French roast coffee is a style of coffee characterized by beans that have been roasted almost to the point of burning. The resulting beverage is nearly always very dark in color, and has a distinctive caramelized taste. In many places, French roast is the darkest roast available. Leaving beans in the fire for about a minute longer yields Italian or Spanish roast, both of which are right on the brink of incineration. Coffee lovers who enjoy a dark brew often choose French roast in part because of its easy availability, but also because it often has more of a coffee flavor than Italian or Spanish options.
Despite its name, most French roasts are not actually from France. The roasting style is modeled after the darker brews preferred by many Europeans during the turn of the 19th century, when coffee became something of a hot commodity in North America. Coffee houses may have initially adopted the “French” name as a means of adding an element of classiness or sophistication to their brews; today, however, the term does little more than indicate a very dark roast.
Most French roasts are categorized as having a bold flavor. Though this term can be somewhat subjective, in the coffee world it usually indicates a brew with a strong bite and a pronounced taste.
The flavor that comes across in French roast coffee usually has more to do with the roasting process than the actual quality of the beans. By the time the beans are dark enough to qualify as French, most of their original flavor has dissipated. In its place come the tastes of caramelizing sugars, bittersweet coffee, and often a bit of smoke.
Where French Roasts Fall on the Scale of Roasting Options
There are several phases of coffee roasting, and French varieties run to the far end of the spectrum. Raw coffee beans are green and all but unusable before roasting, where the beans are separated and set on a pan over a very hot flame.
In order for the beans to brew good coffee, they must “crack” once, and sometimes twice. It is often easy to identify roast by looking at when in the cracking process it was removed from the heat. Mild and medium-bodied roasts, such city, full city, and Vienna, are done somewhere after the first crack but before the second. French roast, on the other hand, is not done until well after the second crack — often mere minutes away from burning up. There is no “third crack” in coffee roasting.
As a result, French roast beans are often very dark, often black looking. Many roasters are hesitant to subject their best quality beans to this process, as little of the bean’s original flavor makes it through such an intensive roast process. It is not uncommon to discover that many French roasts are actually made from somewhat inferior beans — and may actually be a composite of several different bean varieties. Bean consistency rarely impacts the flavor of this style of bean, which is usually made or destroyed on roasting process alone.
Many consumers believe — wrongly — that darker coffees have higher caffeine contents. The flavors of a dark roast are stronger without a doubt, but in terms of potency, lighter and medium-bodied brews usually come out on top. In large part this has to do with the way caffeine is crystallized in the bean. Moderate roasting brings the compound out, but as time over the flame wears on, it slowly disappears. French roasts are almost always caffeinated, but do not pack quite the punch of something on the lighter end of the scale.
There are many different ways to brew and prepare French roast coffee. One of the most traditional methods is what is known as drip brew, where hot water is slowly pressed through ground beans. Espresso is another option, though this usually requires a specific espresso machine that will force steaming water through a small cache of grounds to make what is known as a shot of coffee. French roast is also particularly well-suited to the French press — when grounds are steeped in hot water, then pressed out with a mesh plunger.