Coffee in Paris: waiting for the French revolution…

coffee in paris - waiting for the revolution

Perhaps one of the most well-known surprises in Paris is that, generally, the coffee is lousy. Despite the cliché of romantic cups of coffee across from le Tour Eiffel, the reality is that French coffee is simply bad.

It’s not all doom and muddy espressos though – a new generation of bearded café owners are seeking to change this, fiercely leading a charge with single-origin, locally roasted coffee.

However, I have to wonder whether the coffee revolution promised by the Parisian new wave is really going to change anything. Whilst the new cafes and roasters are undoubtedly a welcome breath of aromatic air, there is still a long way to go before coffee culture in France will change for the better. Even then – there’s a lot to think about how coffee culture should change.   

Bad French beans – a brief history

The mediocrity of French coffee is somewhat surprising, given how much care is taken when it comes to almost every other aspect of French food – think about French bread and cheese, or take a walk around a market in Paris and you’ll know exactly what I mean. France is a country with an excellent food culture, characterised not by the number of high-end restaurants, but rather by the quality of their everyday produce. 

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The reason for bad coffee in France is partially historic. French colonies in Vietnam and Africa mostly produced Robusta beans, a robust (no pun intended) variety of coffee known for a harsher and muddier flavour than the more expensive Arabica beans. To mask the taste of their inferior beans, the dark French roast was developed. Over time, the French palate has become accustomed to the stronger, harsher, flavour profile of Robusta coffee, taken with lots of sugar and used primarily as an excuse to linger in their excellent cafes. 

Coffee in Paris: not just the beans

Another reason is the domination of large, industrial coffee houses: for example, Cafés Richard, who dominates the Parisian coffee market. Similar to how the Italian coffee brands operate in the coffee-loving Australian city of Melbourne, coffee machines, cups, and sugar sachets are offered for free in exchange for serving their coffee exclusively. The great failing here, I believe, is not in the quality of the beans, but a complete failure in training, education, and enforcement about how coffee should be prepared.

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Coffee in France is badly treated at each step during the preparation process (for those unfamiliar with how an espresso should be prepared, here is a good summary). Coffee beans are ground en masse early in the morning, quietly losing their flavour and aroma throughout the course of the day.

When placed into the (unwashed) porta-filter, the now-stale ground coffee is given a cursory tap (if any) with a coffee tamper before being thrown into the espresso machine. If milk is ordered, UHT milk will be steamed to thermonuclear temperatures (and watch the price triple if you ask for a cappuccino or café au lait because, frankly, only tourists do that).

The result? Watery, tepid coffee, weak in flavour but highly bitter and with loose coffee grinds floating in the bottom. Delicieux! Ultimately, the quality of the beans is completely irrelevant if there is no care taken during the preparation – imagine taking the finest cut of dry aged, grass fed steak and cooking it in the microwave.   

Preserving the French identity 

Whilst Paris has a lousy coffee culture, the city has an undoubtedly excellent café culture. The New York Times correctly identified that, the point of a Parisian café isn’t really the coffee.” There’s a uniqueness to the Parisian café that’s instantly recognisable, and often replicated in ‘French’ cafes all around the planet – a cosy social hub, filled with character, life, and warmth, and perfect for people watching with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee.

The problem with the new coffee movement in Paris is that it is indistinguishable from coffee movements all over the world: there’s a distressing uniformity to these cafes. Step into a speciality coffee shop in Berlin, Paris, Melbourne or Stockholm, and you’ll be hard pressed to tell the difference – down to the English menus, Macbooks and at least one Australian barista. As Paris by Mouth has noticed, each café offers “cup after filtered cup of Belleville Brûlerie coffee in shops with minimalist décor and anglicised baked goods, typically from Emperor Norton…”

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The uniformity problem goes beyond décor to the food as well. Aleaume Paturle, the co-owner of Café Lomi, said it well in his interview with Slate magazine: “we should be using our terroir, using the ideas of French food and combining them with coffee shops… it’s not just about using local products; it’s also about making local recipes with local products.” 

His comments strike at a fundamental truth: Paris is a city with some of the best baking traditions in the world. Despite persistent comments about how food culture is under threat in the city, the undeniable reality is that there are loads of great places for baked goods where coffee is terrible or not offered at all.   

From the sublime, flaky, croissants at Blé Sucré, to aromatic chocolate and pistachio escargots from Du Pain et Des Idées, life changing praliné millefeuille at Carl Marletti, to pretty much everything from Pierre Hermé, the city abounds with amazing pastries and cakes that would be the perfect accompaniment to a great coffee. Yet despite all these options, step into any speciality coffee shop in Paris and you’ll be offered… banana bread. 

A revolution still in the wings

MyFrenchLife™ - french coffee - coffee and banana bread - coffee in france - Coffee in Paris: waiting for the French revolution...At the moment, Paris stands on two polar opposites of the coffee spectrum. At one end, propped up against a beautifully dented zinc countertop and with the characteristic gruff but charming service, stands the burnt, watery, and poorly prepared French coffee.

At the other end, hipsters with perfectly groomed facial hair, colourful tattoos, and skinny jeans espouse the virtues of single-origin, locally roasted filter coffee with a slice of banana bread.

Fundamentally, what I want is the democratisation of good coffee, very much in the way that the French have democratised good bread.

By all means, single-origin coffee should be available to those who want it and by those who are willing to pay the price premium for it – but at the end of the day, there is nothing wrong with a freshly roasted house blend coffee, prepared with care and a touch of love. Good coffee shouldn’t be exclusive, expensive, and limited to ‘Those Who Know’. 

What France needs is not specialty coffee, but everyday coffee which is consistently good, widely available, and something of which the French can ultimately take cultural ownership and pride. It should be a coffee movement that doesn’t aim to target a niche market, but rather one that wants to displace the existing coffee that the everyday Parisian drinks in the morning.

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A true coffee revolution shouldn’t aim to supplant French café culture, but just the coffee itself. It should embrace the uniqueness of French culture, borrow from global trends, and use the two aspects to create something that is new and uniquely French.

What are your thoughts on the emerging French coffee culture?  Do you think that this is the coffee revolution the city has been waiting for?

Image credits:
1, 4 & 5. © Hannah Duke.

2. Plantation in Vietnam by Hugh Derr, via Flickr.
3 & 6.

About the Contributor

Peter Ong

I am an ex-lawyer who ran away from the corporate life to come and live in Paris (without having learned French beforehand!). I love travel and food, and have a huge appetite for both. Having selflessly sacrificed myself over the past year to eat my way around Paris, I'm looking forward to sharing my ideas with the world! Follow me on Google + .

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  1. sega10028 Jan 27, 2015 at 7:34 PM - Reply

    Great article, Peter! I find when I go to these types of cafés, it’s like taking a mini vacation from my life in France. I can eat a croissant anywhere, but once in a while a great piece of banana bread or chocolate chip cookie is what I want alongside my coffee. I totally agree it would be great if the new roasters (or Italians!) could oust Café Richard from every corner bar.

  2. Ellen Burns Jan 28, 2015 at 2:03 PM - Reply

    Very amusing article Peter!
    I don’t really drink coffee as I’m very caffeine sensitive but I enjoy the odd cup of very good coffee with a nice brunch now and then… sounds like I should just stick to the croissants when I’m in France. What a shame, it seems like something that would be so easily integrated in their culture too!

  3. Kirsten (KT) Trengove Feb 1, 2015 at 10:53 AM - Reply

    Merci, Peter. I enjoyed your article – the historical information about why French coffee is traditionally terrible, and the homogeneity of the new revolution. A few years ago I found a company with a few small cafes in Paris serving really great coffee. Terres de Cafe – there’s one on rue Rambuteau (3rd) and a tiny stand-only one in rue des Blancs Manteaux (4th). No sign of immaculately groomed facial hair or banana bread – just good coffee, coffee beans and coffee making equipment.

  4. Cécile Mazurier Feb 3, 2015 at 11:21 AM - Reply

    I really liked this article. And especially your conclusion. I am really not into seeing a niche-hipster café culture in Paris. Everyday coffee should be better and that’s it. But to be honest, I do like this watery bitter espresso and I think most of the French people do (for lack of knowing better). When I first arrived in Australia, all I wanted was a coffee with a bit of milk (cold, the milk). It took me months to finally get comfortable ordering coffee. ahah Now, I love the coffee here (and the coffee culture in Australia is undoubtely excellent), and I love the cheap (well, not so cheap in Paris), prepared-without-care French coffee too. Yes, just like you said, improvement into everyday coffee could be a good idea.

    • Christina Guzman Feb 5, 2015 at 4:17 PM - Reply

      That’s true! They already have such a great cafe culture, it would be a shame to change it completely. However, the coffee does seem to need improvement. Can’t wait when all cafes have amazing coffee.

  5. Sue B. Feb 5, 2015 at 6:53 AM - Reply

    Very interesting perspective, Peter, thanks for the post. My problem with the coffee in these new cafés is it’s not really better than the common Parisian coffee (to be clear, I’m talking about espresso when I say coffee, not American-style coffee) – just different. After having read several bloggers talk about these wonderful new cafés with much better coffee, I was excited the last couple times I was in Paris to try them. But so far they have all been a big disappointment. This has been my lament back home, too: I am from San Francisco, where in recent years all the new (mostly, but not all, young hipster-owned) cafés – and some of the older ones, which have switched their coffee – have been serving this expensive, often single-origin espresso that tastes horrible. I don’t know how they think this is real espresso. It’s very acidic, burnt and sour tasting – just awful! This is just what the espresso I had in the new cafés in Paris tasted like, too. Even at a café there where they let you choose from a broad menu of different beans, they still all taste like that. It’s as if none of them have ever had a real espresso, like one finds all over Italy and Sicily, and perhaps they don’t use a proper espresso machine, but the automatic kind, which doesn’t treat the coffee as it should. Whatever it is, the new ambience, youth culture and lack of French pastries aside, I don’t think the coffee in these new cafés is an improvement at all. If anything, it’s even worse! Aside from look for cafés with a Lavazza or Illy sign and crossing one’s fingers, what to do, what to do… ?

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