My childhood was characterized by waking up to the aroma of sweet and nutty coffee brewing in the kitchen. I’ve always loved the smell, although it took me a decade and half to begin appreciating the strong flavor. My mom swore by French roast, and my dad preferred an Italian blend which he used in his espresso machine. They both smelled smoky-sweet and delicious to me and I could not understand the divide. I became an avid coffee drinker in my late teens, and their preferences left me wondering: what is the difference between French and Italian roast coffee?
Dark Roast Coffee
A dark roast signifies that the coffee bean has been roasted until it’s almost charred. The term dark or light roast refers to the actual color of the bean itself after being roasted. The longer the roasting process the deeper the flavors become. Both French and Italian styles are very dark roasts and are both less acidic than their light and medium counterparts.
The Darker the Roast, the Lighter the Kick
I love my dark roast coffee but for the first few years of my coffee drinking career I was under the misguided impression that strong flavored coffee equated a lower caffeine content. By the time I figured that out, it was too late. I was hooked on that rich, full bodied flavor. French and Italian roasts take the coffee bean to the edge of charring. They are the darkest roasts commonly available on the market. Here is a beautiful video to help us understand the roasting process:
The Flavor Profiles of Light and Dark Roast Coffee
The differences in these styles are clearly seen once we delve into how the coffee beans are actually roasted. If you’ve ever used the broiler when baking, you know how quickly your casserole or sweet buttery rolls can go from perfectly melty-bubbly to a burnt and un-useable char, barely fit for the compost pile. A matter of seconds makes all the difference when dealing with the roasting of coffee.
Releasing the Flavor
Roasting is simply a caramelization of the beans (really they are the seeds of the coffee trees they come from) produced by the coffee plant. The speed and temperatures at which the coffee is roasted determines the richness and character of a dark roast coffee. While light and medium roasts certainly lend themselves to the differences in the coffee beans and their origins; dark roasts highlight the smoky undertones of the charring process. Much like some people prefer to roast a pork tenderloin or beef rump roast in the crock pot, while others wouldn’t dare do anything other than cold-smoke their meats on a wood fired smoker.
Italian vs. French Roast Coffee
Both French and Italian roast coffee beans are taken to the hottest and darkest of the roasting spectrum. Only certain coffee beans are able to hold up to this process. Even so you really can’t tell the difference between the origin of the bean once you roast them this far. An experienced roaster could do a French or Italian roast with some green coffee beans from Ethiopia and another run with beans from Columbia and the resulting coffee would taste quite similar.
What is French Roast
A light French roast holds steadily on the fence allowing the drinker to differentiate between the flavor of the coffee bean and the deep nutty bite you get from roasting them until they are almost black. A light French roast may be for you if you are like me and you enjoy the smoky undertones dark roasts have to offer but you still want to honor the geographic origin of the coffee bean itself. Take a look here at this very interesting article on how and where coffee is grown.
Okay So Which Roast is Darker?
Overall we can denote that an Italian roast coffee is perhaps one of the darkest roasts commonly practiced today and is often the same type of bean that is used for pulling shots of espresso. Italian roasted coffee beans are taken to the brink. A few more seconds with an inexperience roaster would leave the beans burnt producing a sad thin cup of brewed charcoal. A well roasted Italian will be the strongest most intense flavor coffee you can wrap your mug around. A French roast is dark to be sure, but maybe a notch or so below the level of an Italian roast coffee.
Wrapping Up the Difference Between French and Italian Roast
When we ask ourselves truly, what is the difference between French and Italian roast coffee? The answer is simply this: there is very little difference, if any at all. The difference comes down to the style of the roaster who is overseeing the roasting of the coffee and their own personal interpretation of a “French roast” or an “Italian roast.” Both French and Italian roasted coffees are a very dark caramelization of the bean characterized by their smoky char and deep robust flavor.