Cinnamon, New England, City, City+, Full City, Full City+, Brown Roast, Medium Roast, Dark Roast, French, Italian, American, Espresso roast...... The list goes on and on.
Question is, what do these phrases and words really mean? In my experience as a roaster, I have come across so many different ways of explaining the roast of coffee you are buying, but these can be very inconsistent. Personally I like to weigh my coffee before and after roasting, and take notes of the percentage lost. This method has made my roasting more consistent, and is less confusing later on. Here is why: When you roast, you lose moisture and weight of the beans, so the longer you roast, the more percentage you lose in the end, so if I get a roast with a 16% loss, I know its going to be a darker roast of coffee. When you're roasting coffee sometimes oil will appear, but other times the oil will not appear until hours later, so you risk over roasting your coffee if you go by sight of oily beans alone. This is also a good time for me to mention, you should be using ALL 5 senses when roasting coffee.
Feeling the beans before roasting will help you determine the initial temp and moisture of the beans. Also measuring helps you determine the beans density (see other article for more details)
Always look at your beans while roasting, some times temperature and moisture can change depending on the day therefore making your coffee roast differently.
Pay attention to the smells that develop when roasting. As coffee roasts, it goes through an interesting process, different chemicals that naturally occur in coffee beans change as they reach different temperatures, causing different aromas and fragrances to develop. While the roast progresses, you will smell a wide range of fragrances. From grassy earthy smells, to bread-y/baked good smells on up to the later stages of roasting. Additionally, the use of your olfactory senses can alert you to any signs of fires developing - a not so uncommon occurrence in the roasting business. Hear- During the roasting process, keep an ear out for cracking sounds, and other sounds that may occur. Sometimes sounds can be very important. The roaster can be making some weird sounds you've never heard before, or sometimes the beans 1st and second crack can be very close together.
Now taste can be used more as the last phase of roasting coffee, that includes what is often the most rewarding test of drinking your creation, but perhaps more crucially, tasting your coffee beans fresh out of the roasting and cooling process. This may help you determine the flavor you achieved when roasting.
Typically, lighter roasts maintain the more prominent characteristics from their region and growing environment, while darker ones take on traits from being roasted, due to the fact that they’re exposed to longer roast times or higher temperatures.
Lighter roasts make it easier to identify the origin of the coffee beans, and usually have brighter more citrus like flavors, depending on where the beans are from, and how they were grown.
Medium roasts still have some of the origins characteristics, but the more citrus-y parts of the roast may smooth out and become mellow as the roast progresses into later/darker stages.
Medium to dark roasts are very common in everyday cups of coffee, these roasts are where you start to develop more oils while roasting. Dark coffee roasts mostly eliminate the acidic flavor found in its lighter versions. The downfall to this is that although the acidic tastes are lower, the bitter tastes come into play as a replacement.
Darker roasts are not my personal favorite, mostly because I try to avoid bitter coffee taste. I know you may be thinking that bitter and acid can go hand in hand when explaining flavors, but there is a big difference. Acidic flavor can be more commonly described as Citrus/Lemon/Lime in the coffee world, where bitter is closer to dark/burnt/harsh on most cupping notes.
Now, just because I don't like dark roast doesn't mean you don't like dark roast. Everyone has a different flavor palate, and it’s up to you to decide how you want to roast your coffee. No one can tell you what you're tasting.
Read up on where the beans were grown, to better help you anticipate of how they might change with different heat. Preheating your roaster is also a good step in the right direction. More often than not the first roast will turn out different than most, no matter how many precautions you employ.
Patience is a key point in the coffee world.