Comparing Dark Roast Coffees

Dark roast: It’s like light roast, except totally different.

Let’s break that down.

What is Dark Roast Coffee?

Dark roast coffee is coffee that has been subjected to heat for longer, resulting in a less dense, darker bean. This is often a careful, methodical process akin to baking: leave a dish in the oven too long, after all, and it will be a charred mess; take it out too soon, and it’s barely fit for consumption.

The key to a dark roast is what’s referred to in roasting as the “second crack.” When temperatures reach approximately 440 degrees Fahrenheit, the beans will pop for their second time in the roasting process, indicating they’ve reached the point of a dark roast. Beans will visibly be darker when taken out and contain a sheen to them, a product of oils that have leaked out during roasting. Much of this is a chemical process that tinkers with the structure of cell walls inside the bean.

What’s left after this process is a toasty roast that summons a much fuller body than any light one could. Dark roasts are rich, bold, and perhaps a bit more straightforward than the light roast cousins—not for everyone, to be sure, but beloved by those who either don’t mind the bitterness or simply can’t stand the acidity associated with lighter roasts.

Roasts are also, of course, a matter of opinion: one person’s dark roast could be another’s medium. A dark roast will, at its best, have a velvety mouthfeel with notes of almond, chocolate, molasses, and caramel.

What are Dark Roast Coffee Benefits?

For starters, dark roasts pair better with milk and sugar. The milk neutralizes any bitterness and the innate flavors of a dark roast—see: those chocolate or nutty notes—are natural fits for the addition of cream. This is often why espresso drinks are blended with dark roast espresso blends; light roasts can often be fruity or citrus-leaning and not be especially complementary to most milks. To boot, dairy oils bond with coffee oils when introduced.

It’s also true that dark roast coffee health benefits are the same as light roast—which is to say, it’s loaded with antioxidants that boost the immune system and characteristics that modern study suggests may reduce the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Beyond that, it’s truly a matter of preference. Dark roasts happen to pair well with rich and chocolate-dressed desserts and are a bold after-dinner beverage choice, but light roasts hold their own as an accompaniment to fruit pies and lighter pastries. It’s all about palate preference and how the taste buds perceive bitter versus sour or acidic notes on the flavor wheel that’s used as a basis for coffee notes.

What’s Special About Seattle Dark Roast?

While Seattle continues to have a sterling reputation in coffee even as the industry diversifies and expands, its fame is largely thanks to one shop in particular: Starbucks.

Starbucks began roasting its known-‘round-the-world Seattle style dark coffee in 1971 and has established an empire since, largely driven by how the company managed to popularize espresso machines that previously were more commonly found in Italy.

Once Starbucks began brewing drinks in the early 1980s, it established a coffee culture in the city that was unshakeable. In fact, much of Seattle’s coffee boom in the 1980s could be attributed to a culture of dark-roast espresso carts and a sort of Americanization of Italian culture built around espresso—that is, characterized by diverse arts, music, and grunge shop cultures in place of leisurely co-mingling over espresso at Italian cafes.

Many shops still brew Seattle dark roast coffee as it’s remembered, like Herkimer Coffee in Phinney Ridge and the many Caffe Ladro locations around the city, with its “Diablo” dark roast that boasts a full body and notes of tobacco leaf. And though not every Seattle roast will exactly boast a hint of tobacco, they will offer that type of bold attitude.

Comparing Types of Dark Roasts

To know up front: not all dark roasts are the same—and it’s not so black and white what the best dark roast coffee is. Dark roast levels have been generalized through the years based on how countries tended to, at one point or another, prepare their beans. How palatable they each are will depend on the person enjoying them.

  • Vienna. These beans are heated right to the point of spots of oil peeking out from the surface, indicating a medium-dark roast. This level of roast is thought to draw out nascent flavors in a bean but is notoriously difficult to attain as a roaster. The beans have a reddish hue to them.
  • Full City Roast. This roast suggests the bean has not reached second crack and will therefore have more qualities of the coffee bean being roasted, and even having a small amount of acidity. This coffee typically is oily, however, pushing forward a lot of desirably heavy qualities that come from a dark roast.
  • Italian. The Italian roast is especially dark—one of the darkest among the traditional dark roasts—and probably what most think of when they imagine dark and oily beans.
  • French. Slightly less dark than the Italian roast, the French roast will be more dark brown than black and maintain a slight acidity. This roast, as well as the Italian roast, is commonly used as espresso.
  • Spanish. Easily the darkest of roasts, this is a coffee that blurs the lines between toasty and toast and will often boast a charred flavor. That’s because the bean has been roasted to the point of adopting qualities of the roaster rather than the bean.

While dark roast is definitely a favorite among coffee connoisseurs, there’s an entire spectrum of flavors within the dark roast family, each with its own unique and subtle nuances. Your friends at Victor Allen’s Coffee encourage you to expand your palate and explore “the dark side” of coffee, savoring the decadence of a good dark roast.