Marketing psychology and things to think about
Even before the advent of Specialty Roasting in the United States, there has been no universal definition of the terms French Roast, Italian Roast and Espresso Roast. It stands to reason that some of these roasts will be darker than others. Eventually someone asks which is the darkest and which is the lightest? The terms are subjective and each roaster makes his own determination as to the end point temperature for each of these terms.
A roasting company may sell several different Espresso blends and each blend may have a different end-point temperature and color determined by taste. Obviously in this case there is no one, official Espresso color.
What is the difference in taste of an Italian Roast blend and a French Roast blend? Does the bean selection in the blend come into consideration or is it just the darkness of the beans? Some roasters like to roast until the beans are oily because some consumers have their own idea that oily means better, for some reason. Of course it doesn’t, the concept is totally bogus. By the way, some flavor oil companies actually sell clear flavorless oil to coat beans. One is called “Bean Sheen.”
The Specialty Coffee Association has opted for the use of electronic instrumentation with a numerical scale associated with descriptors such a Light, Medium, Medium Dark, or Moderately Dark, etc. to describe the degree of roast and taking no position on what additional descriptor terms, roasters may wish to use.
In general the darkest roast coffees are blended with hard bean, high grown coffees that will hold up to ferocious roasting. Often the preference is Central American coffees or other high altitude, high acidity coffees. Ten or fifteen percent Colombian will add a little sweetness to an otherwise bitter blend. Again the darkest roasts will likely have a lustrous oily sheen, smoky and pungent aroma with little hint of their potential greatness.
Espresso roast on the other hand is best roasted lighter than Italian or French because body, sweetness and soluble solids strength can suffer under high roasting temperatures. Regarding the blend, low acid coffees generally prevail in espresso because high acid coffees can become acrid under espresso extraction conditions. A smooth, sweet or mellow taste is more agreeable in espresso.
Remember the darker the roast the weaker the coffee due to shrinkage. Also much of the volatile oils are vaporized during the extra dark roast. It will be more bitter due to the burning or carbonizing of the natural sugars in the beans. Dark espresso will have less crema and body and because dark roast beans are more porous, they out-gas more readily losing the gas that adds to the crema. Old dark roast coffee will taste of cocoa and will be flat and bland.
Dark roast coffee is less dense and will have less body. As you know, a dark roast pound is substantially larger i.e. bulkier, than a pound of lighter roast coffee. Because dark roast is less dense than a medium roast, less coffee fits into the portafilter. In fact I use a larger amount of French Roast coffee in the brewer to make up for the lighter and weaker tasting beans.
Interestingly enough, I have found no references as to the origin or why we use the term “French Roast.” I don’t think it goes back very far; at least in the context we use it today. It may be a moot point anyway.
Something else that is interesting to me is that two of Italy’s largest roasting companies have been marketing their packaged coffee in the US for at least two decades. Apparently the cachet of Italian espresso is good enough for some consumers to buy stale packaged coffee over American fresh roast beans. Go figure.
Despite its extra bold aroma and flavor profile, French Roast contains no more caffeine than any other coffee.
At lighter roasts, the bean will exhibit more of its “origin flavor” – the flavors created in the bean by the soil and weather conditions in the location where it was grown. French Roast coffee looses all its origin character and becomes anonymous in that regard.
At darker roast levels, the “roast flavor” is so dominant that it can be almost impossible to distinguish the origin of the beans used in the roast. Fortunately the consumer appeal is in the dark roast aroma, Smoky, Piquant and Charred. The experienced is the same in the popularity of charcoal grilled foods as opposed to being poached or steamed. Grilled, just smells better to most of us. We like French Roast for its unique aroma and suffer through its astringent taste, telling ourselves, “at least it has more caffeine”, which is actually a myth.
Another myth is that French Roast is stronger. Yes it is stronger in burnt smell and in bitter taste but weaker in all other respects.
Many think that French and Italian Roasts are synonymous. Concerning the blends, they are probably right. All too often they are the cheapest beans available, roasted to a dark brown or ebony.
Roasters will sometimes offer a good single origin darkly roasted, but the flavor quality will be determined by the fact that only a few origins will develop a favorable dark roast taste. For your edification, do your own simple test. Sample-roast all your current origins to a dark roast and compare their tastes. Disqualify all bad tasting examples and make your dark roast blends from the least bitter and sweeter tasting ones.
A hint of sweetness and the minimum of bitterness in a heavy bodied, complex and well-rounded flavor is my criteria for a good French Roast. By the way any coffee will taste French Roasted before it looks French Roasted.
Blends often include:
Ethiopian Sidamo or other washed Ethiopians
Centrals: Guatemala and Costa Rica
Sometimes I add 10% Colombian for sweetness
In France, their blends (especially espresso) have been known to use substantial amounts of Robusta. So if there were an authentic “French” Roast blend, it also would likely contain Robusta. The same goes for Italy. Use “washed Robusta” if you must.
When I was young and ignorant about coffee, I did that. I think many college age kids did too. It comes from the fact many don’t want to invest in a coffee grinder. These canned coffees are pre-ground so you are not going to wakeup your roommates with the din of grinding beans at the crack of dawn.
Sumatra, Costa Rican and Panama, one-third each, may make an acceptable dark roast depending on the quality of each origin.
French Roast names
Cajun French w/ chicory
New Orleans French
West Coast French
French Market is already a brand name
French Colonial Blend:
As with French wines and French dining, the French Colonies have a way with opulence. This blend has the pedigree of heirloom trees from the French Colonial islands of Ile de Bourbon (east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean) and Martinique (the jewel of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean). A Royal Blend to be sure.
“It’s particularly good with cake” M. Antoinette, Paris
“It’s an excellent compliment to Brandy.” N. Bonaparte, Versailles
Degree of Dark Roast: being silly
The French Market Coffee Company in New Orleans may have been the inspiration for the popularity of the French Roast term. They started producing French Market coffee in 1890. It was not called French Roast but it was dark and it was supposedly adulterated with roasted chicory which itself could have been of French origin. Europeans often resorted to the inexpensive roasted chicory, a medicinal root of the endive plant, as a substitute for coffee. Granted it was a poor substitute for coffee but it passed muster as an additive when coffee prices were too high or coffee beans were unavailable.
Another thing to be aware of is that before 1900 coffee was crudely and poorly roasted. The roast master often determined the finish point of roasting by the emission of blue smoke coming from the roasting drum or chamber. Obviously by that time the coffee was burnt. Another aspect of the early years of the coffee business, the quality of the raw coffee was often marginal and considerably sub-standard. When the shipping of coffee was in wooden hulled boats it took months to reach Europe. The coffee was compromised by the high humidity below decks in holds adjacent to the bilge. Coffee quality suffered much in both shipping and storage. Dark roasting was a blessing if not a necessity.
Dark roasting was always common worldwide, but it was not called French Roast.
When I moved to Colombia in 1976, I noticed that in the countryside it was common to roast coffee very dark. It became obvious why this was the common practice when I discovered that it was ground by hand through a hand-crank table mounted mill. You have seen them; they look like a hand-crank meat grinder but with two five-inch diameter-grinding plates designed for grinding wheat, and corn and the like.
Dark roast coffee is easier to grind because it is less dense, softer and more brittle. Medium roast coffee was almost impossible to grind with such a mill. On the frontier, the more expensive box mill is not available. Obviously electricity was not available either.