Paris is a city of cafe culture, not a city of coffee culture. That may come as a shock to those who believe the refined French palate extends across the entire food and beverage spectrum. But while the sommelier is a revered position and Paris continues to be a hub for the gastronomic upper crust, more often than not you’ll find the end of your meal rounded off with an overly bitter shot made from mediocre beans.
I have a friend from Denver Colorado, who always tells me about spending some time on the French-Italian border for work. “We crossed over to France to get our croissants and went back to get our coffee. One country can’t do coffee, and the other can’t do pastries; you would think that they could get together and work it out.” I found these and other remarks so interesting I decided to check it out for myself with a little research and a planned trip to Paris this year.
Although the magazines and internet travel blogs paint a picture of bustling street side cafe’s, with a waiting list all in an effort to sit and enjoy watching the activity, or reading La Monde, while sipping on a latte is apparently not the reality. Coffee and coffee related hot beverages apparently just isn’t a French strong suit. What most patrons are ordering, the ones that have had the coffee and are apparently not satisfied are getting a beer or getting a glass of wine.
Through some of the initial poking and prodding around researching this topic, apparently in some areas of France the tide is turning specifically in the French capital, with a flood of new craft roasters and cafes that all believe in good coffee. As most of us are all too aware, the French are sensitive to change, especially in a city that’s known for its deep-rooted traditions and while this expanding coffee scene is welcomed by many, it also comes with a side of criticism. For some, local craft roast might be the sign of a city looking forward, yet for others it’s the sign of a city undergoing an irrevocable transformation in food culture.
But with such a tradition of excellence in food and culture, how could something as important as the coffee business be so sub par? Restaurants in NYC and all over the country try to make additional dollars by pushing bar beverages as well as dessert and coffee after the meal. In Paris, you’ll often find the end of your meal rounded off with an overly bitter shot made from mediocre beans.
As my friend in Colorado describes it, a classic cup of French coffee is “over perked and bitter to the taste buds”, which explains why locals love to drown their coffee in sugar. With the price of coffee being as low as it has been in years would have people believing that the coffee in Paris HAS to improve. Here is a link to a great YouTube video on the coffee market fluctuations. It was posted by a Austrian monetary think tank called the Mises Institute.
Still, that doesn’t mean that everyone likes the idea of new coffee roasters breaking into a market where the refined palates have become stuck in a quagmire of mediocrity. Some people seem to feel that although it is bad coffee, they have become used to it and as we touched on above, the French are not known for change in their beliefs. Perhaps the single largest problem is that French people have had a twenty to twenty five years heritage of dreadful coffee, and their palate is used to it which means that changing the coffee culture isn’t going to happen overnight. The chances are it is likely going to come about, one Parisian at a time.
How did French coffee get so bad in the first place?
First, it’s tied to France’s history of colonization, and secondly it has to do with larger, industrial-scale coffee companies. For a long time, coffee imported from the French colonies came in duty-free, making beans from the rest of the world more expensive. The French colonies produced mostly Robusta coffee, a cheaper bean with a stronger, harsher taste than Arabica, the other predominant coffee varietal. Because of the access to mostly Robusta beans, the French palate grew accustomed to this harsher varietal, and before coffee deregulation in the 1950s, Robusta comprised eighty percent of the French coffee market. More than sixty years later, that palate for a harsher bean still exists, and Robusta beans still account for around fifty percent of French coffee.