French vs Italian Roast: A Deep Dive into Coffee Darkness

Aug 08, 2023 • Amélie Bigras

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Even non-coffee drinkers have heard of a French Roast and maybe even the Italian Roast, but what separates these two coffees and how do they brew into a coffee cup? Much darker on the roasting spectrum, Italian and French Roasts embody a fiercely bitter, dark chocolatey taste. However, the Italian Roast is the darkest and provides a wonderful body when pulled into a shot of espresso. When mixed with milk, French Roast coffee finds its form. 

Throughout the long history of coffee brewing, dark roasts like the French and Italian coffees have been around the longest. Roasters have been roasting to this level for generations due to the nature of the roasting process, including the foolproof roasting trick to know your beans have hit the dark level. Keep reading and we’ll explain the roasting process, the roasting scale from light to dark, and our recommendation for brewing French Roast Coffee and Italian Roast Coffee. 

French Flag in a heart beside an Italian flag in a heart with coffee beans in the background

Deep dives into roasting levels

At their roasteries, people work tirelessly to understand the relationship between fire and coffee beans. 

When drinking darker roasted coffee, people experience a smokey bitter taste and chocolatey notes common with French and Italian Roasts. Roasters need experience before roasting beans to this temperature, because the dark beans can burn and cause fires. Overroasting your beans can turn your coffee to ashes, causing roasters to lose inventory. 

There are four broad categories of roasts consumers can find on the market: 

  • Light Roasts — This broad category of roast is cooked slightly above raw. They’re all about enjoying the raw flavors grown into the coffee beans on the farm. There are specialty roasts called Cinnamon, Blonde, New England, and Golden Roasts where internal temperatures range from (385 F) to 405 F.
  • Medium Roasts — As the heat inside the roaster cooks the bean deeper, the bean becomes a medium roast. The beans at this temperature have their sugars caramelize and shrink as moisture evaporates. These profiles include American, City, and City+ from (210 C) 410 F to (225 F) 435 F. 
  • Medium-Dark Roasts — At the medium-dark roast, roasters hear a second crack and see darker coffee that has both bitter and sweet flavors intact. The Full City and Full City+ Roasts span from 225 C (437 F) to 234 C (454 F).
  • Dark Roasts — Lastly, the Vienna, French, and Italian Roasts are where you’ll find roasted-to-black coffee and where the interior oils have escaped the roast and coat the beans’ exterior. These temperatures span 239 C (462 F) to 246 C (474 F)
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As we mentioned above, the cracks are the auditory form of measuring the temperature of your beans. Before temperature gauges, roasters would follow the first and second crack to determine the doneness of a roast. 

However, some people don’t like the acidic, floral flavors that come from lightly roasted beans, so cooking your beans to a dark roast gets rid of those flavors. 

Exploration of French Roast

French Roast coffee and Italian Roast coffee are both close roasts. The two have a small list of differences.

Appearance of French Roast

French Roasts sit in the roasters for much longer than most coffee roasts. Like most darker roasts, the long roasting time creates a unified flavor that allows blends of various origins or low-quality products to develop a unified taste. 

To reach a French Roast temperature, the bean must blacken almost to the point of burning. The only darker roast is the Italian Roast. Along with the darker color, you can expect to see a coating of oil around the French Roast. 

French Roasted coffee beans

Flavor Profile of French Roast

Like all dark roasts, the French Roast has strong chocolatey and bitter flavors. When brewed, it won’t have the same syrupy and thick body as an espresso compared to the Italian Roast. Many first-time coffee drinkers will find the French Roast closer to a classic coffee taste. 

When approaching your lips, many people describe its aroma as a classic nutty smell. 

Best Practices for Brewing French Roast

We recommend brewing the French Roast for a mixed espresso-flavored drink likely iced or flavored with milk. The strong flavors of this bean will balance in a mixed drink, providing a strong coffee taste without an overpowered bitterness.  

If drinking in a classic coffee cup, we recommend a drip coffee brew for the French Roast to provide that classic early-morning diner taste. Additionally, a French Press can brew a classic French Roast coffee, assuming you keep your grinds at a medium size so they don’t seep through the filter.

With the realm of pastries and other coffee foods, we recommend a salty, sweet, or creamy start to your pairing to balance the dark chocolate taste. We recommend a cinnamon roll decorated with sweet icing, a stack of fluffy buttermilk pancakes, or a savory egg benedict with a perfectly poached egg to provide some balance to your palette.

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Exploration of Italian Roast

Italy’s love of the simple espresso brought about the common Italian Roast coffee bean because of its thick body and unique properties when pulled through the espresso. 

Description of Italian Roast

The Italian Roast sits in a roaster for as long as it can before being pulled from the oven. The Italian Roast gained popularity because sometimes coffee blends have different competing flavors or don’t reflect the grower’s best yield.

A dark roast creates a unified charred flavor that anyone can enjoy, although many require cream and sugar. The Italian Roast has crossed the final threshold achieving an almost crispy and ashy appearance. Baristas know the well roasted Italian Roast has a coating of oil on the bean making it look extra crisp. 

Italian Roasted coffee beans

Flavor Profile of Italian Roast

Roasters cook Italian Roasts to the point of burning. They pull the most bitter flavor one can expect from coffee.

The floral, acidic flavors natural in unroasted coffee beans are gone. Those flavors are replaced by now-burned sugars that remind tasters of dark chocolate. In an espresso machine, these qualities produce a full and robust body and taste that will wake up any weary coffee drinker.  

Best Practices for Brewing Italian Roast

As we’ve mentioned, baristas love choosing Italian Roasts for their espressos. Grinding your Italian Roast fine will help the pressured water penetrate the tamped coffee puck and leave you with a three-bodied espresso that will impress anyone. Alternatively, Italian Roasts can work well in a drip coffee brew. 

We recommend pairing your Italian Roast with cream and sugar, then adding some sort of creamy, salting, or sweet side. We recommend eating Belgian stroopwafels, sweet pumpkin bread, or a lightly salted over-easy egg with your coffee. 

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Comparing French Roast to Italian Roast

On the long roasting spectrum, French Roasts and Italian Roasts are incredibly similar to ultra-dark roasts. However, there are some differences. With a French Roast, you can expect bitter and a slightly smoky taste, whereas an Italian Roast will taste crispy and charred.

As for brewing methods, we recommend staying away from brewing methods that extract the most flavor normally reserved for light and medium roasts. The flavors here will already be strong. We think espresso, drip coffee, and a French Press would work best for both Italian and French Roasts. 

If you like your coffee black, the Italian Roast and French Roast will offer your expected dark chocolate and nutty flavors. From espresso machines of Italy to diner-drip coffee, dark roasts have their place in the international coffee scene and will likely never go away. 

Conclusion

French Roast and Italian Roast coffee occupy a distinguished place in the realm of dark roasts, with subtle differences that characterize their unique profiles. The French Roast, with its longer roasting time, reaches a near-burnt blackness that is only surpassed by the Italian Roast. It exhibits strong, chocolatey, and bitter flavors, with a classic nutty aroma and a texture that isn't as syrupy as an Italian Roast. Best paired with sweet or savory breakfast items, it can be enjoyed in various forms, such as mixed espresso-flavored drinks or classic drip coffee.

The Italian Roast, on the other hand, is known for its thick body and almost crispy and ashy appearance. With a robust taste that pulls the most bitter flavor from the coffee, it's a popular choice for espressos. Its dark, charred taste can be complemented with cream and sugar, and it pairs well with creamy, salty, or sweet sides.

Though the two roasts are incredibly similar as ultra-dark roasts, their slight differences in taste, appearance, and recommended brewing methods create unique coffee experiences for aficionados. Whether enjoying the slightly smoky taste of a French Roast or the crispy and charred flavor of an Italian Roast, both offer a rich and satisfying experience that has solidified their place in the international coffee scene.

Life’s too short. Enjoy your roast black!

Author

Amélie has a dual Bachelor of Biological Sciences and Literature. She wrote a Master's Thesis on the importance of blending scientific knowledge with the arts to create a healthier culture. She also has a Bachelor of Education and has been teaching Biology and Language Arts since 2016. She is happily addicted to coffee and constantly learning.

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