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PARIS—There is one thing the guidebooks, the Francophiles, and the blissed-out romantics never tell you: The coffee in France is lousy.
Paris is a city of café culture, not a city of coffee culture. That may come as a shock to those who believe the sophisticated 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 elite, more often than not you’ll find the end of your meal rounded off with an overly bitter shot made from mediocre beans.
I once had a friend from Portland, Ore., tell 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.” Mention the word coffee to anyone that likes caffeine and has spent time in France and you’ll immediately get an eye roll. It simply isn’t a French strong suit.
The tide is turning in the French capital, though, with a flood of new craft roasters and cafes that all believe in good coffee. The French, however, 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.
“[The Paris cafe scene] is a tricky scene to tap into because we think we have such a culture of coffee already,” says Nico Alary, co-owner of Holybelly, a café that opened last year in the Canal Saint Martin neighborhood. “You know there’s cafes everywhere … but the sad thing is those cafes actually suck at making coffee. They’re not about coffee. They’re about getting a beer or getting a glass of wine.”
Alary and his partner Sarah Mouchot opened Holybelly after spending the last seven years living abroad in Vancouver, Canada, and Melbourne, Australia. Despite the boudin noir on the menu, Holybelly isn’t your typical French café. The interior has a modern feel, the blackboard on the back wall notes all of the seasonal produce for the month, and, above all, the coffee is serious business.
As Alary explains it, a classic cup of French coffee is overextracted and bitter, which explains why locals love to drown their coffee in sugar. But Alary and his staff take the time to make good café filtre, using single origin, locally roasted coffee from Belleville, a newly opened roaster in the 19th arrondissement that offers free cuppings on Saturdays simply to get the local community tasting their coffee and deciding for themselves what’s good and what’s not.
Still, that doesn’t mean that everyone likes it. Alary recalls a guy from across the street that comes in regularly and once told him how much he didn’t like what Holybelly was serving: “He said, ‘I’m not saying it’s bad coffee; I’m just saying I’m not used to it.’ I think he put the finger on something really interesting: It’s that French people [have this] 20, 25 years heritage of terrible coffee, and their palate is used to it.” That means that changing the coffee culture isn’t going to happen overnight, and it requires doing it “one Parisian at a time,” as Alary says.
If Alary is right, how did French coffee get so bad in the first place?
Aleaume Paturle, owner of Café Lomi, a coffee roaster turned coffee shop a little more than a year ago, has a few theories: 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 80 percent of the French coffee market. More than 60 years later, that palate for a harsher bean still exists, and Robusta beans still account for around 50 percent of French coffee.