The  best way to determine roast level is by using  all five of your senses.  One sense alone can’t reliably determine roast  level. Just like cooking,  coffee roasting is an acquired skill that  improves with experience.

There is always a balance  between the “roast character” and the  “origin character” of the coffee  in any roast. In darker roasts, the  origin character of the coffee  becomes secondary to the flavors of the  roast.

It is up to you to  navigate the variables of  roasting to create the coffee you truly enjoy. The  experience of finding the combination that suits  your senses only  deepens the appreciation for the great variety of  coffee available, and  the enjoyment of the diverse cup qualities  available.

Coastal Peaks Coffee 43

Take Notes

It’s  crucial to keep track of your roasts using our handy Roast Log.  Roasting is a craft where  cumulative knowledge is the goal.  Each time  you roast coffee, write  fill in the Roast Log as best you can and  tasting notes. Is it sweet?  Does it  taste bitter?   You can try different  brewing  methods too; some roast levels are better for certain brewing  methods  than others.  By logging your results you can more easily refer  to  things that worked and things that didn’t quite turn out how you’d   hoped.

Here is a reference chart on how to use your senses to determine roast level followed by detailed explanation for each level:

Roast Level (see expanded description below) Sight Sound Taste Smell Touch
City-City+ Splotchy, light brown no oil, no cracks near bean tips, slight expansion First Crack complete, 0:30-1:30 after end of 1st Crack Bright, sweet, juicy, light body, fresh fruit Malty, sweet, floral, herbal Bumpy, uneven surface, no sheen
Full City-FC+ More even, no oil, medium brown, slight cracks at tips, moderate expansion Just before 2nd crack, 1:30-3:00 after end of 1st Crack Balanced, bittersweet, medium body, ripe fruit Chocolate, bittersweet,             ripe berry, caramel hints Smooth, more even surface, slight sheen
Vienna-French Even, dark brown, bigger cracks at bean tips, oil on surface, large expansion Just after 2nd crack starts up to 0:30-1:00 into 2nd crack Bitter, thin body, not very sweet, carbony Roasty, bitter, dark chocolate Oily, more loss of weight, brittle

Roast Levels

Please  note: temperatures given in the notes below are general and relative to the quality and placement of your thermo-probe. They are not the absolute truth for every single roaster. If your roaster can not measure  temperature – don’t worry. Use all your senses to judge the sight, smell, sound and more importantly the taste of the roasted coffee.

First Crack: The  first of two distinct pyro lytic reactions in roasting coffee, First Crack is distinguished by a loud cracking or popping sound and occurs in most roasters between 390-410 degrees F.   It has a sound similar to  the popping of popcorn. First Crack marks a rapid expansion of  the seed and the point where water and carbon dioxide fracture, leading  to the liberation of  moisture in the form of steam. This process opens the crease in the bean just enough to release remaining silver skin in the form of chaff.

City Roast Level: This is the earliest palatable stage that the roast can be stopped and  result in good tasting coffee. City roast occurs between 415-425 degrees  F  on most roasters.  At this roast level the origin flavor isn’t  eclipsed  by roast flavors, but the risk is that sourness, astringency,  or  under-developed sweetness can make the cup unpleasant.  City roast   generally has a light brown color with strong surface texture, even dark   creases in the bean surface, and only moderate expansion of bean size.   This varies greatly in different coffees, though. As a very general   rule, to achieve City roast the coffee is removed from the heat at the   last detectable sound of First Crack, or very soon after, with no   development toward Second Crack.

City+ Roast Level:   This ideal roast level, also called a “medium roast,”  occurs roughly between 425-435 degrees F on most roasters. The coffee  has been allowed to develop anywhere from  10 seconds to 1 minute or  more, depending on roast method, after the  last “pop” of First Crack.  These times and heat ranges vary depending on  the roasting method and  green coffee.  At this level, there is a  balance between moderate roast  flavor and the origin flavor of the bean. Astringent, sour or “baked”  light roast flavors are reduced, yet the  flavors specific to a  particular coffee lot are still expressed in the  cup. City+ roasts have  a medium brown color and may not yet have the  smooth surface that with  further development towards Second Crack.

Full City Roast Level: Full City is right at the brink of Second Crack, roughly between 435-445  degrees F.  At this roast level, certain qualities of the origin might  be best  experienced when the roast flavors are actually greater. Many  Sumatra  coffees fall in to this category. Full City roasts have a much  more  uniform dark brown color and have a smooth surface from the  browning and  bean expansion that occurs as the coffee is on the brink  of Second  Crack.

Second Crack: Second  Crack is the second audible clue the roaster-operator  receives about  the degree of roast. Whereas First Crack sounds like  popcorn popping,  Second Crack has a faster, shallower patter, much like  Rice Krispy’s in  milk, electrical sparking, a snapping sound. Second  crack is a further  stage of the pyro lytic conversion of compounds and  occurs around 440 to  450 degrees F. This is a physical fracturing of  the cellular  matrix of the coffee, and results in an eventual migration  of oils from  their chambers within the coffee to the outside of the  bean. When second  crack is volatile, it can blow small discs off the  coffee bean!

Full City+ Roast Level:   A coffee that’s been roasted just up to the first few snaps of second  crack are heard and then terminated, roughly around 445-450 degrees F.   The main cue that distinguishes the difference between the Full City   and Full City+ is audible, not visual. This is a term Sweet Maria’s   basically invented, and while used in the trade a bit, it has its   context in our communications with home roasters more than anything. At   this level roast flavors begin to dominate, which tones down certain   origin characteristics and creates a harmony between the two. This is an   ideal roast level for single origin espresso.

Vienna Roast Level: Vienna Roast occurs at the beginning of second crack, roughly around  450-460 degrees F.   The Vienna stage (also called Continental) to Light  French stage is  where you begin to find origin character eclipsed by  roast character. If  you buy coffee for its distinct origin qualities,  heavy roasting is at  odds with revealing those nuances. Nonetheless,  some coffees are  excellent at this stage. Vienna is a common roast  level for espresso.

French Roast:   Sugars are heavily caramelized (burned) and degraded. This occurs  roughly around 460-470 degrees F.  At this stage, the woody bean  structure is carbonizing, the seed  continues to expand and loose mass,  the body of the resulting cup will  be thinner and lighter as the  aromatic compounds, oils, and soluble  solids are being burned out of  the coffee and rising up to fill your  house with smoke.  Second crack  is well finished

Burnt:   By  this point, it’s too late, at roughly 470-480 degrees F.   You’ve  roasted the coffee too dark and will only end up with a bitter  cup of  charcoal water. The heat being applied for too long has  obliterated all  of the volatile compounds that might have added flavor  and sweetness.

Cooling: The  most important thing is always ending the roast when you achieve  the  desired level – which means how you cool the roast is important.   How  you got to that point in your roast will affect the flavor of your   roast, but as long as you are within a reasonable time frame (which   varies, of course) you’ll be fine.  At the end of this chapter I will   speak a bit more about Roast Profiling, but for now just keep in mind   that it is important to track how long your roasts take and how much   heat has been applied at different stages of the roast.