French Roast: To Bean or Not to Bean?

By Courtni Wisenbaker-Scheel of Modernize

French Roast Coffee

Love it or hate it, coffee drinkers have a strong opinion when it comes to French roast flavor, and overwhelmingly, that opinion is that it is, well, not good. But why does this roasting method inspire such loathing? How can any food or drink originating from France be terrible? Therein lies the problem. French roast is not actually French, but more of a French colony. In the 1870s, Europeans began to look to Africa as a land ripe with opportunity, and they started seeking ways in which to exploit them. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, all interested parties sat down and divided up Africa, while implementing trade agreements. What was one of these tradeable goods? Coffee beans. However, these beans were of such low quality that the only way roasters could find buyers was to roast them...and roast them...and then roast some more.

For the most part, the same still holds true today. French roast is one of the darkest roasts given to coffee beans—they’re only taken out of the heat about a minute before the big guns of Italian roast (yeah, it’s not Italian either). In the picture below, French roast is #14, in all its singed glory. When you roast a coffee bean to this extent, the sugars inside the bean begin to caramelize while the oils rise to the surface, leaving you with virtually no acidity and a complex smokiness on the palate. This is as far as the two French roasts camps will agree. From here, it divulges into an all-out argument over the worthiness of the French roast, and those feelings are pervasive.

Coffee Roast Levels

In the majority are the haters—and no, this word is not used flippantly. French roast incites a level of distaste rarely seen for a beverage, especially from coffee connoisseurs, some of whom have described the flavor as “licking an ashtray.” And why is that? Well, for one, when a bean has been roasted for this long at such a high temperature, any flavor notes will come from the roasting process, not the coffee bean itself. Because of this, most quality coffee growers will strongly discourage their beans to be roasted to this extent; so all that is available for French roasting are low-quality coffee beans.

A second reason for the loathing is simply the process of turning the beans into a cup of coffee is a nuisance. The roasting process takes substantially longer than other roasts, and the smell that comes with those burning oils can be rather acrid—and that’s just the beginning. The roasted beans are incredibly oily and tend to stick together, which is a problem when you actually want to turn those beans into usable grounds. French roast coffee beans almost always cause some sort of clog in the grinding machinery, which then needs to be properly cleaned out before processing a different level of roasted coffee bean. All in all, it’s a lot of work for a beverage that tastes like “chomping on a burnt cigar.”

On the other hand, one lone wolf of credible coffee roasters stood out from the pack of naysayers and dared to stand up for this roasting style. Peet's Coffee and Tea are so passionate about their French roast that it’s enough to ignore the haters and instead cozy up with a big mug of black gold. After all, there’s something comforting about a charred, smoky flavor—it brings to mind nights around a campfire.It might not be for everyone, but for those with an adventurous palette—the French roast enthusiasts—no amount of coffee analysis & snobbery can convince them otherwise.

So if you can’t find the deliciousness in a cup of French roast, don’t judge the people who do. And if you’re an adoring fan of this dark roast, don’t admonish the haters. Instead, just know that all of you have found your own personal place in the coffee world, and be glad that you both can appreciate the daily joy those little beans give to us all. 

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