What is French roast coffee?

French roast coffee is a dark roast coffee—bittersweet, smoky, and sometimes even a bit charred. It’s been popular since the Enlightenment, when it was sipped in coffeehouses across Europe. It is popular today for its bold taste and easy availability. French roast refers only to the roast level and is not a type of bean. Any beans can be roasted this way. What is French roast coffee? Read on.

What does French roast coffee look like?

French roasted beans are very dark brown. They shine with the oils that have been brought to the surface by roasting. They should be the color of dark chocolate and can range from dark brown to almost black. The oil that comes out during roasting coats the beans to give them their unique sheen.

Shiny French roast coffee beans
Oil has been brought to the surface of these beans, which have just begun to take on the dark chocolate color characteristic of French roast. (© Alvin Trusty | Flickr)

What does French roast coffee taste like?

When you drink a French roast, you taste the roast more than the beans. Beans that taste vastly different in a medium roast will seem a lot more similar when French roasted. The acidity is roasted out of the beans and you are left with a taste that is earthy, sweet, dark, bold and intense. It has a slightly bitter taste that balances the sweetness. Both flavors come from heavy roasting. You can combat the bitterness by grinding the coffee a bit larger before you brew, or brewing it using the French press method. Both will bring out the sweeter flavors.

French press on a table next to a mug
Brewing with French press can reduce some of the bitterness that arises from long roasting. (© Gastronomia Slow | Flickr)

Is French roast coffee strong?

French roast has less caffeine than lighter roasts because French roast is roasted for longer. Light roasted coffee has the most caffeine because roasting brings it out, but further roasting reduces caffeine levels. Roasting also makes the coffee less acidic, a little sweeter, and a lot bolder. Caffeine in a regular cup of coffee ranges from 64 mg to 212 mg per cup. French roasts tend to sit in the lower part of that range, with 80 mg to 135 mg per cup.

How did French roast coffee get its name?

The English named French roast, as it was the coffee favored in 18th-century continental Europe.

Line drawing of an 18th-century European coffeehouse
A European coffeehouse during the 18th-century Enlightenment. (Wikimedia)

The name applies to the color—the color of dark chocolate—and has nothing to do with the beans’ place of origin. The term refers to coffee that is roasted until it the bean cracks twice. The first crack marks the beginning of light roast and the second crack releases the oils that make the beans shiny and beautiful. To learn more about the stages of a coffee roast, see our post on coffee roasting for beginners.

French roast vs. Italian roast

Typically, French roast is slightly lighter than Italian roast. Unfortunately, there are no industry standards on naming, so an Italian roast can be either slightly lighter or slightly darker than a French roast. Italian roast (or Spanish roast) has a distinctly burned flavor while French roast is held a whisker away from burning. In America, the French roast is mostly a little less roasted than in Europe. People often use the term French roast to describe any dark roasted coffee. French roast is perfect to make with a French press while Italian roast is ideal for espresso drinks.

Coffee beans cooling at the Saltspring roasting facility
Roasted beans cool at the Salt Spring Coffee roasting facility in Richmond, B.C. (© Kris Krug | Flickr)

So there you have the rundown on French roast coffee. If you’ve never gone this dark with your coffee before, ask your local roaster for a small sample and give it a try. You might find you like it—or not—but your taste buds will thank you for the education and you’ll have a better understanding of how roast degree affects the flavor of your coffee.