Table of Contents Hide
- Why do they call it French roast?
- How does French roast coffee taste?
- How do you make French roast coffee the right way?
- Cold brew and French roast
- French roast and espresso
- Frequently asked questions about French roast coffee
- Tips for buying French roast coffee
- Should you avoid French roast coffee?
- Storing French roast coffee
If you’re confused about French roast coffee, you’re not alone. French roast is one of those coffee terms thrown around on café menus, commercial coffee packaging, roast labels, and tasting notes. But what is French roast coffee and what does it mean for your cup of coffee? This post will guide you through the wonders of French roast beans, how to recognize them, how to choose the right blend, and of course, how to brew them the right way. We’ll even tackle a few long-standing myths about French roast coffee. So, curl up with a warm cup of the good stuff, and let’s get started.
Why do they call it French roast?
A century or so ago, when coffee was first becoming a mainstay of American culture, roasters and consumers identified types of coffee by regional styles. They referred to regional styles as a way of describing the color of the roasted beans. Medium roasts were popular in North America, while medium-dark and dark roasts were common in Europe. The degree to which the coffee beans were typically roasted around the world, became known as regional styles:
- New England Roast: This style features beans that are roasted lightly and where the roasting is terminated just after the first crack. The roasted beans are a light brown color and have a strong toasted-grain flavor. There is no sign of any oil on the surface of the beans. This style has also been called Light City, cinnamon roast, or light roast. These beans will have the taste closest to their coffee variety and origin since the roasting has little impact on dominant flavor and aroma.
- American Roast: These beans are a uniform milk chocolate color and show no sign of oil on the surface. The roasting is terminated after the second crack keeping most of the varietal flavors intact while muting acidity and enhancing sweetness. This style is also known as City, Breakfast, or medium roast.
- Vienna Roast: This style is characterized by beans having a dark chocolate color and a slight shine. Roasters prefer this style for Pacific and East Indian origins because it helps to enhance the earthy and spicy notes in the coffee. This style is often called full-bodied, medium-dark, or dinner roast.
- French Roast: When the beans are roasted past the second crack, the outer shell becomes porous, and small oil droplets may be visible on the surface. With French roast, the beans are a deep brown color and the origin characteristic of the coffee has been overtaken by the influence of roasting. This style is also referred to as Continental or dark roast.
- Italian Roast: The beans of this style are almost black and have a layer of oil on the surface. Roasted well past the second crack, this style imposes the roasting character on the beans and leaves little indication of origin. This style is sometimes mistakenly referred to as espresso.
So, what is French roast coffee? Now you know French roast has little to do with France or even where the coffee is grown. It is all about the color and the duration of the roasting process. Today, the color of roasted beans is measured according to the Agtron Gourmet Scale. Coffee roasts are identified by a color score between 25 and 95 with French roast measuring between 28 and 35 (1). No wonder we call it “dark roast.”
How does French roast coffee taste?
Remember, French roast is one of the darkest roast styles. The beans are roasted past the second crack to an internal temperature of around 473°F. At this stage, the beans are near combustion and the internal structures have been broken down allowing some oil to collect on the surface. You might think the beans would taste burnt, but that’s a horrible simplification.
The longer coffee beans are permitted to roast, the more sugars are broken down and the lower the level of acidity. A typical French roast has an intense smoky flavor and its aroma is reminiscent of walking through a burnt forest. The carbonized sugars add a burst of caramelized wood to the flavor profile and the natural oils provide a distinctive mouthfeel. There is no mistaking this is a kick in the pants when it comes to taste.
Some people frown on French roast claiming the original identity of the beans has been destroyed by the long roasting and high temperature. The flavor in the cup is almost entirely derived from the coffee roasting process and you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish one origin from another. Having said that, many coffees grown at high altitudes, such as some from Central America, shine when prepared as a dark roast.
How do you make French roast coffee the right way?
The secret to making the best French roast coffee starts by matching the brewing method with the roast type. For French roast, emersion brewing works best because it offers the most flexibility. In other words, select a brewing method that extracts the coffee by soaking the grounds in water. French Press, Aeropress, and cold brew are great choices for French roast coffee. But there are a few variables that will make all the difference.
Use a coarse grind
Brew up a cup of medium roast and a cup of French roast using the same coffee grind size and you’ll discover the dark roast extracts at a faster rate. This is all due to the longer roasting time of A French roast. In the roaster, as the beans move through the second crack, the cellulose is broken down and the outer wall becomes porous allowing oils to reach the surface. All of this means the coffee is much more soluble and less dense than medium or even medium-dark roast types.
When brewing French roast, use a larger grind size than you would for other roasts The grounds should feel like rough beach sand when they pass through your fingers. The idea here is to expose less bean surface to the water, slowing down the extraction and reducing the potential for an overly bitter brew. Dark roasts can leave plenty of residue in the water when brewed with too fine a grind size.
Use cooler water
If you’re hot-brewing, it’s best to use slightly cooler water with French roast coffee. For most coffee brewing, the Specialty Coffee Association recommends water that is between 195°F and 205°F. But, that’s a bit too hot for brewing a great cup of French roast. We suggest you aim for water somewhere between 190°F and 195°F. In other words, let the kettle boil and wait a couple of minutes before you make the coffee. This will prevent over-extraction and limit the release of astringent, bitter flavors.
Don’t over-agitate the grounds
French roast is delicate. The longer roasting results in beans that are less dense, and more brittle than lighter roasts. When you introduce the water to the grounds, don’t over-stir and be careful not to break the grounds down further. You want to make sure all of the grounds are in contact with the water, but you don’t want to encourage sudden extraction.
Use a shorter extraction time
If you’re using a French Press or Aeropress, try a slightly shorter extraction time. The burnt and dark tobacco flavors dissolve slower, so if you cut the extraction short, you retain more of the chocolate and earth tones in the final brew. For French Press, we stop the extraction at around the three-minute mark. If you still want a stronger brew, increase the coffee ratio, but keep the extraction shorter than usual to achieve the best flavor profile.
Cold brew and French roast
Cold brew and French roast are a match made in heaven! The long roasting process breaks down the structure of the beans, making them perfect for the slow extraction with room temperature water. The result is a brew that is bold, sweet, and smooth without any bitterness. You can even make cold brew with whole, unground, French roast beans. In this case, let the extraction run for twenty-four hours instead of the usual twelve.
French roast and espresso
If you adore espresso for its thick, silky crema, French roast might not be the best choice. During the long roasting process, the natural coffee oils are forced out of the bean. It is these oils, and the carbon dioxide trapped inside the beans that is responsible for the luxurious crema floating on top of a well-pulled espresso shot. We prefer to use a medium-dark roast for espresso and leave the French roast to French Press and cold brewing.
Frequently asked questions about French roast coffee
By now you should get the idea that French roast is a rather an arbitrary term. In fact, the Specialty Coffee Association leaves roasters to describe their coffee in whatever way they wish. This means there is no firm standard for what constitutes a French roast. Most agree, however, that French roast refers to a dark roast, and with that comes a handful of common questions.
Is dark roast coffee stronger than other roasts.
No. It’s wrong to associate roasting level with coffee strength. Mild or strong-tasting coffee is a product of the extraction as opposed to the coffee origin or roasting. It is fair to say French roast coffee is intense and its flavor is dominated by the roasting process, but even a medium roast can be thought of as strong depending on the coffee ratio and brewing method used.
How much caffeine is there in French roast coffee?
First off, caffeine is a natural stimulant found in coffee. It helps the coffee plant protect itself against insects and pests. Some varieties of coffee will have more caffeine than others, and roasting is not at all responsible for caffeine levels.
The truth is that caffeine only begins to degrade at around 455°F. You’ll remember we said French roast extends the roasting beyond the second crack and brings the beans to an internal temperature of somewhere in the neighborhood of 473°F. So, dark roasted beans will have slightly less caffeine than other roasts. An 8oz serving of brewed French roast coffee will have about 95mg of caffeine (2).
French roast vs dark roast: Is there a difference?
Most people would tell you French roast and dark roast are one in the same, but that’s not entirely true. When we refer to dark roasted coffee, we typically mean the beans have been roasted past the second crack to an internal temperature of 464°F or higher. For French roast coffee, the beans are heated until they are a dark chocolate color and the internal temperature reaches around 473°F. At this stage some drops of oil are visible on the surface of the beans, but they are not shiny by any means. If the roasting continues past this point, the beans turn black and a layer of oil is visible on the surface.
This darker roast is sometimes referred to as Italian roast or espresso roast.
Dark roast vs light roast: Which one is better?
Dark roasts are subjected to a long roasting time where the temperatures take the beans close to the. point of combustion. The beans take on a dark color and they gain a distinctive smoky flavor. The final taste has been derived almost entirely by the roasting process and any varietal notes have been overpowered by the roasting itself.
Light roasts are aimed at showcasing the original flavor profile of the coffee beans. Here, floral, citrus and berry notes shine through because the roasting has minimal impact. The chemical structure of the coffee beans does not change significantly during the short roasting time. Light roasts are known for their acidic and mellow-bodied character.
Whether a dark roast is better or worse than any other is a matter of taste. As always, the roast is one contributor to final experience in the cup. It is a matter of how you choose to brew and serve your coffee drink, and your personal taste. One thing offered by dark roasts is consistency in flavor because it is so heavily influence through the roasting process.
Is French roast coffee oily?
This is a difficult question to answer because people use “oily” to mean something bad. When coffee beans are roasted, the structure of the bean changes. At higher temperatures, the surface of the bean becomes weaker, and the natural oils begin to seep through. But, just like with sesame and sunflower seeds, there is a distinctive flavor in the oil. Dark roasted beans have a wonderful viscosity that contributes to the drinking experience.
Having a thin layer of oil on the exterior of the beans is not in itself a bad thing. The problem is that it increases the risk of premature oxidation and the development of rancid flavors. This is why French roast coffee is best used right away. But make no mistake, the oiliness of dark roasts is what makes them popular.
Is French roast coffee bitter?
It depends. As we’ve already discussed, the flavor of French roast coffee is dominated by the extended roasting process and almost all of the original character of the beans is lost. This results in a coffee with an almost burnt intensity that many people associate with bitterness. But, if French roasted coffee is extracted correctly, any unwanted bitterness will be left behind in the grounds. A touch of natural honey can often soften a French roast and accentuate the chocolate and burnt caramel note. Also. A latte made with French roast coffee and almond milk is out of this world.
Tips for buying French roast coffee
French roast is one of those coffee terms you’ll find overused in the marketplace. There’s something romantic about such a description and its power is not overlooked by top brands. You’ll find hundreds of blends paying homage to the words without having any regard for the art behind roasting. So, to make sure you get what you’re looking for, here are a few quick tips:
- Check the color of the beans. French roast coffee should be a very dark brown, not black.
- Make sure the beans are not oily. A true French roast will have some droplets of oil on the surface, but will not be glossy. Too much oil is a sign of an even darker roast or beans that are no longer good for brewing.
- Make sure the beans have no signs of being rancid. Dark roast has more exposed oils than lighter roasts and therefore are at greater risk of premature oxidation.
- Watch out for crushed beans. Because darker roasts are more brittle and less dense, they are prone to breaking apart when poorly handled. You’re buying whole beans for a reason!
- Buy French roast coffee in small quantities. No matter how careful you are about coffee storage, darker roasts are delicate and best used right away. If you do have beans leftover, you can grind them up and put them in a bowl on the patio. They make a natural mosquito repellent.
Should you avoid French roast coffee?
French roast beans are oilier than other roast styles and some caution should be used when brewing with them. The oils can clog up the burrs on a grinder and leave unwanted deposits on brewing equipment. We’ve been using French roast coffee for years, and here is our best advice for avoiding pitfalls:
- Keep an inexpensive manual burr grinder in the cupboard and use it for French roasts instead of your usual electric grinder.
- Brew French roast with equipment that is free of filters and internal parts such as a French Press or Aeropress.
- If the beans are badly broken, don’t try and use them in your grinder. The smaller particles will likely clog up the burrs.
- When using French roast coffee in an espresso machine, backwash the machine daily as specified by the manufacturer.
Storing French roast coffee
Dark roasts are best bought and used in small quantities. The concern for freshness is increased by the oil exposed on the surface of the roasted beans. Also, the porous outer shell of these beans allows degassing to happen at a faster rate than other roast levels, and makes them more vulnerable to exposure to oxygen. For French roast coffee, we advise sorting the beans for no more than ten to twelve days after the roasting date. Here’s a few tips to help you correctly store French roast coffee:
- Keep the whole beans in their original packaging if it is fitted with a one-way valve. This valve allows carbon dioxide to escape without allowing any oxygen to penetrate the package.
- Don’t store French roast coffee in the fridge. The beans are porous and will absorb unwanted odors from the refrigerator.
- Store the beans in a cool, dark, dry, location that is not exposed to sunlight.
- A Ziploc bag makes a good storage container. When you place the beans in the bag, cup your hand around the mouth of the bag and try to push out as much air as possible from the inside of the bag. Do this once or twice a day to extend freshness.
You owe it to yourself to try a quality French roast coffee. There is something to be said for the intensity and smokiness of this dark roast. The near-burnt beans release an intriguing sweetness that can’t be found in lighter roasts. The best artisan roasters know how to terminate the roast at the exact moment between harmony and total annihilation, and the result is incredible when done right.
To make a perfect cup of French roast coffee, start with freshly-roasted beans and grind them until the grounds feel like coarse sand. Use water that has been off the boil for a minute or two to avoid over-extraction. Bitter notes tend to come at the end of the extraction, so try cutting it off earlier than you would with other coffee roasts. If the brew is too strong, change the coffee ratio rather than increasing the extraction time.
French roast coffee is ideal for drinks where you need the coffee flavor to push through frothed milk as in a latte or cappuccino. The nuanced flavors of medium roasts can get lost in dairy, but a French roast makes sure you know it is there. That’s why many baristas opt for this roast style for their milk-based drinks.
It’s no wonder we’re so fascinated by coffee. So many individual components contribute to the flavor in the cup. The coffee variety, growing region, farming practices, cherry processing, bean roasting, and brewing method all have a part in the final taste. There is as much science as art and as much agreement as there is debate. All over the globe, different styles of coffee have taken their place in the forefront, and none with as much longevity and lure as French roast coffee. Its intense burnt aroma permeates markets, quaint cafes, dinner clubs, lecture halls, and speakeasies. Let’s face it, nothing tells you where to find the coffee isle like a great French roast!
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