What is French Roast Coffee?
It is surprising how many different opinions are out there on this very subject. This alone makes answering it objectively even more of a challenge. To thoroughly answer this question we need to answer a series of other questions.
Why is it Called “French Roast”?
The history of coffee is a fascinating one. How the drink arrived in Europe is a story one never gets tired of hearing. Once it became established in Europe each country began roasting the bean to the desired tastes of their countrymen or clients, much like today.
Towards the end of the 19th Century different countries or regions soon had followers who enjoyed their own particular roasting profiles. Hence, in France, the “French” roast, Italy, the “Italian” roast, Spain, the “Spanish” roast, the list goes on.
Are All Dark Roasts Equal?
No they are not! There are a varying number of shades to dark roast and each one has its own name. The key factor to determining what type of roast it is depends on the “internal bean temperature” while in the roaster. That is different from the “air temperature” inside the roaster.
Popular dark roasts have a relatively narrow range in temperature. For instance, Full City + is reached at 225°C (approx. 437°F) to Italian Roast at 245 °C (473 °F). Inside this range you have at least 4 different roast types. These range from Dark brown when the oils are visible to very near black and oily. A Spanish roast is totally black and shiny.
One cannot be dogmatic about this. These guidelines are accurate but at the same time they are just that, “guidelines”. There are minor discrepancies among very reputable roasters. Names can be confusing, too. What is the difference between a Full City+ and a light French Roast? Probably nothing. The same can be said with a Full French Roast and an Italian Roast.
A Brief Note From Micro Roaster to Micro Roaster
If you are a micro roaster like me, you may be working with a roaster that only measures the “air temperature” and not the “internal bean temperature”. That makes it trickier for sure. I have found that special care has to be taken to fully know the machine and develop accurate profiles for that particular roaster.
For sure you would have noticed the importance of paying careful attention, to time, sound and sight. You may not get perfect consistency with every roast, but you will be so close your clients will always be pleased with your product. The artisans from days gone developed these profiles without being able to measure the “internal bean temperature”. So, I feel I am in good company.
What About Taste?
Taste is such a personal thing and that is one of the most wonderful attributes of coffee. What is the best coffee in the world? Whatever you like. That being said, there are some very important things to understand with Dark Roasts and Light to Medium Roasts.
The main difference between the two is that the flavor in light to medium roasts is the flavor of the bean itself. In dark roasts what you taste is the flavor of the roast. What is the difference? Each coffee variety has certain flavor notes which makes it distinct from others. Those qualities get burnt out during the roasting process. The longer the roast the fewer flavor notes remain.
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The general consensus of flavor in the cup for a French Roast is: bittersweet, bold, thin body, may be a bit charcoaly or smokey. It is not flat, but it does not have the brightness that many of the lighter roast coffees will have.
What Are the Best Beans for a French Roast?
Since the flavor notes of coffees are basically burnt out by the time it gets to “French Roast” status, it stands to reason that few if any roasters would use their more expensive beans for a “French Roast”. One can get excellent results with less expensive beans.
There is such a huge selection of beans to choose from, each roaster or company makes their individual choices to fit the criteria of their clients. They can play with single varieties, blends, you name it. It is a lot of fun, too. That is the artsy side of the coffee artisan.
When I used to roast in Canada, I used a wonderful “Colombian Supremo” for my French Roast. It was smooth, bittersweet, but without the brightness I particularly enjoy. It was very popular. It was less expensive, but by no means inferior to my other beans.
It is Okay to Use “Less Expensive” Beans
We need to remember that the majority of all coffee sold in the world is “robusta” or “Arabica C- grade”. Although, these beans will have defects that are not found in Premium or Specialty Grades, they may still be fine for many types of roasts, including a “French Roast:
Think about this, not only are the flavor notes in dark roasts burnt out, but so are vast majority of the defects that can taint a good brew. That contributes to a surprisingly nice consistency. The same can be said about caffeine levels. A “French Roast” will have less caffeine per cup than a light or medium roast coffee of the same variety or blend. The reason for this is the same; it burns out as the roast goes on.
Back in the day, when the French Roast profile was developed the coffee industry was not as well defined as it is today. The roasters were no-where near as advanced as they are now. Darker roasts were a sure thing for easier roasting and flavor consistency.
How to Enjoy it at Home
The great thing about a French Roast is that you can prepare it anyway you want to and it will still taste great. Millions of people prepare their morning brew with their automatic drip coffee maker with pleasing results. Many others believe that nothing can be more appropriate for a French Roast than to prepare it with a French Press.
At the End of the Day
No doubt about it, the “French Roast” has made an indelible mark in the coffee world. It is very likely one of the most popular roasts on the planet and with good reason. Next time you are in a coffee house and the barista asks if you would like a French Roast, answer with confidence “Oui!”