We took it for granted that everybody already knew this one. But this week alone, we had conversations on coffee with two regular customers who thought "french roast" meant something different than what it really is.
So what exactly is "french roast"?
It's simply a level of roasting beyond light (city), medium (city+/full city), dark (full city+) and Viennese.
The best layperson's explanation of roast levels we've found comes from Thompson Owen of Sweet Marias.
At this point of the roast, you're beyond the point of getting much, if any, of the beans origin flavor. What you're getting is caramelized sugars and maybe some deep chocolate notes, both supplied by the roast level, not the coffee bean.
Thus it shouldn't be surprising to learn that roasters are usually reluctant to subject their best beans to this kind of roast. Why would they? It would be like taking the finest marbled steak and cooking it past well done. A waste of money and good ingredients.
Generally speaking, beans selected for french roasts are beans that aren't particularly well-suited for much else. They don't have the level of quality or character that makes them a good choice for a single origin offering.
So they end up as french roasts, or as flavored coffees or as part of an inexpensive blend. Certainly there are exceptions to this, but you're not going to find a Cup of Excellence or auction coffee roasted all the way to French. Doesn't happen.
In other words, this is one case where adding "french" to the name of the product isn't an indicator of better quality. It's simply roasting beans to a high enough temperature where the predominant taste is one of "roastiness", so any old bean will do (and believe us, old beans are too often used for this roast level.)
Another wrong assumption is that the darker the roast, the more caffeine punch the coffee delivers. That's not exactly true. As the bean continues to expand during roasting, a french roasted bean is larger and less dense than a medium or dark roasted bean. You also have to consider that darker roasts mean more evaporation, thus less moisture remains in the bean. The darker you roast, the higher the caffeine to water ratio. But that's offset partially by the beans being less dense.
Where it gets really confusing is when you consider how you measure the beans you're going to use in your morning cup. If you measure by weight, you'll find a tiny increase in caffeine content. But If you measure by volume (using a scoop), there will be slightly less caffeine due to the fact it takes less ground french roast coffee to fill a scoop than a ligher roast. Follow?
Lucky for us there's a happy ending to this story. Once the customers in question learned what french roast was all about, they tried some lighter roasts that highlighted the actual origin flavors of the beans. And once they 'saw the light' they came over from 'the dark side' to enjoy a wider spectrum of true coffee flavors.
That said, there's certainly a market for french roast coffee. Lots of people do like their coffee darker than we do. So we'll continue to offer it. Rich has started to roast his own organic french roast up in Cranberry which we'll sell under our own label. He's still working on the formula (straight organic 2009 crop Mexico Altura has been deemed "too mild" by our hard-core french roast drinkers, so he's tinkering with adding other beans that can hold a deeper roast).
Added 1/11/10: When discussing french roasts, it's always worthwhile to note this article from CoffeeReview, which although titled "dark roasts" really refers to "french roasts".