What We Mean by Light Roast Coffee & How It Affects Flavor

As specialty coffee is gaining popularity, the way roast profiles are perceived and preferred is evolving. For most of the coffees you find in the grocery store, the roast profile labeled on the bag will not always match the actual roast of the beans. For example, a light roast coffee you grab from the shelf will most likely look and taste darker than light roast beans from a specialty coffee roaster.

Coffee roast levels at a single-origin direct trade coffee roastery is a much more standard process that is focused on the actual roasting cycle instead of the color of the beans. Since our focus is on the higher end coffees, we do not feel the need to mask the low-quality flavors by roasting them super dark. Before you ever get to taste a cup of Sagebrush, we spent a lot of time with each bean experimenting and discovering more complex flavors.  Our goal is to be able to highlight each beans’ unique and natural flavor notes with versatile roast profiles.

In fact, most of the time when we get a new bean, I like to roast it between what we would call a light and medium roast.  At that level, I feel like I can do a good job of predicting what the bean will taste like at it's best profile and go from there.  Some beans may want a more chocolate flavor that a medium or dark roast will give it.  Others may stand out with a middle of the road complex caramel flavor and many beans like a lighter roast to draw out the fruity sweetness.  In the rest of this article, I'll talk about light roasts and what makes them stand out.

One of the best ways to highlight the pure flavors of coffee is to roast it on the lighter side. When you are roasting coffee, you have to rely on your senses, specifically sound, smell, and sight. During the roasting process, you will be listening for cracking or popping sounds. And the aroma of a perfectly roasted light roast coffee is unmistakable.  These senses act as timers and occur when the beans expand and release water vapor. Roasting coffee is very comparable to making popcorn, in fact, I started on a Whirlypop popcorn popper on my stove. For a successful light roast, you will want to stop some time during the end of the “first crack.”

You'll know a 'light' roast coffee because the beans are denser than darker roasts and should have a light brown appearance without an oily sheen. The aroma coming off of the beans is typically sweet and fragrant. There is a myth that light roasted coffee contains the most caffeine and the truth is that the caffeine content remains relatively the same during every stage of the roasting process. Caffeine content has more to do with the measurement of coffee rather than the roast itself. You can read more about that, in our blog post about caffeine.

Coffee beans are the seeds inside a coffee cherry fruit and are surrounded by the mucilage or pulp. The sugars of the pulp are absorbed into the coffee beans, and as a result, contain those fruity flavors. With a shorter roast, the coffee doesn't take on other flavors of the roasting process so a light roast coffee is able to bring out the natural sweetness and fruit tanginess that come from the cherry and plant the beans are grown. These coffees tend to have brighter notes, a crisp acidity, and a mellow body. What I love most about light roast coffees is that they have the ability to bring out the unique characteristics of each coffee's processing method more than any other roast style.  

There are three primary ways a coffee bean is processed: Natural (Dry Processed), Washed (Wet Processed), and Honey (Pulped Natural). When a natural processed coffee is light roasted, it becomes incredibly bright and fruity because of the fermentation of sugars in the pulp. This combination of natural processing and light roasting produces my favorite kind of coffee and is a staple at Sagebrush. The removal of the cherry skin during the honey processed method enhances the fermentation, providing a more pronounced sweetness than natural and washed coffees. With washed coffees, a white stripe will appear in the center of the bean that you will not find in natural or honey processed coffees. Many times this stripe is a better indicator of a light roast than the color itself.  The flavors of washed coffee originate from the beans themselves since all of the fruity sugars and pulp have been removed.

Light roast coffees always shine (in flavor profile, not physical appearance). They have the unique ability to reveal a new flavor element with every roast and cup. If you have been following Sagebrush for a while then you know my favorite coffees year after year are natural, light roasted Ethiopian beans. The fruit-forward vibrancy of a light roast coffee can be off-putting to some, but you cannot deny the one-of-a-kind drinking experience it provides.

Enjoy the bright flavors and floral aromas for yourself with our collection of Light Roasted Coffees.