Walk into any store that sells coffee, and you'll see a vast selection of coffee beans and coffee grounds, all tastefully labeled: light roast, medium roast, dark roast, medium-dark roast, and espresso roast.
To further complicate matters, some coffee roasters refer to their beans as American roast, French roast, Italian roast, and Vienna roast.
Coffee beans have so many different roast profiles that many coffee lovers don’t know which is which. While it’s easy to remember the difference between light, medium, and dark, the French, Italian, and Vienna roasts often throw people for a loop.
Today we're breaking it all down so that you'll never experience confusion again.
By the time you're done reading this, you'll know exactly which roast to shop for the next time you need whole beans.
Here’s the difference between French, Italian, and Vienna roasts, what they taste like, how they got their names, and where they come from.
Why Does the Roast Matter?
Before we get too deep into the different roasts, let's talk about how the roasting time and roasting process affect the taste of coffee beans.
Shorter roasting times produce the lightest beans. Lighter beans have the highest acidity levels and are generally sweeter and more complex in flavor than beans roasted for a longer time.
Longer roasting times produce darker roasts, which have slightly less acid and more oils on the surface. Dark roasts are generally richer and fuller-bodied than lighter roasts.
During the roasting process, the beans crack open and release steam. It's at the "first crack" that coffee beans become edible, ready for grinding and brewing into a cup of coffee.
Light roasts finish roasting once the first crack occurs. At this point, the beans are usually yellow or pale brown in color.
Medium roasts go beyond the first crack and are distinguishable by their medium brown hue.
For a roast to classify as dark, it must roast long enough to hit the point at which there is a second crack. At this point in the process, the beans start to release oils (which can be visible on the bean's surface). Dark roast beans have the look of dark chocolate or even darker, sometimes even black.
Here’s the bottom line:
The darker the roast, the richer the cup of coffee. French, Italian, and Vienna are all dark roast coffee beans, with Vienna roast being the lightest of the three.
What is Vienna Roast?
Vienna roast coffee is dark brown in color, with a bit of oil on the surface and a more bittersweet flavor than beans that roast for a more extended period of time.
What does Vienna Roast taste like?
Sometimes referred to as Viennese roast, Vienna roast coffee has a subtle dark chocolate flavor with a smoky aroma.
The longer a coffee bean roasts, the less detectable the origin and the original flavors of the bean become. Vienna roast is an excellent option for those who enjoy a dark roast but still want to detect some of the coffee bean's authentic flavors.
Where Do Vienna Roast Beans Come From?
The roasting level of coffee beans has nothing to do with where the beans are grown or what type of beans they are. It merely refers to how long they’re roasted.
With a light roast, you can detect more flavor and more notes of where the beans were grown and harvested. Darker roasts, including the Vienna roast, have less of their original flavor. For this reason, Vienna roast coffee beans from different roasters and countries tend to taste somewhat similar.
What is French Roast?
French roast coffee does not mean that the coffee came from France or brewed in a French press. It simply means that the beans are roasted to a darker level, slightly longer than those at the Vienna roast level.
What does French Roast Taste Like?
French roast beans are very dark brown in color with a shiny and oily finish. They roast until the end of the second crack, have slightly less acidity than Vienna roasts, and produce a rich and smoky flavor.
The French roast is similar in appearance to the espresso roast, and many coffee drinkers think it has a slightly burnt taste.
Where Do French Roast Beans Come From?
French roast beans can come from anywhere in the world. Because they roast to the point where their origin flavors dissipate, you can take any beans to the French roast level. (Yes, including beans of lower quality.)
Light roast coffee beans tend to keep their country of origin's flavor characteristics. Whereas dark roast beans keep less of their natural flavor in the extended roasting process. They are essentially just one step darker than Vienna roast.
What is Italian Roast?
Italian roast beans are nearly charred and contain less acids than other dark roasts that don’t endure the second crack.
What Does Italian Roast Taste Like?
Italian roast is the darkest and oiliest of all the roasts, so much so that the beans tend to look almost black and have a slightly burnt taste.
Of all the dark roasts, Italian roasts have even fewer characteristics of the beans’ original flavor. With Italian roast beans, the distinct flavors of where the coffee was grown are barely noticeable.
Where Do Italian Roast Beans Come From?
Italian roast beans roast for so long that it doesn't really matter where they come from. In fact, because they roast to a nearly burnt level, you won't even be able to taste or tell if you're drinking a cup made from low-quality beans.
Beans taken to the Italian roast level can come from anywhere in the world. Sometimes they’re Arabica, and sometimes they’re Robusta beans — it doesn’t make much difference.
Do You Know: Why acidity in coffee matters?
What Are the Best Ways to Brew French, Italian, and Vienna Roasts?
As French, Italian, and Vienna roasts are all dark roasts, some specific brewing methods can make them more flavorful than others.
- Light roasts are best with a drip machine or a pour-over coffee maker.
- Medium roasts tend to work best as drip brews or cold brews.
- With their rich and bold flavors, dark roasts offer even more flexibility. This makes them ideal for brewing in a French Press, plunging in an AeroPress, or pulling as a shot of espresso.
Tips for Using a French Press
The French press helps draw the oils out of your coffee grinds, making it ideal for brewing dark roast beans.
When using a French press, you’ll want to grind your beans to a coarse texture. Dark roast coffee beans naturally have a more bitter taste, and over-extracting your coffee can make it taste even more so. Coarser grinds help to slow down the extraction process and reduce the chances of over-extraction.
With a French press, keep your beans to water ratio at approximately 1:16.
Note: Wet and soak the grinds for about thirty seconds before filling up your French press with hot water. You'll make it easier for the coffee to bloom, allowing carbon dioxide to escape and creating a more flavorful cup.
Tips for Using an AeroPress
When using an AeroPress, you can choose a fine grind or a coarse grind. The grind doesn’t make much difference, but the temperature of your water will.
The hotter the water, the more likely you will taste the bitterness and acidity in your roast. Because dark roasts tend to be bitter, to begin with, it’s a good idea to lower your water temperature slightly.
Dark roasts extract faster than light roasts and lowering the water temperature slows down the process. AeroPress suggests brewing with water at 175°F for dark roasts, as opposed to 185°F for lighter roasts.
See our brew guide on the Aeropress for step-by-step brewing instructions.
Tips for Pulling the Perfect Shot of Espresso
With a bit of practice and a good espresso machine, pulling a great shot of espresso only takes a few seconds.
Since dark roast beans are oily by nature, you may spend some extra time cleaning your espresso machine in order to enjoy the perfect shot every time. Over time, those oils can build up in the machine and detract from the natural flavors in your cup.
French, Italian, and Vienna Roasts are Not From France, Italy, or Austria
French roasts don't actually come from France. Italian roast coffee isn't from Italy.
And Vienna roast coffee beans?
You guessed it: not made in Austria.
Despite their geographical names, these roasts refer to the style of coffee, not the actual place where they’re grown or roasted.
Why Is It Called French Roast?
Sometimes referred to as Turkish roast, French roast coffee is not from France, nor is it from Turkey either. It has absolutely nothing to do with France or the French culture. It’s simply a term that describes the color and the roast level of the bean.
There's no real way to know how the French roast got its name, but it may be because the French coffee culture revolves around espresso. (And dark, French roast beans make for a delicious shot of espresso!)
Further fun reading: What Everyone Should Know About French Coffee!
The History Behind the Italian Roast
Coffee plants don't grow in Italy, and Italian roast coffee is not even necessarily roasted there. There is no long, complex explanation of how the Italian roast came to be. Like the French roast, the Italian roast is simply a name used to describe a coffee bean's color and roast level.
When Italians started roasting coffee beans, they chose different beans from around the world — many of which were low-quality. Roasting to the ultra-dark level of the Italian roast made it easier to disguise the taste of low-quality beans and made it an excellent option for making espresso.
The Story Behind the Vienna Roast
Like its French and Italian counterparts, Vienna roast has little to do with Vienna or Austria at all. It’s not grown there, roasted there, or necessarily even consumed there. It simply refers to the color and roast level of the beans.
As with other types of coffee beans, Vienna roast is just a way to identify a particular kind of bean — a dark roast that’s ready once it hits the second crack.
Which Roast is Better, French, Italian, or Vienna?
There is no way to say that French roast is better than Italian roast or that Vienna roast is better than French roast. It’s all about your preference.
Coffee is a personal choice:
- The roast you like
- The flavors you prefer
- How you brew it
- What you add to it
These are all personal decisions that each and every coffee drinker needs to make for themselves.
If you already know that you like a French roast, try the Vienna and try the Italian. They are only slightly different from one another, and you may find that your beloved French roast isn’t actually your favorite at all.
It’s obvious and easy to remember that light roasts are lighter in color than medium roasts and dark roasts are the darkest. But within the dark roast category falls the Vienna roast, the French roast, and the Italian roast, and remembering which is which can be a bit tricky.
On the dark roast spectrum, the Vienna is the lightest, the French is darker, and the Italian roast is the darkest.
One way to remember this is to use a little mnemonic device: Very Fine Indeed.
If you can remember those three little words in that order, you’ll never forget that of the three varieties:
- Vienna is the lightest
- French roast is slightly darker
- Italian is the darkest of all
Ready to sample a new, organic, fair-trade dark roast? Check out the Organic Red Rooster French Roast at Taylor Lane now!