French Roast vs Espresso Roast

Postby cmcclellan on Wed Apr 11, 2012 9:12 am

Which do you prefer to use for making espresso based coffees (lattes, mochas, cappuccinos), the more caramelly espresso roast or a smokey french roast?
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Postby another_jim on Wed Apr 11, 2012 9:33 am

These roast names are somewhat misleading and flexible; but generally people identify very dark and oily bean as French roasts, and milk chocolate colored, slightly oily beans as Full City or espresso roasts. I'm guessing that's what you mean.

When drinking high quality coffees brewed or in straight shots, most people gravitate towards lighter roasts then these as they become more experienced. But for milk drinks, the medium caramelized roasts may be best. Very dark roasts can taste ashy, even in milk; while very light roasts can get lost.
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Postby HB on Wed Apr 11, 2012 10:03 am

Alan Frew included the term "French Roast" in his Top 10 Coffee Myths:

Alan Frew wrote:French Roast, Italian Roast, Vienna Roast, Espresso Roast are terms which actually define roast levels.

Except that you get a pretty wide variety of roasts in France, Italy and Austria and an Espresso Roast could be anything. The only "industry standard" definition of roast level is the Agtron system, and that relies on the comparison of ground coffee to standardised colour plates. When people ask for "French", "Italian" or "Espresso" roast they normally mean "Dark", or sometimes "Dark and Oily", or even "Nuked".

I cannot remember where I read it, but from what I understand, the term "French roast" originated from the old French solution to coffees that went funky during long overseas shipment. That is, they'd roast it until the objectionable taste was burnt away. Today many roasters will have varying quantities of darkly-roasted coffee in their blends destined for milk-based drinks. Sadly, the stronger flavors are necessary to cut through the "big gulp" lattes many American cafe patrons demand.

Generally speaking, I don't like espresso made with darkly roasted coffee. They're too ashy; they're tolerable if served with enough milk. Some roasters do manage a dark roasted coffee without harsh roast notes. I haven't ordered it in awhile, but I remember enjoying Paradise Roasters Espresso Havana, especially prepared with a spring-powered lever espresso machine, whose declining pressure profile smoothed out the roast edginess.
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Postby Randy G. on Wed Apr 11, 2012 11:29 am

I have read over one hundred times that "Espresso is a beverage, not a roast." Any roast can be used to brew espresso. French Roast is a good way to ruin perfectly good and innocent beans that never hurt anyone. :wink:

Funny this comes up - last weekend we were in line at Costco and the fellow behind us in line had two 5lb. bags (I think that's what they weighed- they were the big bags) and both were French Roast - One was San Franciscan and the other was Starbucks.. I almost started a conversation with him but restrained myself as I knew where it would go. The beans looked disgusting to me. Ruined.

Now, if that's a flavor you like, great. Enjoy. But I prefer the taste of coffee and not the taste of the roast. While some beans benefit from a darker roast level, but they time you get into the French roasts where beans are very dark and oily right out of the roaster, the roast flavor dominates. There are so very many wonderful flavors hiding in quality beans that are destroyed when roasting that dark.

I did some work for a client who is a commercial roaster. They sent me a small bag of their espresso roasted beans that were dark roasted (the only roast they do). I tried to brew it every way I could, going through a range of grind settings wider than any other bean I have done in years. I ended up throwing half a bag into the trash as it was disgusting regardless as to how I brewed it. Tasted like licking the bottom of a BBQ.
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Postby cmcclellan on Wed Apr 11, 2012 12:22 pm

Well one of the best coffee shops around where I live in Austin uses a locally roasted french roast, and it's definitely the best espresso I have had. I pretty much have only had access to the Starbucks roasted beans for my home brews. The so called "espresso" roast has too much of a caramel flavor to it, especially in the crema. I like the french roast better because I can taste more coffee through the larger portion of milk, though it is a little ashy. However, I would like to try some of the other roasts, but I've read a lot that when making milk drinks, it's best to use the darker roasts. I'm assuming from what you all have said that the medium roasts can come through too.
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Postby Randy G. on Wed Apr 11, 2012 1:01 pm

Conner,
Two things must be considered.

The first is personal taste. I have a neighbor who use to be a salesman/distributor for the Thanksgiving Coffee Company. He always bought the "Midnight Roast" from a local commercial roaster we both know personally. He brewed it in a drip machine. The only way I can describe these coffee beans is "very black and soaked on the surface with oil." it smelled worse than it looked. I roasted him a batch of my own blend of Colombian/Yemen Mocha and it was roasted in a Hearthware Gourmet (air roaster). He said it was the best coffee he ever had... but went right back to drinking the Midnight Roast. To each, his own.

You mention that you didn't like the caramel taste of the coffee from Starbucks? This is a taste that many strive for. The dark roast was ashy to you? And you prefer that? OK, but a (and dare I speak for the group in this way), a VAST majority of folks here who had beans that tasted ashy would dump them into the trash. Note that the header above states that this site is intended to be a "guide to exceptional espresso." Ashy is generally not a part of a flavor profile that this group looks for and considers a defect.

If you like the flavor of the coffee to come through the milk, use less milk.

The second consideration is the relative tastes of various coffees. It is not at all difficult to make an espresso-based coffee beverage that tastes better than a Starbucks cappuccino. If you were using their beans at home, the one thing you can be sure of is that the coffee was stale. My universal advice is: "Never buy coffee that has a "best if used by" statement on the package.

"Medium roast" doesn't mean much to me because it is merely a relative reference putting the beans between light and dark. Compared to the dark roasts that one sees in the bins at the supermarket, a "medium" roast would be darker than I use for espresso. The "light" roasts seen there are comparable to what I use for espresso at home. Sort of a medium to dark oak color with no oil showing, and maybe a few droplets on a small number of beans after a week's rest, but no oil when fresh.

As an introduction to coffee flavors, take a look at THIS IMAGE of the SCAA coffee flavor wheel. It will give you an idea of the complexity of the flavors and aromas in coffee and how fine coffees are judged and discussed.
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Postby bean2friends on Wed Apr 11, 2012 1:47 pm

personal taste is an interesting thing. I used to love Starbucks. I bought it in the grocery and at their stores - usually in a small cap. And, I liked the darker the better. Then, my steam espresso maker broke and, at the same time, Starbucks started using super automatics. I began to search for a better cup. I started roasting my own beans. I joined this and other sites where folks had similar goals. My early roasts were attempts to recreate that dark flavor I liked. Gradually, I paid attention to what people recommended for various beans. I began to think there was little sense to buying a particular bean that Thom at Sweet Maria's described as fruity when roasted to City+ if I was going to roast it to Full City+ or French. Lately, I think I've been tending towards lighter roasts and since my wife and I enjoy a couple of small lattes in the morning, I think I'll try some on the darker side. One example, I got some Peru Norte recently that I roasted to about a City+. I found it delicious as a French Press - incredibly sweet. Then, someone recommended I try it as espresso. I did and found it equally delicious. I'm now thinking a darker roast might enhance the espresso for this bean - or maybe a blend of dark and lighter roasts. It's great fun to try. Meanwhile, I have 2 brothers who are mightily impressed with a very dark roast on the SM French Roast or Moka Kadir blends. In the words of Jim Croce, "no matter how smooth I talk", they won't listen to the fact that lighter roasts are sometimes to be preferred.
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Postby subq on Wed Apr 11, 2012 2:47 pm

personal taste and machine characteristics I guess

I mostly drink caps pulled from a Strega and use a pretty big range of beans...in fact, I'm usually just using a SO (not an "espresso" offering) from the popular artisan roasters mentioned on the board.

I find that the flavor rarely if ever gets lost in the milk...albeit my caps are small (or is it traditional... 5oz range). If it was charbucks or a big latte then it would probably be different.
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Postby cmcclellan on Wed Apr 11, 2012 4:35 pm

@ Randy G. I see what you're saying with the ashy flavor not being acceptable. Being I just got my first espresso machine two months ago, I'm still attempting to find the preferences I like. That coffee flavor wheel looks like it will come in handy, thanks.
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Postby Randy G. on Wed Apr 11, 2012 6:15 pm

cmcclellan wrote:@ Randy G. I see what you're saying with the ashy flavor not being acceptable. Being I just got my first espresso machine two months ago, I'm still attempting to find the preferences I like. That coffee flavor wheel looks like it will come in handy, thanks.

We all started somewhere. Don't get discouraged, and don't be thrown off by different or unfamiliar flavors. Seek out the different and unique. Look for local shops that might offer tasting sessions or even classes.

A "local" shop here had a roast they use to use from a S.F. Bay area roasted. The "finish" of the flavor was overwhelmingly unsweetened oranges. That finish started out as highly acidic, and the brain expected it to be nasty sour (when my wife sipped it I saw in her facial expression that she braced herself for the acidity sourness, and then her face lit up as to how pleasant the taste was). About the time you expected it to be nasty-sour, the flavor became very pleasant and fruity. There are more identified flavor elements in espresso than there are in wine! It's a very complicated beverage.

As far as tasting, there is a lot of info out there, but for a beginner I would give two pieces of advice. The first is to pay attention to the beginning, the middle, and the end of the flavor on the palate. It changes, sometimes dramatically. The second is that espresso can be overwhelming to the palate. Making an Americano (adding an amount of heated water equal to the espresso's volume) can dilute the flavors while maintaining the general profile of flavor.

And never get discouraged. I have been at this for over eleven years, and still feel like a newbie.
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