September 21, 2023


Qualified food specialists

The Coffee Lingo You Need to Find Your New Favorite Beans

3 min read
The Coffee Lingo You Need to Find Your New Favorite Beans

Do you feel like you need a coffee-to-English dictionary whenever you’re shopping for a new bag of beans? Light or dark, espresso or coffee, blend or single-origin, and what the heck are “flavor notes?” How do all the terms printed on the bag translate to what’s in your cup? 

If you find yourself stuck on some of the descriptions on coffee packaging, don’t worry: After 20 years of writing and teaching about coffee, I am fairly fluent in the language, and I’m here to get you back on caffeinated track.  

What do light, medium, and dark roast mean?

Many coffees are described by their roast levels, which usually appear as the descriptors “light,” “medium” or “dark.” Simply speaking, these levels don’t just refer to the appearance of your final, brewed coffee. They refer to the length of time the coffee beans spend inside the hot roaster. After coffee beans have been harvested and dried, when they’re ready to be roasted, they’re more of a greenish-beige color, like a pumpkin seed. The longer they’re in the roaster, the darker they become, thanks to sugar browning and caramelization that occur—similar to the way a cookie darkens in the oven.

In general, lighter roasts will taste, well, lighter: Some are described as more delicate or tealike, with floral, fruity, or tart flavors. Medium-roasted coffee may also have fruity undertones, often balanced with a chocolaty, nutty, or caramelly note. Darker roasted coffees taste more like the roast process itself: They may have prominent dark or bittersweet chocolate, smoke, cedar or spice notes, and fewer fruity or floral flavors. 

Sometimes you’ll see less other roast descriptors, such as City, Full City, Vienna, French, or Italian. These are heritage terms that have been used in the coffee industry for generations (listed here in order of increasing darkness), and were popular up until the mid 1990s, though they’re less common today.

What’s the difference between coffee beans and espresso beans?

The short answer: nothing—but it’s complicated. 

You remember that lesson in geometry class, “A square is a rectangle but not all rectangles are squares?” It’s like that: Espresso is a type of coffee, but not all coffee is espresso. Different beans might be better for auto-drip, French press, cold brew, or pour-over—you might grind the beans differently, use a different brewing device, and end up with a very different flavor in your cup.

Espresso is a finicky brew method, and it can make tart, fruity flavors overpowering. For that reason, a roaster might create an espresso blend by mixing fruity beans with ones that are chocolaty and nutty and may roast them slightly darker. “We keep in mind that the qualities of the blend will be accentuated to the nth degree when pulled as an espresso,” says Ant Walach, the cofounder and co-owner of Snowdrift Coffee in Roscoe, Illinois. Walach sources blendable coffees that have “treble, mid tones, and bass”—bright fruit, caramelly, and chocolate tones.

Photo by Travis Rainey, Styling by Joseph De Leo

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