give me french roast or give me death
July 8, 2011 12:12 PM   Subscribe

What is wrong with coffee these days and why can't I get a freakin' french roast in a DC cafe?

In DC, "pour over" coffee is all the rage in the smaller cafes, along with fretfully curated sustainable beans and bespoke on-site microroasting. But to a man, all of these coffees taste grody to me -- they have an unpleasant vegetably, raw overtone. I can't find one place that does a nice, dark french roast, the way coffee is supposed to taste. In fact, when I asked one barista at one of these cafes why they never had dark roasts, he sniffed archly that a dark roast "covers up all the flavors."

So I have two questions: 1) Where did this trend of anti-dark roasting come from? Aren't the French like the masters of cuisine, so why would french roast be seen as so lower class by the coffee cognosetti? 2) Is there anywhere I can get a dark roast pour over in the DMV? I like the pour-over method; it's just the roast I can't get behind.
posted by yarly to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think the anti-dark roast sentiment has been in reaction to Starbucks, who only offer dark and extra-dark beans. Also who will be happy (ok, maybe not happy but able and willing) to make you a pour-over cup of whichever dark roast of theirs you'd like, including the French Roast.
posted by carsonb at 12:17 PM on July 8, 2011

Response by poster: I think the anti-dark roast sentiment has been in reaction to Starbucks, who only offer dark and extra-dark beans.

Hmm, that makes sense. But Starbucks also always has that vegetably taste to me too. I don't think they offer a french roast.
posted by yarly at 12:18 PM on July 8, 2011

Its seen as lower class for exactly the same reason spoofy high alcohol/high sugar content industrial wine is seen as low class - it obscures the underlying flavors/terroir. Also coffee in france is notoriously terrible. You might claim this is needless pretension. maybe it is. if you don't like the end result then sure it is.

I mean its a question of taste - you like the taste of French Roast. That's cool, the barista was a dbag for telling you its low class. Fuck'em.

But its the way coffee is supposed to taste to you personally my love of coffee has grown dramatically as I've found lighter roasts and single origin coffees.

(BTW perhaps you should try a french press rather than a pour-over - it has more of the essential oils left it in so it has a little more punch)
posted by JPD at 12:21 PM on July 8, 2011

Starbucks French Roast

Also, I don't know how many stores have this available, but a few Sbux have the Clover brewer that isn't exactly pour-over and isn't exactly french press, but something else entirely.
posted by carsonb at 12:22 PM on July 8, 2011

Oh also - I believe the french roast originated as a way to hide the harsher flavors of the lower quality robusta beans that grew best in the French colonies, and received favorble tariff treatment so were cheaper.
posted by JPD at 12:26 PM on July 8, 2011

Ehhh, the trend started in the 90's with three of the more successful "third wave" coffee roasteries; Stumptown, Counter Culture, and Intelligenstia. (check out the book God in a Cup, if you want a really good rundown of how they changed the industry on a whole).
?In regards to french roast though, they started focusing more and more on single origins, and putting way less emphasis on blends, which are typically what you'd see in a French Roast. These major players, and a pretty large cross section of smaller roasteries were/are more interested in the differences and nuances between different coffees than they are other characteristics. This tendency leads them away from darker roasts (not always, but sometimes).

French roast is also one of those things that's really hard to do well. The problem with 'french roast' coffee is that when you roast coffee that dark, it has a tendency to create carbons that are really similar to charcoal. This charcoal-quality absorbs alot of flavors and aromas, and it's own natural flavors have a tendency to break down really fast, so you tend to get undesireable defects. If you roast it properly, you can get it pretty dark, but not scorched.

I'll also go right out and say it: the french suck at coffee. They're just not good at it. JPD has it right, French roast historically started as a way to mask the bad flavors in really, really, really old coffee after it had been harvested and traveled a really long way to get to France.

BUT, it can be really tasty, and if you like it, that's totally your call, and as for finding some, you should try mail ordering French roasts from different coffee companys, and sticking with your favorite. You might not be able to find a decent one locally, I wish i had a good roastery suggestion for you there.
posted by furnace.heart at 12:27 PM on July 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

1) Where did this trend of anti-dark roasting come from?

Dark roasts offer consistency, not flavor. It's what you do with lots of different beans of varying quality to make sure they all taste the same. It's what happens when you lack quality beans. "Espresso beans" as we know them in the USA are dark roasted not because this makes the best espresso, but because Southern Italian immigrants brought that style with them to the US, and since they were relatively poor, they used cheaper beans and dark roasted them. Sometimes this "make do under tough circumstances" thing works out great-- chicory was first mixed with coffee because there were coffee shortages, and I think chicory-flavored coffee is great.

2) Is there anywhere I can get a dark roast pour over in the DMV? I like the pour-over method; it's just the roast I can't get behind.

The problem here is that the sort of people who do pour-over coffee are unlikely to offer French Roast. You're more likely to find French Roast in just regular, every-day DC coffee places that I'm sure you're familiar with.
posted by deanc at 12:47 PM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

You're not alone. I understand what you mean by the vegetal flavors. It can be caused by under-roasting, poor bean handling, or improper bean storage. Or, it could be a desirable characteristic of the coffee to some people. For example, some African dry-processed coffees taste like dirt to me, but others love that.

Regarding "french" roast or darker, some coffee snobs feel that there is a point at which the roast character takes over. In other words, if you burn the beans it doesn't matter what kind of beans they are. Still, there is a wide range of acceptable roast levels and there are some beans that taste great when roasted that dark. A good roaster will figure out the right roast level for each variety, which can vary down to the plantation in some cases. (For lots of interesting coffee roasting stuff, read the stuff at Sweet Maria's. )

Back to your problem. You could try asking for a pour-over with their espresso blend. They are usually, but not always, roasted a little darker than the regular ones. Or, if they offer roasting notes on their coffees, you could look for the words "Full City" or FC (sometimes FC+ also). That will indicate something roasted to the darker end of their range, but it's still short of French Roast.
posted by cabingirl at 12:52 PM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I feel your pain. there are other dark roasts other than french though (i actually don't like french roast, but i'l take it over a light roast anytime): try "italian" or "vienna" or see if they'll make it with espresso.

jeez i thought it was just san francisco that went light.
posted by at 1:13 PM on July 8, 2011

Maybe a Viennese roast, or a contenental? Ask if they do any second crack roasting.
posted by at at 1:20 PM on July 8, 2011

Why do you want pour-over specifically? I would think you would have an easier time finding a solid house dark roast from a drip machine or french press. There is nothing wrong with a Technivorm that is well maintained and clean. Pour over is time consuming and really only makes sense for single origin coffee where you have four or five single origins on offer, and everyone is asking for a different one so you can't do batches. French press is a little more common than pour over in my experience and that's how I would like dark roast if I were drinking it. Pour over holds back some of the oils that give coffee thickness and body and oomph, which may be partly contributing to your perception that fancypants coffee is gross.

Vegetal tastes- I know what you mean when light roasts taste 'vegetal', I've totally botched roasts at home and gotten that result. I also think that you might be interpreting acidity that some people call 'fruity' as 'vegetal' when it mingles with off tastes from water, filters, other things the beans were exposed to in storage, whatever.

But good roasts at any roast level aren't going to have any true vegetal taste whatsoever except for bean defects from green storage (unroasted green coffee picks up off flavors after ~6 mos or sooner in the wrong conditions) or something that infected the crop or was wrong with the plant to begin with (some roasters will talk about 'skunky' beans ruining a batch). So the problem is that Starbucks beans were stored carelessly, harvested haphazardly from bad plants, and are stored too long again after roasting, so they're stale and bad in every sense. Light roasts might have acidity or floral/fruit flavors that are not to your liking, or be a little off balance in general, but 'vegetal' is an outright defect of some sort and I wonder if that's what you're tasting.

If I had your tastes I would be looking for a blend marked medium or dark composed of mostly Central/South American (El Salvador, Guatemala, Columbia, Peru, Chile, Brazil) or Indonesian (Java, Sumatra, Bali) coffees. Even coffee snobs know that Indonesian coffee needs a darker roast than others, and they are the least crazy tasting and the backbone of many darker roast blends. I bet you dislike African coffees, especially Kenyas or Ethiopians, and the fruitier/floral Central American ones from Panama or Costa Rica. What I suspect you are after is balance and absence of wacky flavors that show up in light roast, but you CAN get that with the right blend without going all the way to shiny-oily French roast dark. Balance is your keyword for the barista.
posted by slow graffiti at 1:40 PM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Starbucks does at least three awful things to their beans.

They burn them; then after the beans are burnt Starbucks' roasters cool them with a water spray instead of brushing the just-roasted beans around on a stainless table with holes drilled in it (which I've concluded is the reason all their coffee tastes like bad SWP decaf to me); then after all that abuse, they refuse to give their retail customers a roasting date that would allow assessment of freshness.

They do none of these things for the sake of flavor, they do them for profit. The cinders of good beans aren't much worse than those of bad ones, which reduces the amount growers need to be paid; water spray cooling reduces roasting cycle time, which reduces capital costs and operating expenses in turn; and withholding roasting dates keep them from having to throw away stale coffee. They can sell it to their valued customers instead.

But worst of all, they've produced a generation of drinkers who actually prefer inferior coffee!

Good lighter roasts are harder to come by these days because of that perversion, yarly, but I'd like to encourage you to maintain an open minded palate; the best light roast coffee tastes like something the finest chocolate can only hopelessly aspire to become.
posted by jamjam at 1:54 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: it obscures the underlying flavors/terroir.

Regarding "french" roast or darker, some coffee snobs feel that there is a point at which the roast character takes over.

Interesting ... but why can't the flavor of a dark roast be considered a legitimate palate element itself?

Why do you want pour-over specifically? I would think you would have an easier time finding a solid house dark roast from a drip machine or french press. There is nothing wrong with a Technivorm that is well maintained and clean.

I did once manage to get a dark roast pour-over at it was very good, but I guess I would also be happy with another method. But none of the cafes I go to offer any dark roasts at all, using any method ... I may just have to go back to Americanos.
posted by yarly at 2:08 PM on July 8, 2011

The places that I know in DC that do pour-over are Peregrine and Qualia. I, personally, am not into the dark roast (I prefer full city roast), but I believe that both places had some dark roasts. In any case, as someone up-thread said, you could probably get them to do a pour-over of their espresso roast to get the flavor that you want if they don't have it.
posted by aaanastasia at 2:15 PM on July 8, 2011

Coffee Snob: I feel that there is a point at which the roast character takes over.

You: Interesting ... but why can't the flavor of a dark roast be considered a legitimate palate element itself?

Coffee Snob: Dark roast is code for burnt. Burnt tastes the same no matter what beans you use, and overpowers any other flavors. If you were going to make really dark toast, you wouldn't use a tasty bread with intricate flavors, would you? No, because burnt artisan bread tastes the same as burnt Wonderbread. Excuse me while I hand-roast my freshly harvested, local, organic beans using the noon sun and a magnifying glass.

You: But I LIKE the "burnt" flavor.

Coffee Snob: OUT!
posted by 3FLryan at 2:46 PM on July 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

Mayorga in Takoma Park, hard by the Metro, serves dark roast coffee, and offers French Roast beans for purchase.
posted by OmieWise at 3:38 PM on July 8, 2011

I like the fretfully prepared "pour over" coffees but I get your point. Have you tried Misha's in Old Town Alexandria?
posted by citron at 5:25 PM on July 8, 2011

Starbucks offers nothing but "french" (ie, reduced to charcoal) roasts. DC is packed with Starbucks. Problem solved.

If you find it "vegetal" just get the pike place or house espresso. Again, problem solved.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 6:51 PM on July 8, 2011

The "pour over" method you like was first popularized by Melitta. If you don't mind doing it yourself at home, get some Melitta Dark Roast coffee, a Ready Set Joe 1-cup coffee maker, some #2 Melitta cone filters, and a good kettle. Later, if you want, you may add an inexpensive blade grinder to your kit, if you find local or shipping sources of dark roast whole bean coffee you'd like to grind yourself (using a filter makes moot the more uniform grind size a more expensive burr grinder can produce).

You'll find that water quality and temperature make a difference in the taste of the coffee in your cup, and with your kettle, you'll soon learn to identify "just off the boil" 190-195° F water sound of the kettle first coming up to pre-boil temperature, which is often given as optimal water temperature for coffee making. But, for some beans and roasts, you may find that you prefer to wait a minute or two more, for water at 200-205° F, or even let your kettle go to a full whistling boil at 212° F. Some people let the kettle whistle, pour hot water into the cup to warm it and wet the filter, then add coffee, and having waited a couple minutes post-boil, make the coffee pour with the slightly cooled, but still audibly bubbling water left, which is what I generally do.

But the beauty of this setup is that you can easily experiment, to your own taste. Use spring water, or distilled water, or tap water, if you like. Pick a water temperature that brings out the best in your beans, and a roast that you like, from a roaster that you can trust to do it right, perhaps using an air-roasted process, which is very good for dark roasting beans.

If you do go this route, good luck in your experiments, and enjoy.
posted by paulsc at 8:06 PM on July 8, 2011

That's interesting, paulsc, thanks.

Of course, the temperature of the water just as you add it to the coffee isn't the actual brewing temperature because the coffee and cone start out nearer room temperature, so the comparison to the recommendation of 195° F water I'd like to make isn't as illuminating as I'd wish, but I did a series of test brews to see what brewing temperature made the coffee taste best to me, using an "insta-read" thermometer and a Hario vacuum pot for which it was particularly convenient to stir the brewing coffee with the thermometer to get a valid reading, and I've found I like coffee brewed at 165° F best. The thermometer is a pain, so I taught myself to recognize 165° F by cupping my hands around the upper bowl of the coffee maker.
posted by jamjam at 11:09 PM on July 8, 2011

Hmm you really need to find a better cafe. Here on long island in NY they roast there own beans BUT allow you to roast your own. So you can go to the cafe and get great high qiuality beans yourself and then roast them yourself to your liking.
posted by majortom1981 at 7:38 AM on July 9, 2011

I feel your pain. I've noticed that the pour-over technique brings out the "brightness" in many coffees, particularly those from Latin America or Africa, a flavor that I find really off-putting You probably want to see if some of the same places do French-press brewing -- the pour-over places here in Denver usually offer FP as an alternative, and I've noticed that the same light-roasted beans have a deeper, less acidic flavor when prepared that way.
posted by heurtebise at 10:41 AM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

We have similar tastes, and I even once had a conversation with a guy at Intelligentsia in Chicago similar to the yours with the snooty barista. I was then drinking their El Diablo Dark Roast, and I learned that it's not exactly where they put their best beans.

Given our tastes, pour over might just not be for us. I say stick with espresso or french press. As for beans in DC, I've been pleased with Trager Brothers' Blend 90, which you can get at Whole Foods, and Mayorga's Cubana, which you can get at Marvelous Market (the one by Eastern Market, at least).
posted by Xalf at 6:27 AM on July 15, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the insights! I should report that last weekend, I actually got nice, rich cups of pour-over dark roasts at two different cafes. But unfortunately, this morning it was back to more of the same ... I'm guessing this is just a passing fad in tastes, and eventually the cafes will realize that there's room for time-honored technique (dark roast) as well as new-fangled terroir.
posted by yarly at 7:59 AM on July 15, 2011

Response by poster: Heh. Just unearthed this article from 2002, cataloging the then-popularity and the virtures of dark roast, which I think demonstrates that these things are all just a matter of fashion and personal taste! It also dispells the myth that "all dark roast coffees taste the same" and that the quality of the bean (or skill of the roaster) are irrelevant. In fact, it is more difficult to do a good dark roast, apparently.
posted by yarly at 8:08 AM on July 15, 2011

« Older Help Me Focus?   |   Anyone have any prenatal class recommendations in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.