Roast profiles have a considerable impact on the quality of a coffee. They can help bring out certain flavours and aromas, while also highlighting characteristics such as mouthfeel, body, and acidity.
One of the most popular roast profiles, particularly among Nordic and third wave specialty roasters, is known as a “city roast”. Defined as coffee roasted in the final stages of first crack, it tends to produce a balanced, light-bodied brew with relatively high acidity.
City roasts often fall under the broader category of medium roasts – however, they’re not to be confused with “full city roasts”, which are roasts discharged just before second crack and are usually darker in colour.
To find out more about city roasts and their characteristics, I spoke with 2019 World Cup Tasters Champion 2019 and founder of Sumo Coffee Roasters, Daniel Horbat.
What are the characteristics of a city roast?
Roasting coffee is a complex process that turns green, unroasted beans into a product that can be ground, brewed, and consumed.
Small changes during the roasting process have a significant impact on the final characteristics of the coffee, from its body and sweetness, to its acidity and mouthfeel.
To determine these changes, roasters must take into account a number of factors, including variety, bean density, and processing methods. These influence the way in which the beans are roasted, such as the charge temperature, the development time, and the rate of rise.
While the tendency among specialty roasters is to apply a light roast, many prefer to develop their beans a little longer to produce a more balanced and well-rounded coffee. A coffee roasted until the final stages of first crack (or just after) is what’s commonly known as a city roast.
Unlike a cinnamon roast which is dropped from the roaster very early in first crack, a city roast is developed for longer, giving more time for heat to penetrate the structure of the beans and deliver a richer, sweeter flavour in the cup.
The specific characteristics of city roasts vary from one coffee to the next. However, according to roasting expert Scott Rao, they tend to be light bodied with high acidity and sweet, wine-like flavours, in addition to floral and fruity aromatics with hints of caramel.
Why do roasters opt for city roasts?
Although city roasts have historically been favoured in Nordic countries, over the years they’ve grown in popularity among a wide range of roasters from all over.
Daniel Horbat runs Sumo Coffee Roasters in Dublin, Ireland. He explains that city roasts are great for those who want to preserve the subtle character of the coffee, while respecting its distinct qualities.
“At Sumo, we roast quite light, but at the same time developed,” he says. “We choose to roast light, because we are only bringing in coffees that score 87+ and it would be a shame to hide their natural flavours.
“Yet sometimes, there are coffees that actually benefit from a light-medium or medium profile, for example, if one has a natural sweetness that would benefit from a longer development time. I discover this by cupping the coffee and making multiple tweaks to how I roast it.”
It also comes down to customer preferences. Although many enjoy the acidity of light roasted coffees, some prefer to taste the nuances of the coffee with slightly more balance – or even with the addition of milk.
In a city roast, acidity slackens compared to lighter roasts, while body and aromatics increase. This provides what Daniel calls a “perfect middleground” for customers, sitting nicely between the two extremes of light and dark.
Is there a difference between “city” and “full city”?
A common area of confusion among roasters is the difference between a “city” roast and a “full city” roast.
Put simply, a full city roast is the name given to coffee roasted between first and second cracks. Characterised by its medium-dark brown colour and faint patches of oil, it tends to have greater body and sweetness than a city roast with a more moderate acidity.
A good balance of qualities derived from the roasting process and the natural characteristics of the coffee, mean that full city roasts are sometimes labelled as “crowd pleasers” due to their popularity among consumers.
They also work well for espresso-based milk drinks, such as cappuccinos, lattes, and flat whites, thanks to the higher level of caramelisation inside the beans. This is in contrast to cinnamon and light city roasts, where a typically sharp acidity cuts through the milk rather than complementing it.
Whether a roaster chooses a city roast or a full city roast for their coffee depends on a number of factors, from origin and processing methods, to brewing techniques and customer preferences.
For example, if they know the coffee will be served in a café with an espresso machine, they may wish to develop the beans for longer to produce more body and sweetness. If, on the other hand, their customers use pour-over methods such as with a V60 or Chemex, a city roast may be better suited.
For many specialty roasters, a city roast is the roast profile for their coffee. Not only does it provide a balanced and well-rounded cup, it also preserves the natural characteristics of the coffee.
However, while finding the perfect roast profile is essential, it’s also important to ensure that, once roasted, the coffee is properly packaged to prolong its shelf life and prevent exposure to light, oxygen, heat, and moisture.
At MTPak Coffee, we can help you design coffee bags that both protect the coffee inside and showcase its distinct characteristics. Our expert design team can guide you all the way from concept to creation, offering advice on materials, pouch shapes, colour schemes, and additional components.