There are three main ‘levels’ that coffee can be roasted to; Light, Medium and Dark. For a very general guide – light will be on the sweeter/sour side, dark roasted will more on the bitter side and a medium roast unsurprisingly will be in the middle. Unless you like the sort of flavours that kick you in the teeth, you should stay away from Dark Roasted coffee. Dark roast is the coffee equivalent of a Well-Well-Well-Done steak. Dark roasts are still ubiquitous in coffees from USA and Europe and Asia although the shift to medium roast is happening slowly.
The variety that was most easily accessible up until about the mid-2000s was Robusta and this is the reason for the popularity of dark roasts. Robusta is, as the name suggests, a robust plant that will grow just about anywhere in the world, has a lot of caffeine, will produce a lot of cherries, and is resistant to a lot of diseases and pests. The trade-off, however, is that it tastes very bitter and unpleasant.
In the last couple of decades, we discovered that another variety called Arabica tastes so much smoother and has a vast range of natural flavour profiles. Arabica now accounts for 60% of the world’s production, but obviously, there are still varying degrees of quality produced.
Medium roasted coffee is kind of like the All-rounder of coffee roasts. It’s absolutely perfect for espresso-based drinks but also for other brewing methods such as plunger, filter, cold drip etc. While some people may prefer to make their filter coffee using light-roasted coffee, unless you’re specifically after exact flavours in a filter coffee without milk, medium roasted coffee will still be great. The natural characteristics of coffee shine through with a medium roast, and you can experience a myriad of different flavours that you won’t find in a darker roast.
Light Roast – For a short time, people went crazy and used light-roasted coffee in their espresso drinks but thankfully, the trend has since died out. There is too much carbon dioxide in light roasted coffee, so when you apply the pressure of 9 times the earth’s atmosphere you get a very very sour cup. So, light roast should be kept for brewing methods that use natural gravity to extract the flavours from the grind. When shopping online, look for FILTER or LIGHT in the roast type if you’re after something for a black coffee made on virtually anything that doesn’t use pressure to extract (exceptions to the rule are Aeropress and Delta press which can still use light roasted coffee although its best to still go for a medium).