. However, this is a personal preference.

As dark roasts have a more intense flavor than the intricacies of lighter roasts, they are commonly used for espresso. Their usage in this context provides for the bold, almost velvety flavor that most coffee lovers seek in an espresso shot. A lighter roast will simply not stand up in a frothy milk drink as the bold, dark roast does. 

Also, depending on your coffee equipment, you may want to stay away from dark roasts entirely. The higher oil content can, over time, clog a machine. If you have an automatic grinder, the internal parts should be cleaned according to the manufacturer’s directions every few months. 

With this high oil content, you will also notice a slow, oily build up on your coffee mug, french press, or other coffee-holding implements as time goes on. But, don’t keep this from letting you enjoy a dark roast if it tastes the best to you. 

Common names for a dark roast are:

  • French Roast
  • Italian Roast
  • Continental Roast
  • Espresso Blend
  • Turkish Roast

Caffeine Levels in a Medium and Dark Roast

Like anything exposed to heat, coffee beans lose water and mass as they roast. This means a medium roast bean will be just a little heavier and denser than a dark roast bean.

This influences caffeine levels depending on how you measure your coffee. If you make a standard eight-ounce cup of coffee with two tablespoons of medium beans, you will get more caffeine than if you used two tablespoons of dark roasted beans. This is because, when the volume of beans is the same, there is simply more bean weight and thus more caffeine in the medium roast.

However, if you measure your beans to grind by weight, you will actually end up with a higher number of dark roast beans because they are lighter overall due to their longer roasting time. So, by weighing out your beans, a dark roast will actually have more caffeine. 

Choosing Between a Medium or Dark Roast

All this information can be a little overwhelming as you begin to understand the difference in coffee roasts. Consider heading to your local coffee shop and getting the smallest cup you can of both their medium and dark roast. Take a few minutes to notice the intricacies of each cup and see if you can taste specific flavors coming out.

As you taste more and more, you will begin to take note of more discrete flavors found in a medium roast. However, it is not uncommon for people to lean towards a dark roast for its intense taste that seemingly wakes you up just as much as caffeine does. Of course, depending on how you – or the coffee shop – measures, you may opt for the medium roast in hopes of a bigger caffeine boost. 

Whichever you choose, you are now on your way to enjoying the intricacies, health benefits, and other delicate differences between a medium and a dark roast. 

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