Over the last couple of decades, the image and perception of dark roast coffee have struggled in the specialty coffee industry. There remains a section within specialty coffee that looks down on dark roasts.
The prevailing opinion has been that lighter roast profiles are a better way to accentuate the finer characteristics of specialty-grade coffee. However, dark roasts can be used to bring a fully developed flavor profile to a sweet bean on its own or carry successfully through a milk drink. The best dark roast coffee can be as complex and nuanced as its lighter roasted cousin.
Keep reading here to learn more about dark roasts, their place within the industry, and a few of our favorites. Alternatively, you can be sure of a great cup if you want to go right ahead and get yourself a bag of this Sulawesi Reserve Indonesian from Volcanica Coffee.
Our Top Picks
1. Best Overall: Volcanica Coffee – Sulawesi Reserve
2. Best For French Press: Intelligentsia – El Diablo Dark Roast
3. Best Blend: Verve Coffee Roasters – Buena Vista Dark Roast
A Closer Look At Our Favorite Dark Roast Coffees
With a lot of lower-grade dark roast coffee out there, make sure you are shopping with a quality third-wave roaster and getting specialty-grade coffee. Specialty grade means that it has scored 80 points or above from a licensed “Q grader,” a coffee professional who is registered and capable of assessing the quality of a coffee.
When you know what to look out for, picking out a delicious dark roast coffee can be a rewarding experience. We’ve saved you a lot of the leg work here. But don’t just take our word for it. Keep reading for an explanation of why we like these coffees and how best to prepare them to make the most of their intrinsic characteristics.
Volcanica Coffee – Sulawesi Reserve – Best Overall
At A Glance
Roast Profile: Dark Roast
Origin: Indonesia, Sulawesi, Kalossi Village
Flavor Profile: Caramel / Chocolate / Cherry / Earth Tones
Best Brewing Method: Espresso
Processing Method: Washed
Various small-holder farmers grow this coffee in the Sesean Mountains North of Kalossi. The coffee trees in this area are over 250 years old, so you are almost literally tasting the history and culture of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
The washed process clarifies the cherry notes that are predominant in this coffee. It has a flavor profile reminiscent of Black Forest gateau and makes a great flat white.
The ever-present chocolate background throughout this cup has enough bitters to balance perfectly against the caramel sweetness and malic acid stone fruit notes. Of all of the coffees featured here, this is our absolute favorite served straight up as an espresso. It is probably the lightest of the dark roasts on our list, leaving enough vibrant fruitiness for a fascinating shot.
Intelligentsia – El Diablo Dark Roast – Best For French Press
At A Glance
Roast Profile: Dark Roast
Origin: El Salvador
Flavor Profile: Caramelized Sugar / Molasses / Chocolate
Best Brewing Method: French Press
The components of this blend are selected from various farms across El Salvador, which change seasonally. They are chosen to fit Intelligentsia’s preferred dark roast characteristics of dark baker’s chocolate with malted barley. You will still be tasting the deep molasses finish well into the afternoon.
As you might expect with any good El Salvador, this coffee has more chocolate than Willy Wonka. The bold dark chocolate is offset nicely against a deep and complex sweetness that feels more golden than burnt.
While this coffee is pretty versatile and makes a wonderful espresso as well, we enjoyed it most prepared in a French press. The depth of flavor from a good long immersion and the full body that is lost with pour-over methods bring out the best end result here.
Verve Coffee Roasters – Buena Vista Dark Roast – Best Blend
At A Glance
Roast Profile: Dark Roast
Origin: Colombia & East Africa
Flavor Profile: S’mores / Dark Chocolate / Caramelized
Best Brewing Method: AeroPress
S’mores are a uniquely appropriate flavor descriptor for this coffee, and there is no better way to capture the essential feel of this one. What starts off with sweet caramelized marshmallow set against a background of melting chocolate and cocoa transitions into a definite toasted biscuit note from the roast tones. This ends with lingering bitter cocoas and faintly elusive smokey notes.
When this coffee is brewed in an AeroPress, these marshmallow delights pair nicely with a subtle stone fruit acidity from the East African components. However, brewing times much over a minute tended to diminish the gains found here.
If you enjoy white coffees, the deep roast tones present with this blend hold up well against milk, even in less full-bodied manual brews. A splash of oat cream is the perfect flavor pairing for those who are prepared to experiment with dairy alternatives. But, anything not too heavy will work well.
For a dark roast, this coffee is abundantly fruity. This is a definite case of the coffee’s origins belying its post-harvest treatment. While the roast tones are certainly still a strong characteristic of the overall flavor profile, they are rounded out with an almost bright and wine-like fruitiness in this coffee.
The fruits are offset against a smooth backdrop of milk chocolate and light, mapley syrups. This blend is a great candidate for a Clever dripper. The immersion aspect allows for a strong body still, and it will even just about stand up to milk without muddling the more subtle fruit notes. Although, we’d probably still recommend choosing a different one if that’s what you want all the time.
Given the Kenyan beans in this blend, it should be no surprise that there is still a fruity presence here. They are notorious for clinging to their natural characteristics even in more developed roasts.
This makes them an excellent component to look out for when choosing dark roast blends, and you should even be able to find some great Kenyan single-origin dark roasts. Look out for Kenya AA grade beans from a roaster you know and trust. You may well be treated to one of the most exciting and best dark roast coffee experiences of your life.
Antithesis is Ceremony Coffee’s staple dark roast in all their coffee shops. It has a very classic dark roast profile. Expect deep and complex sweetness against bitter dark chocolate, with a smokey lapsang souchong tea finish that will follow you. For dark roast lovers, this is a guaranteed winner.
It makes for a stunning shot of espresso on its own, but this full-bodied treat really shines in its ability to carry through longer milk-based drinks. If you are a latte drinker, this coffee may be your new best friend.
This is a very unusual flavor profile for a Mexican coffee, which would not normally be a great candidate for dark roasting. Typically you would expect them to be light-bodied, fruity, and fairly acidic.
At A Glance
Roast Profile: Vienna Roast (Medium Dark)
Origin: Hawaii, Kona, Mauna Loa
Flavor Profile: Fruity / Floral / Dark Chocolate
Best Brewing Method: Pour Over
The Grande Domaine from Koa is one of the best examples of Kona coffee available. Coffees from the Mauna Loa part of the Kona region are some of the most highly sought-after beans globally for a reason.
Related Post: Best Kona Coffee
The typically fruity and vibrant beans are dark roasted at the source right up to the second crack to preserve the character of the origin. Roasts terminated at this stage are often referred to as Vienna roasts. They are fully developed but not as dark as a more traditional dark roast, which is usually bought past the second crack stage.
The amount of fruit left in these beans makes them well suited to an interesting pour-over. The more developed nature of this roast gives a chocolatey edge to the fruit, which best preserves its vibrancy brewed in something like a Kalita Wave.
To fully realize the potential of these beans, you will want to grind a little finer and allow a slightly longer extraction than usual for a manual pour-over. Aim for something between three and a half and four minutes. You should find that you get enough body in your finished cup without muddying the floral nuances.
The Brewhouse Dark blend from Two Brothers is the more developed version of their signature Brewhouse blend. The green coffee they select for this blend has a deep sweetness that develops into a stone fruit acidity past the first crack. The fruity tone is mostly lost behind nuttier roast tones as this roast continues to evolve. However, there is still a ghost of plums hinted that works well as a foil to the bitter walnut edge.
Although this coffee leans towards the smokey side, the overwhelming lasting impression is certainly one of burned caramel. Think the torch-scorched, crisp top of a crème brûlée, and you will not be far from the mark with the style of sweetness here.
For a long drink, we would recommend an AeroPress with this coffee. Lots of agitation and a shorter brew time will ensure a full and even extraction. This will give you the best of the developed roast tones without overwhelming the sweetness with too many bitters.
If you prefer something shorter, we’d suggest that this pairs insanely well with unsweetened nut milk as a macchiato. It helps to pick out the walnut note and adds a smoothness to the whole experience. For extra points, you could even have a go at making your own walnut milk!
The components of this blend vary seasonally to ensure a consistent taste profile, whatever the time of year. One aspect of their sourcing that remains consistent is their exclusive selection of washed process green coffee. This ensures a crisp and clear lime zest note rather than the stickier, fruitier citrus flavors you might expect from a natural processed coffee.
This citric twang lends itself best to a pour-over coffee. You could even aim for a good thin body with something conical like a V60 to maximize clarity with your brew.
As far as dialing in your parameters goes for this one, we’d recommend starting at your normal grind setting for a pour-over coffee and progressing a little coarser until one of the following occurs. If you lose too much of the syrupy sweetness, it’s time to go back to one click finer on your grinder.
At A Glance
Roast Profile: Dark Roast
Origin: Indonesia, Sumatra
Flavor Profile: Brown Sugar / Dried Fruit / Winey Clean Aftertaste
Best Brewing Method: Clever Dripper
This is another great example of an Indonesian coffee from Volcanica Coffee. This Sumatran has slightly stronger roast tones and deeper brown sugar sweetness, a little more developed than its neighbor from Sulawesi island.
The dried fruit leading to a winey finish is reminiscent of an excellent Kenyan medium roast and something of a surprise at this roast level. The fruits are more at the tropical end of the scale. Think more mango and pineapple than citrus or green apple with this coffee.
Naturally heavy-bodied and somewhat earthy, Volcanica describes this coffee as “potent.” It certainly is that. While immersion proved to be our favorite brew method, we found that the fruity nuances were too easily lost behind the earthy bitters when we brewed it with a French press.
A Clever dripper seems to be the best way to highlight the full body and exotic sweetness of this coffee. It is perfectly acceptable to release your brew a little earlier than you normally might with your Clever to prevent over-development.
At A Glance
Roast Profile: French Roast (Very Dark)
Origin: Central & South America
Flavor Profile: Clove / Bittersweet Chocolate
Best Brewing Method: Espresso
The Stumptown French Roast is the darkest roast we have featured here. Taken well past the second crack, these beans are almost oily. This is not a coffee for the faint-hearted. The almost florally aromatic cloves and milky chocolate are balanced by a bitter cacao note in this coffee.
This makes a great shot to go through a milk drink where you should find that none of the character or syrupy body of the coffee is lost. You may even enjoy it on its own as an espresso, although it will probably be a little too intense for most.
When approaching this as a drink-alone espresso shot, it may help to lean closer to the ristretto side of the brew ratio spectrum. Try keeping your dose of coffee the same but lowering the water volume slightly for a sweeter and sharper shot.
Again this coffee will work well as a ristretto in shorter milk drinks. Think anywhere from macchiato up to a flat white. You may want to revert to something with a little more bitters for any drinks longer than this.
What Is Dark Roast Coffee?
You may well be wondering a little more about the specifics of dark roast coffee and its impact on the flavor profile. Throughout this article, we have referred several times to “first crack” and “second crack.” This is a very handy point of reference, and before the advent of digital roast profilers, the only clue for roasters about the stage of their coffee’s development.
These physical cracks occur due to carbon dioxide and water vapor released as the beans heat endothermically and expand.  Just before the first crack, the aroma of the roasting coffee should change from that of baking biscuits to a sweeter scent. This is a sign that caramelization of sugars occurs, and the first crack is not far off.
Caramelization is one of two important reactions that occur during the earlier stages of roasting. The other is the Maillard reaction (or browning) which gives us a lot of the deeper roast tones in coffee.  Beyond the first crack, where light roasts would usually be stopped, more complex bitters are allowed to develop.
The key to an excellent dark roast is allowing a fully developed coffee to profit from enough of its natural sugars, breaking down into complex bitter acids without becoming overwhelming. An over-developed dark roast is one of the things that can give the profile a bad name. Not many green coffees are suitable for taking all that far past the second crack without losing some of their quality.
What Do French, Italian, and Spanish Roast Actually Mean?
These are just some of the many names given to dark roast profiles. You could add Vienna, New Orleans, and Neapolitan to the mix if you needed any more. While not always helpful, as different roasters tend to apply them at different stages of development, they can help identify precisely how dark your roast is going to be.
Generally speaking, Vienna roast is the lighter end of the spectrum at just a little past medium, while Neapolitan or Spanish would usually represent the darkest roasts.
As a rule of thumb, it may be helpful to remember that the further south in Europe the profile descriptor gets, the darker you can expect the roast to be. However, this does not ring true for New Orleans, which usually sits somewhere between a well-developed medium and a French roast despite its longitudinal lowliness.
What To Look Out for When Shopping for the Best Dark Roast Coffee
Once you know what makes an outstanding dark roast and what is more likely to be a burned disguise for a bad coffee, you will be dodging defective dark coffee like a pro. When you’re hunting down your best dark roast coffee, there are several factors to bear in mind.
You will get a lot less fruit in a dark roast coffee for the most part. More developed roasts tend to emphasize the roast tones more than they highlight the green coffee’s intrinsic nature.
With that being said, some of the best dark roast coffee will at least hint at the presence of dark fruit as part of its complex makeup. This will more commonly be alongside roasty notes like biscuits, dark chocolate, toasted marshmallows, and burned caramel. Some dark roasts may even have earthier and spicier notes.
Try not to be put off by weird flavor descriptors in dark roasts. At their most outlandish, you may even find things like mushroom, moss, or wood. Fear not; this doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) mean that your coffee is literally going to taste like mushrooms.
This is just an association to give you an idea of the flavors to expect. Ultimately, your coffee should still taste like coffee. Flavor descriptors exist to help identify taste characteristics within a common frame of reference.
You will find coffees from almost any origin roasted to any degree right across the spectrum. However, it is certainly true that some coffee-producing nations are more famous for characteristics that are more suitable for dark roasts than others.
Dark roasts actually tend to be preferred by coffee drinkers in most coffee-producing nations. However, for Western coffee enthusiasts, green coffees with a higher sugar content like those produced at higher altitudes with a little shade  are good candidates for more developed roasts.
While origin characteristics tend to be less prominent in the finished cup than in lighter roasts, many coffees such as Kenyans, Indonesians, and Central and South Americans offer natural flavor profiles that lend themselves well to darker roasts.
Much like origin, the processing method has much less bearing on the final flavor profile than it would have in a lighter roast. That said, washed coffees tend to provide a more consistent result. What you may gain in selecting a more fermented natural with funky sweetness for a light roast will be lost by taking its development much past the second crack. For this reason, you will probably find that most dark roasts are either washed or unspecified.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Dark Roast Coffee Stronger?
The answer to this question depends on what is meant by strength. In terms of intensity and bold bitterness, the perceived strength of the flavor is certainly stronger in more developed roasts. On the other hand, contrary to common belief, dark roasts actually have lower caffeine content than light roasts.
What Are the Health Benefits of Drinking Darker Roasted Coffee?
The primary advantage of drinking dark roasts as opposed to light ones lies in their lower chlorogenic acid content, which makes them less prone to upset sensitive stomachs.
Related article: Best Low Acid Coffee
A further benefit lies in their increased effectiveness in aiding with weight loss when compared to light roasts. 
On the other hand, fewer of the health-promoting antioxidants which promote a lot of the health benefits of coffee are destroyed in a lighter roast.  On balance, it looks likely that light roasts are healthier unless you suffer from acid reflux.
Is Dark Roast Coffee More Bitter?
Ultimately, how bitter you perceive your coffee will depend mainly on how you have brewed it. That being said, properly extracted dark coffees will tend more towards bitterness due to higher levels of phenylindanes produced as the chlorogenic acids are broken down. 
Hopefully, after reading this article, you will feel better informed and well equipped to go about the minefield that is selecting your best dark roast coffee. Always remember to make sure you are getting specialty-grade coffee and not something that has been roasted dark to mask its defects.
If you want to jump straight to a definite winner, pick up a bag of our favorite Sulawesi Reserve dark roast from Volcanica Coffee today.