What is French Roast Coffee?

what is french roast coffeeCoffee shop lingo can be difficult sometimes.
Especially when you’re traveling or trying out a new spot.

You’re standing in line, looking at a super hip chalk board menu and  see similar beverage names, but how do you know that you are going to get the same drink?

Cappuccino people, myself included, understand this debacle better than anyone.

There’s no greater pleasure like that precious shot of espresso, toned with a bit of milk at the bottom of a mountain of froth. And no greater disappointment than ordering a cappuccino and getting a latte with extra foam.

This same concept goes with dark roasts.

It’s a beautiful letdown when you order, “the darkest roast on tap” and you get a medium drip coffee.

So if you’re a dark roast type, I’d love to equip you with the knowledge and the jargon to your dream order every time.

Dark Roasts- delectable and demystified

I think there is a picture that comes to the mind’s eye when you hear the words “dark roast.”

We all have that relative that makes their coffee so dark that it tastes and looks like mud.

Or we think of a sophisticated kitchen and porcelain espresso cups.

Both of those scenarios are understandable, but are a caricature of the options available if you prefer a bolder, velvety coffee.

In reality, when we talk about “dark” coffee, it’s not necessarily black and not necessarily concentrated like espresso.

Dark coffees are marked with:

  • a noticeable lack acididy (compared to blonde coffees)
  • rich flavour
    • chocolate notes
    • light citrus notes
  • velvety mouthfeel
  • delightful aftertaste
  • and of course the strength of the overall experience

There are an array of different names that fit within this grouping.

Italian, Espresso, Spanish, Vienna… and our main attraction for this article: French!

So what’s the difference?

To begin our journey, let’s delve into the history of the sought after French roast.

Join me as we time travel back to Europe circa 1800s.

We’re in a revolutionary age. People are taking back their heritage from monarchs.

We are on the brink of scientific discovery.

Coffee had been on the scene for a long time. The mass production of the beloved bean was already underway. And coffeeshops were, as they are today, the place to be.

Salons, as they were dubbed back in the day, around Europe were infested with philosophers, writers, and politicians trying to connect with locals and popularize their thoughts with the common folk of their towns.

This, my friends, is where French roast began.

Contrary to its colloquial name, French roast (as far as historians can find) did not actually originate in France.

Rather, it was a reflection of the style of coffee served all across the continent.

To this day, Europeans drink their coffee quite differently than we Americans do.

I experienced this on my honeymoon to Paris in 2015. I ordered a “cafe” at breakfast and, to my delight, I was presented with a double shot of espresso.

This strength is marked by the way they roast the beans, not the beans themselves, nor the way they brew them.

It’s all about how long the beans are in the roaster.

The process begins with the raw coffee beans, or “greens.”

The bean’s journey obviously starts at the farm, but its transformation begins when the raw bean is unpackaged and loaded into the roaster.

These bad boys are nothing to be taken lightly, even though the average American coffee drinker doesn’t give it second thought.

Roasters change both the appearance of the bean, ranging from the light, medium and dark roasts that we love. But that’s not all! It changes the chemical make-up of the beans themselves.

Initially, the beans are warmed to a whopping 500 degrees (Fahrenheit.) They are tossed for 5 minutes in this heat to keep moisture within the beans.

This is when the color begins to change.

The greenies now have a yellow hue—but not for long.

5 more minutes go by.

The temperature has dropped to about 350-360 degrees and the flavour and aroma solidify themselves within the beans.

And the yellows have matured into a more blonde color.

By the 3rd of these 5 minutes, there should be an audible crack a.k.a “first crack.”

This is the air pressure escaping from the bean— leaving us with the delightfully mild and oil-free coffee that is packed with caffeine.

If that sounds like you’re cuppa, look for labels that read:

  • Light City
  • Cinnamon
  • New England

If the roast master is creating a medium roast, he leaves the beans within the machine for around 5 more minutes.

As the temperatures rise from 360 to around 380-390, something incredible happens.

The sugars caramelize and the aromas transform into the chocolatey, nutty flavours that are characteristic of a medium roast.

These coffees are usually under the alias:

  • Breakfast Blend
  • American Blend
  • City

And finally, when the bean is left in the roaster until it reaches 395 degrees, we have the dark roasts!

The once sweet flavour notes and aromas develop into this smoky, bitter taste of a nice dark roast.

As the internal temperature of the beans increases, there is an audible “second crack.”

Though the time at which this happens varies from batch to batch, we can rest assured that a French roast is always pulled after this break down of the cell wall.

The internal temperature of a French roasted bean should be about 464 degree.

So how do we know if it’s a French Roast and not an Espresso Roast or an Italian Roast?

The flavors!

Flavor is determined by the “trigeminal senses.”

These are the nerve receptors along the mouth, nose and throat send messages to the brain to determine whether we think foods or smells are yummy or yucky.

The main taste categories are

  • sweet
  • salty
  • sour
  • bitter
  • umami (the Japanese word for savory)

The chemistry of different compounds change when exposed to the elements.

  • water
  • air
  • fire
  • earth

That’s why beans that are grown at different altitudes (air,) in different soil (earth,) and in different weather conditions (water,) vary dramatically in flavour and body.

But what about fire?

The roasting process we just delved into brings the fire!

The heat of the roaster makes fundamental changes to chemical compounds that make up what coffee tastes like!

  • caffeine levels
  • amino acids
  • sugars
  • antioxidants
  • acids

And these changes manifest in the colour of the beans.

Machines like the Agtron Coffee Roast Analyzer gauge what roast level and quality of the end product when it is taken out of the roaster.

The Agtron Coffee Roast Analyzer is important because it does not simply scan the bean for colour changes that you can

measure against a spectrum.

It uses “near-infrared abridged Spectrophotometers” to light up a batch of coffee beans to calculate the chemical changes that occured within the bean.

After the scan, the machine outputs a number that assigns the bean to a roast class.

French Roasts are on the darkest end of the scale.

When scanned, they typically range between 28 and 35.

And they range in colour from dark brown to black.

This means that a lot of the caffeine molecules were cooked out during the roasting process. (This kills the age old debate on whether or not light or dark roasts give you the best energy boost.)

This also means that the “terrior” of the coffee has been broken down significantly.

“Terrior” comes from the french word for ground. It’s often used to descibe the taste and feel of the coffee bean itself based on its origin.

In place of the terrior, we have a smokey, bitter-sweet taste.

We also have the delightful presence of oils!

Under the extended exposure to heat, the oils have made their way to the surface.

Acid compounds have broken down. Which makes dark roast more enjoyable for people who experience the unpleasant symptoms that sometimes accompany a cup of joe. If you prefer light roasts but have these side effects, you should check out our article on How to Make Coffee Less Acidic.

I would recommend capitalizing on the fundamental characteristics of a French Roast when choosing a brewing method.

I would personally go with a French press.

Not because of the name correlation.

But because this method retains all the flavour-packed oils because they are not caught by the paper filter.

For more on how to use a French Press, see my previous article French Press vs Drip.

I actually own the French Press pictured on the right. We call her, “old faithful” because she’s extra durable, easy to clean and was passed down to me.

Click on the image to purchase one of your own!

You can also check out these amazing French Roasts by clicking on the images.

Brian Mounts

Head blogger, editor, and owner of "Top Off My Coffee", a website that has been educating readers about coffee brewing techniques and equipment since 2012.

Wait, Wait...There's More!