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The Art of French Roast Coffee...

Modern trends have shifted to ever lighter, more acidic and fruity coffees. Dark roasted beans are dismissed as simply burnt by some roasters. Yet, I would say that there are subtleties to be found in dark roast coffees.

If you look at the surface of something, you cannot see what qualities it contains. The surface of a coffee bean is no different. It might look fully developed on the outside, but the centre of the bean might still be raw giving a grassy taste. It might look almost black on the outside at a glance, but inside it will be only brown and will have a powerful smoky flavour.

In the late 1700s, coffee was being roasted mainly in small quantities in pans or in early hand turned drums over a fire. The beans were not graded in the same way as they are now, so would have been more varied in density and size. The roasts would therefore likely be uneven, with some quite dark and maybe burnt and others lighter. The person roasting would have only looked at the overall colour of the batch when deciding whether it was ready or not. The fire would produce a smoky flavour. The brewing of the coffee was also quite unsophisticated. The coffee served in the coffee houses was mainly boiled in a large pot or cauldron and was often ‘enhanced’ with all manner of ingredients. The slow delivery time and cost of coffee led to much tampering with the recipe in order to stretch it as much as possible.

By the time my grandfather, Harold Higgins, started to roast coffee, machines had been developed. He could control the heat in the roasting drum and cool the beans in a separate tray with rotating arms. This meant that he could at least roast the beans evenly, and by using his eyes, ears and nose judge with practice when the beans were ready. Essentially, we still roast this way but with even more control over the speed and temperature of each batch, we can develop very subtle flavours which we can reproduce time and time again.

He began in business at a time when less coffee was being drunk in Britain than today. Coffee had been very popular from the 1650s, when the first coffee houses opened and this continued until the American Revolution. Britain turned into a tea drinking nation and developed a massive industry in colonial India. It took over as Britain’s main social drink and coffee became more of a niche market.

In his previous position as manager of the Kenya Coffee Company’s shop in Henrietta Street, London during the 1930s, my grandfather had many customers from continental Europe. Those who had settled in London and missed the coffee from home. He developed blends to replicate these 'continental' and 'french roast' styles. We still sell our Vienna Blend, a mixture of medium and dark roast beans, but the most popular at first, became our Continental Blend.

The term French Roast was traditionally used to describe coffee that had been roasted very dark. French roast coffees have a dark chocolate colour, with a smokey, rich flavour.

The darker you roast the coffee, the stronger it becomes. Of course, most of the subtle fruit flavours apparent in a lighter roast are overwhelmed by a strong, robust sometimes smoky flavour. The skill in roasting dark coffee is not to burn the beans, but to give them a rich chocolate background with heavy blackcurrant or plum flavours. Too dark and the coffee will taste acrid and harsh. But with careful control of the heat, it is possible to caramelise the sugars in the beans which will show on the surface like a shiny oil. Not all beans go shiny when dark and many will shine only after they have cooled or a few minutes later.

My grandfather had been roasting to this dark level for a long time. In order to get it just right he had experimented with different beans and timings. He had no way of measuring temperature accurately so relied on his senses and a stopwatch. He also bought coffee from competitors to try and one in particular impressed him. It was really dark, but very rich and not at all burnt. So, he decided to conduct an investigation. This company had a shop with a roaster at the back. He could see through the window when the roast was being started. Then he would start his stopwatch and wait until puffs of smoke appeared out of the chimney. This showed him when the roast had come out of the drum.

He took his findings back and tried them on his machine. Although it was an improvement, it still didn’t satisfy him. This led him to import a spherical roaster from France. The ‘ball’ roaster was made by Etablissements Lausanne in Paris in about 1915, so wasn’t new at all. The early spherical roasters allowed the beans to keep moving while heat was applied from outside the drum. The whole sphere could be separated from the body of the machine. His machine had been developed to allow the spheres, of which there were two, to be opened and the beans would fall directly into a cooling tray. Swift cooling of the beans is very important, especially with dark roast coffee. Because they are roasted to a higher temperature, they continue to roast for a few seconds even after discharge from the drum.

By the time he started his own business, he had perfected the technique of roasting this ‘continental’ roast coffee and it soon became our most popular blend. He went on to create our strong Creole Blend in the 1950s using Brazil and Colombian beans when they became available again after the second world war was over.

The taste for strong coffee started to spread in Britain as people went abroad for the first time and enjoyed coffee in France or Italy. This led my father, Tony Higgins, to create our Santiago Blend as a 'French roast' coffee. He had travelled through France by train to Switzerland in the 1950s and clearly remembers having a large breakfast bowl of café au lait on a station platform. It was very milky but strong and aromatic, not smoky or burnt, just punchy. To develop this blend, he used beans mainly from Costa Rica. The Costa Rican Beans were denser and able to take a lot of heat without scorching. He discovered that by roasting quicker and just a shade lighter than the Creole Blend he could make the beans appear light but shiny, not black but a brown colour. This makes a strong, bright vanilla and dark chocolate flavour.

The truth is, we all have different tastes and tolerances to flavours. Whether that be spicy, salty, acidic, or smoky. And not just in coffee, but in everything we consume.

The future for continental or ‘French roast’ coffee looks bright. As long as the same care and attention to the roasting profile is given to its development as for a light or medium roast coffee.

David Higgins


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