“The Eiffel Tower and the Louvre were awesome, but their coffee is disgusting!” This sort of comment was commonplace from Americans coming back from a trip to Paris ten years ago. With beans left out on the counter to oxidize or ground in advance (nothing short of sacrilege!), old or poorly maintained machines, and a resulting bitter liquid tasting of ash, French coffee – the one that a vest-wearing server will bring you if you ask for “un café, s’il vous plaît” – is “almost always disappointing.”
At least that’s what New York Times journalist Oliver Strand wrote in 2010. “It was terrible, absolutely terrible,” says the American coffee expert, who writes the newsletter The Filter. “Coffee culture in France was far behind the United States; coffee was seen as a commercial commodity much like oil or steel. Buying a coffee in a bar was little more than a transaction, the equivalent to placing an order at McDonald’s.” But how can the leading land of gastronomy, a place so passionate about its traditional “ joe,” serve coffee so common, or to quote Oliver Strand, that “sucks so bad”? To understand, we first need a short history lesson…
The Drink of the Sun King
In 1669, Sultan Mehmed IV sent his emissary Suleiman Aga to the court of Louis XIV to strengthen the ties between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of France. The ambassador and his lavish receptions toured from Toulon to Versailles, and in doing so made a new beverage fashionable: coffee. The word itself, taken from the Arabic qahwa, “stimulating drink,” was quickly used to describe the liquid as well as the place it was consumed, generally a space for meeting others, talking, and debating.
The first café opened in Marseille in 1671, followed by another on the banks of the Seine River in Paris the year after. “Coffee is consumed extensively [in France],” wrote Montesquieu in Persian Letters, his epistolary novel published in 1721. “There are many public houses that distribute it.” In fact, there were 300 cafés in the capital at the end of Louis XIV’s reign, and more than 3,000 by the mid-19th century.
Le Procope, founded in Paris in 1686, is the oldest public house in the French capital. With its richly decorated seating area and an abundance of mirrors, it resembles the mansions of the nobility more than the taverns and cabarets of the day, which were only open to men. The Encyclopédie was supposedly devised here after a conversation between Diderot and d’Alembert, while Benjamin Franklin came to the café to prepare the alliance treaty between Louis XVI and the young American republic, signed on February 6, 1778. Other regulars included Danton, Marat, Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins during the Revolution, along with Musset, George Sand, Théophile Gautier, and the actress Marie Dorval.
This is how cafés – and their terraces, which applied to become part of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2018 – have become “the living room” of the French, according to American chef and author David Lebovitz, who has lived in Paris since 2014. People go to French cafés to have a drink, to observe others, and to be seen themselves. Around 34,000 bistros, including the legendary Café de Flore, le Dôme, and Les Deux Moulins, featured in the movie Amélie, all contribute to this tradition.
The Rise of the Barista
Alongside the cafés, bars, and bistros, some 600 American-style coffee shops have appeared in France. “All those French people who had been living in New York are coming back and opening stores in Paris,” said French illustrator Charles Berberian in an interview with the New Yorker – he created a cover for the magazine in 2014, featuring a couple at a coffee shop terrace in what could easily be the tony tenth arrondissement of Paris or Brooklyn. “Now, I can get a good café à l’américaine at the coffee shop around the corner.”
Michael McCauley, quality director at Cafés Richard, which supplies 40,000 establishments in France, is confident: “We are starting to catch up with the Americans.” Originally from New Orleans, he arrived in Paris in 1993. After three years at Starbucks in Chicago and a five-year stint in New York, where he saw the advent of the first independent coffee shops, he was appointed by businessman Philippe Bloch to open the first chain of French espresso outlets, Columbus Espresso Bars (now Columbus Café & Co). The first two spaces opened in 1994, on the Passage des Princes in the second arrondissement of Paris and next to the train station in Lille. (The chain now has around 180 locations in France.) “We were ahead of our time – ten years before the first Starbucks opened in Paris!”
At the time, Robusta coffee slurped up in seconds dominated the French market. It was grown in the former French colonies of West Africa, cost less to produce than the superior Arabica species, and contained up to three times the caffeine. Distributors accustomed to wooing clients by gifting them machines and cups were often forced to buy poorer-quality batches to maintain the average price of an espresso (1.11 euros in 2000). “This downward spiral led to a drop in quality,” says Oliver Strand. “The French just weren’t ready to pay more for a better product.”
The Slow Coffee Movement
Mentalities changed during the 2000s. Gloria Montenegro, a former ambassador for Guatemala, kickstarted the slow coffee movement in France by opening La Caféothèque, the first independent coffee shop, roastery and coffeeology school in Paris. This opportunity was then seized by a whole generation of baristas and roasters trained in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Scandinavia, the leading coffee-culture hubs since the 1980s. In the words of Olivier Strand, “English is the language of the coffee trade.”
Fashion photographer Nicolas Clerc spent a summer in New York before founding Télescope Café just next to the Palais Royal with American David Flynn, a coffee veteran from Murky Coffee in Washington D.C. Flynn then teamed up with French-Irish Anselme Blayney and Frenchman Thomas Lehoux, who trained in Sydney, to launch the Belleville Brûlerie in the 19th arrondissement in 2013, followed by La Fontaine de Belleville three years later. This melting-pot process also happened at Lomi in the 18th arrondissement. This coffee shop and roastery is the result of a partnership between Frenchman Aleaume Paturle, who trained in San Diego, and the Australian barista Paul Arnephy, winner of the 2011 French Latte Art Championship. Other must-visit spaces on the capital’s trendy Right Bank include Ten Belles, Holybelly, KB Café Shop, and Café Oberkampf.
Independent coffee shops and roasteries, microlots, and new extraction techniques – what experts call “the third wave of coffee” – are no longer reserved for connoisseurs and coffee geeks. This new focus on the quality of coffee and recipes popularized by Starbucks have revolutionized consumer expectations. “Organic, fair-trade, Arabica beans are now in high demand,” says Michael McCauley. “We care deeply about the terroir of our wines and cheeses. So why did it take us so long to do the same thing with our coffee?”
France is now home to some ten barista schools and coffeeology training centers. And having joined the Specialty Coffee Association in 2005, the country is preparing to host two fairs devoted to coffee: the Paris Coffee Show, from September 11 to 13, and the Paris Café Festival, from October 29 to 31. Things have changed radically since 2010 and Oliver Strand’s article. “Coffee in France has improved considerably,” says the journalist, who visited La Fontaine de Belleville on his last trip to Paris in November 2019. He ordered a flat white followed by an espresso. The verdict? “The best of French gastronomy – the interior design, the servers, the croque-monsieur – and, finally, the coffee to match!”
Article published in the September 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.