Jessie Zhu / Daily Nexus

A cup of coffee is an everyday ritual for many, but for even frequent coffee drinkers, the coffee world can get confusing. What’s the difference between a light and a dark roast? Is espresso any different from regular coffee? Where does coffee even come from? Your coffee should be something that doesn’t stress you out. Here, we answer everything you need to know about the basics of coffee.

What we know as coffee beans are actually seeds derived from the coffee cherry fruit. When these raw beans are harvested, they are green, acidic and very hard. Roasting is what turns the beans into the coffee that we know and love. High temperatures create chemical reactions that change the flavors of the beans, so the duration of roasting is what produces different types of roasts, ranging from light to dark. 

Light roast coffee is typically only roasted until the beans first crack, which produces a loud sound. At this point, the coffee is drinkable. Light roast usually has more of an acidic, citrusy and fruity flavor with a light body. The term “body” is often used as a descriptor of a coffee’s flavor. This doesn’t have anything to do with the coffee bean, but with the texture of the coffee it produces. Body describes the density or viscosity of the coffee. For example, a full-bodied coffee might be thicker and creamier than a light-bodied coffee. Light roast also has a flavor that is most authentic to its origins, which can vary based on where the coffee was sourced.

Medium roast coffee is usually roasted past the first crack but before the second one. This produces a coffee bean that is slightly darker and, unsurprisingly, has medium acidity and body. Medium roast has a flavor that still stays true to its origins, but begins to adopt more of the caramelized sweetness that roasting produces.

Lastly, dark roasting produces coffee beans that are very dark brown, or even close to black. Dark roast coffee tastes less acidic but more bitter and holds a smoky, nutty or chocolate flavor with a full body. Dark roast is typically what you would think strong coffee tastes like. In addition, much of the original flavors of the beans are lost. Although light, medium and dark roast are easy ways of referring to a type of coffee roast, there are many roasts that fall in between these categories and produce various flavors.

A common misconception is that dark roast coffee has the highest caffeine content because it is the strongest. In actuality, caffeine levels stay the same during the entire roasting process. However, there will be a slight difference if the coffee is measured by volume versus weight. Beans further along in the roasting process have reduced mass from water loss and become larger in size. So, if beans are measured by volume with a scoop, dark roast beans will have less caffeine because they are bigger and take up more space. But if the beans are measured by weight, dark roast beans will have more caffeine because they weigh less. In other words, more dark roast beans are required in order to reach the same weight as light roast beans. Measuring by weight is the most accepted method and, therefore, results in dark roast coffee often containing more caffeine. However, no matter which method is used, there is a very minimal difference in caffeine content between light- and dark-roasted coffee. 

So, what about espresso? While served in cute cups, they can pack a punch. Espresso uses all levels of roast and the difference is really in the method by which the coffee is brewed. Many people love espresso for its strong flavor, so medium and dark roasts are typically used. Hot water is forced through finely ground coffee beans at high pressure to produce a very highly concentrated coffee. The result — a classic espresso shot. Espresso is used to make many types of coffee beverages such as lattes, macchiatos and cappuccinos. These drinks have caffeine levels that can vary based on how many espresso shots are added. A good rule of thumb is that each 1-ounce espresso shot contains about 63.6 milligrams of caffeine, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. This is much higher in comparison to brewed coffee which contains 96 milligrams of caffeine per 8-ounce cup and just 12 milligrams of caffeine per ounce.

If you’re like me and are a daily coffee drinker with a sweet tooth, you might be wondering whether drinking coffee often is bad for you. On its own, black coffee is quite healthy because it is naturally loaded with antioxidants such as polyphenols and hydroxycinnamic acids, which help prevent aging and diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Here are some tips on how to make healthier coffee that still hits the spot.

If your goal is to avoid adding processed sugar, opt for natural sweeteners such as honey that can curb the bitterness and elevate the flavors of your coffee. 

Other low-sugar flavor additions to your coffee might include:

  • Cinnamon
  • Cocoa powder or dark, unsweetened chocolate 
  • A tiny splash of vanilla extract
  • A sprinkle of pumpkin spice blend for some fall flavors. 

Now that you know the various types of coffee roasts, have fun experimenting with different flavors and coffee blends!