You begin every morning with a cup of coffee, but have you ever stopped to think about the differences between roasts?
Why are some coffee beans darker than others? Italian and French roasts are two of the darkest coffee beans available, but what’s the difference between the two?
French and Italian roasts are both dark roasts, with Italian being the darkest roast you can get. Italian roast is set apart by its burnt flavor. French roast, on the other hand, provides a bitter, smoky taste. Both roasts have low caffeine and acidity levels due to their long roasting time.
This article discusses the differences between Italian and French roasted coffee beans, how roasters prepare them, and their flavor profiles. Read on to learn more about these two dark roasts.
Are French roast and Italian roast the same?
French roast and Italian roast are not the same. Both are dark roasts, with Italian being the darker of the two, resulting in a nearly black bean. French roast coffee beans are dark brown. Italian roast may have a bolder flavor, but both have similar caffeine content.
Some people place great value on the natural flavors of the coffee bean itself, whereas others prefer their coffee super dark, with little care as to where it came from.
Interestingly, many people believe that the darker the coffee, the stronger it is. However, that’s not necessarily true.
Understanding what qualifies a dark roast
Darker roasts do tend to have a “stronger” flavor, so Italian roast would be considered stronger than French roast in terms of flavor. However, the darker the roast, the less caffeine found in the bean.
With that said, French and Italian roasted beans weigh less than medium or lighter roasts (due to the breakdown of the cellular body during roasting), so baristas use more dark roasted beans for a pot of coffee.
As such, the caffeine in a cup of French or Italian roast is roughly the same as a light roast coffee.
Additionally, there’s less acidity in dark roasts compared to medium or light roasts.
The coffee roasting process
Before moving further, it’s important to know how the coffee bean roasting process works. This helps to better understand the differences between roasts.
All coffee beans, including Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa (the former two being the most common), begin green in color.
During the coffee bean roasting process, the beans start to change hue — first becoming yellow, then light brown, and becoming darker the longer they roast.
Coffee beans emit a cracking noise after reaching an internal temperature of around 385°F (196.11°C).
Roasters refer to this sound as the “first crack.” Due to the heat, the beans are under a great deal of pressure, so they crack, releasing steam and carbon dioxide.
Roasters pull coffee beans shortly after the first crack for light and some medium roasts.
Around 435°F (223.88°C), if the beans continue roasting, they go through a “second crack,” emitting a softer sound than the first crack.
At this point, oils within the bean begin to seep out to the outer shell.
The beans look larger than light roasted coffee beans. The second crack produces darker roasts.
Both French and Italian roasts (and other dark roasts) continue heating until the second crack or after. Italian roasts heat longer than French roasts.
If roasters aren’t carefully paying attention after the second crack, the beans can turn into charcoal.
In that case, they’re useless, easily falling to pieces with any type of handling. As such, roasters are incredibly watchful during the roasting process.
How do French roast and Italian roast differ?
French and Italian roasts differ in their roasting process. Both endure the roasting process beyond the second crack, but Italian roasts go slightly longer, resulting in an almost black bean with a charred, burnt taste. French roasts are dark brown, with a bittersweet, smoky flavor.
French roast vs. Italian roast
While French and Italian roasts share many similarities, there are a couple of differences, as shown in the chart below:
|Characteristics:||French roast:||Italian roast:|
|Type of roast||Dark||Dark|
|Bean origin||Arabica or Robusta||Arabica or Robusta|
|Bean color||Very dark brown||Nearly black|
|Flavor||Smoky, bittersweet||Burnt, charred|
As you can see, the primary difference between French and Italian roast is the bean color and flavor profiles.
Aside from that, there are more similarities than differences. The roast that you choose depends on your flavor palette.
How is French roast coffee made?
French roast coffee is prepared using any kind of coffee beans roasted to a specified level of darkness after the second crack. These beans are dark brown in color, similar to dark chocolate. The beans develop a sheen due to their natural oils and produce a bold, bittersweet, smoky-tasting coffee.
French roast coffee is not made in France, although dark roasts are popular in the country. Order a “café” in France, and the barista will hand you an espresso.
The beans themselves aren’t grown in France either. Most producers grow coffee beans near the equator, as this is the best environment for growing the beans.
When making French roast coffee, roasters can use any bean, regardless of the origin country. Robusta beans are commonly used in France, whereas many places in the United States (including Starbucks) use Arabica beans.
French roast on the Agtron Gourmet Scale
The Agtron Gourmet Scale is a way to classify different coffee roasts. Using this scale, the Specialty Coffee Association of America lists French roast coffee as a dark roast, sitting between 28 and 35.
This means it’s one of the darkest coffees you can find. This roast profile is also commonly found in American espresso.
How is Italian roast coffee made?
Many people are under the impression that French roast is the darkest coffee roast you can find, but Italian roast is darker. Aside from this, Italian roasts result in an oilier bean.
Italian roast coffee begins with any coffee beans. During the roasting process, the beans exceed the second crack, resulting in nearly charred beans. They contain very little caffeine and acids compared to their lighter counterparts. People often describe Italian roast flavor as burnt.
What’s unique about Italian roast coffee is that it roasts for so long that drinkers are usually unable to recognize any defining characteristics of the original coffee bean.
As such, many can’t tell where the beans originated, nor if the roaster used high-quality or low-quality coffee beans.
The producer could have roasted the coffee beans two months ago, and there’d be little way to tell.
The flavor that most people detect when drinking an extremely dark roast is the result of the roasting process, not the natural coffee bean. Roasting beans to this level of darkness burns out any flavors.
Many people in southern Italy enjoy this super dark roast.
The taste test: French roast vs. Italian roast
As dark roasts, both French and Italian coffees get their flavors from the roasting process. There are very few differentiating characteristics left behind after roasting to this degree of darkness.
French roast has a robust and bold flavor, similar to dark chocolate or toasted nuts. Coffee connoisseurs may be able to distinguish some muted notes of the original coffee beans, but not as much as with lighter roasts.
There are dominant bittersweet tones with a roasted, smoky flavor.
Some people believe that French roasts often showcase lighter elements, such as warm, citrusy notes.
Interestingly, despite the long roasting process, people claim that Sumatra French roast coffees contain earthy elements that seem spicy or mossy.
Some even say that this coffee has elements similar to the taste of mushrooms.
Italian roast and other extremely dark roasts can be exceptionally bitter with dominant burnt notes.
The long roasting process results in carbonized fibers, leading to that distinctive flavor profile.
There are little to no natural characteristics of the bean itself in the overall flavor. The body of the drink is thin with low acidity.
Why are the different roasts called French and Italian?
French and Italian roasts received their names due to regional preferences. The preferred coffee in France is often dark and bitter, with quite a bit of added sugar. In Italy, people prefer espresso, made from super dark coffee beans.
Throughout the early 19th century, people throughout France took a liking to over-extracted coffee beans.
While we may never know the exact reason why the name for the dark roast has stuck.
Interestingly, while France is known for its gourmet cuisine, most of the coffee used in French cafés utilizes Robusta beans, not the higher-quality Arabica beans.
To the southwest, Italians prefer extremely dark roasts with intense, charred flavors (especially in the southern region of the country).
In fact, espresso is the brewing method of choice — and of course, that means dark roasted coffee.
Different regions throughout the country offer their own unique twists on espresso, so be sure to try a few if you ever visit the beautiful country.
According to the New York Post, most coffee connoisseurs (and amateurs) prefer a medium roast coffee.
However, the Los Angeles Times reports that dark roasts are the most popular selling brands of coffee.
No matter which coffee people prefer, dark roasts remain a staple in different regions of the world, despite the lack of distinguishing coffee bean flavors.
It seems that some prefer the bold, bittersweet taste created by the long roasting process over the light, floral, and sometimes sweet notes of lighter roasts.