French Roast VS Italian Roast Coffee Beans – What’s The Difference?

Do you love an intense dark roast coffee? Do you get confused when you see labels that declare the coffee is a French roast or an Italian roast at Starbucks?

You may ask yourself if those names mean where the coffee was grown, where it was roasted, or something else entirely. What is the difference between a French Roast coffee and an Italian Roast coffee?

Frankly, the difference is a bit murky and can depend on the roasting styles of the coffee company you buy from. I’ll walk you through the differences and when to use these roasts.

dark coffee beans

Is Italian roast coffee stronger than French Roast Coffee?

Both a French and Italian roast are at the darkest roasting range. The coffee bean has passed first crack, that moment when the energy inside the coffee bean builds up to the point that the bean literally explodes.

Then the roaster continues to coax the temperature and time until second crack is reached. When the coffee beans crack again, the cell structure expands even more. That’s why dark beans look bigger than light or medium roasted beans. 

This second crack isn’t as loud or dramatic, but it means an important point has been reached. The coffee is now moved to medium to a dark roast.

If the roaster continues roasting for too much longer, the beans will be charcoal. So a vigilant eye is required to get a dark roast just right.

dark roast beans

Hitting Second Crack

At this second crack, the oil inside the bean starts to come out and cover the surface. That’s why dark roasts have that rich, oily look. The color is also intense, and the caffeine content lowers.

French roasts are dark, but Italian roasts go one step beyond that. They’re even darker. More oils have seeped out of the beans, which gives the impression of more body. An Italian roast coffee can seem stronger than a French roast blend. 

Be aware that every coffee roaster and coffee shop has a different idea of what a French and Italian roast should be. 

What should a French and Italian roast taste like? And what’s the difference between them?

The Flavor Difference

Both a French roast and Italian roast might have tasting notes or aromas of dark chocolate or cocoa, caramelized sugar, molasses, toasted marshmallow, or baking chocolate. 

Actually, that list sounds more like a bakery menu than a description of what’s in your coffee cup. That might be part of the appeal.

whole french roast bean

French Is Intense 

When compared to Italian roasts, the difference with a French roast is that it’s generally going to be more intense and smoky, with a thin body.

People often favor their coffee dark because it seems stronger. Depending on your coffee background, that intense roasted taste might be what “real coffee” tastes like to you. 

Things Become Roasty The Darker You Go

In reality, dark roasts just taste like roast. You get the full impact of flavors that are imparted to the bean during the roasting process.

In fact, dark roasts cover over the majority of the inherent flavors in coffee beans. 

That may be a good thing. If the coffee is of lower quality, you’d probably want to cover over the unpleasant flavor, lack of sweetness, and acidity gone wrong.

Light Roasts Taste More Bean Like 

On the other hand, good quality coffee is going to give you complex flavor notes, an exciting acidity, and a fascinating body. You’re going to be able to detect the origin of the coffee or the region it was grown in.

Your coffee may naturally have the aroma or flavor of fruit, such as pineapple, berry, or citrus. It may have a creaminess about it as if you’d added milk, even though you didn’t. It may have the flavor of honey or cinnamon.

All of these flavors are natural, not added. They’re a result of how the coffee is grown and processed, and they add a lot of character to the drink.

Roasting the coffee too dark means you could miss out on all those exciting flavor profiles.

oily beans

Does Italian Roast Mean Espresso?

Italians are known for their espresso, so it’s a common idea that Italian roasts should only be used as espresso beans.

The word espresso refers to a way to make coffee, not a roasting process. An espresso can be made with lightly roasted coffee, though the higher acidity may not be everyone’s preference.

That’s why dark roasts are often preferred for espresso-based products. As a coffee is roasted darker, the acidity lowers. That lowered acidity makes it easier to pull a balanced shot. 

Darker roasts are also generally sweeter since the sugars in the coffee beans have had time to caramelize more. That makes for a sweeter shot.

Nonetheless, a skilled barista can pull memorable shots with any kind of roasts, including a light roast.

Darker Roast Coffees

So, what are dark roast coffees good for? If you’ll be adding heavy cream, frothy milk, or sweeteners to coffee, a dark roast stands up to all those additions.

A French and Italian roast blend might not be the best for a drink without milk, like an Americano. The bitterness might overwhelm the drink, with nothing to cut it.

Some traditional Italian drinks are generally made with a shot or two of espresso from a dark roast and served with the following additions:

     Cappuccino – topped with milk foam, sometimes with steamed milk

     Mocha – steamed milk, chocolate, or chocolate syrup, and topped with milk foam

     Latte – larger proportion of steamed milk and a thin layer of milk foamOf course, there are many other types of drinks using espresso as a base, with some being specific to certain countries.

Why Are They Called French Or Italian Roasts?

Both French and Italian roasts got their names because of regional preferences.

French roast: Back at the start of the 19th century, French roast was popular throughout France and also much of Europe.

Italian roast: Tastes in coffee tend to run dark and intense in Italy. That preferred dark roast got the nickname of Italian roast, and it has stuck.

Also, as I mentioned, espresso is the coffee brewing method of choice in Italy. Using a dark roast to make espresso is ideal to get a balanced shot of espresso, and thus popular in Italy.

Karen Attman

Karen Attman

The Coffee Lady

Karen Attman is a published author and specialty coffee expert. Otherwise known as the coffee lady, Karen is the Latin American Coffee Academy founder and has previously written about coffee for CNN, Sprudge, and Eater.