Exploring the Paris Coffee Wars

“There’s a coffee scene when there’s a dialogue and when the people making it take pride in their craft. When I was in Paris last there wasn’t much of either. Has it changed?” That’s what Oliver Strand, The New York Times ‘s resident java obsessive, emailed me when I asked him what he thought of the state of coffee in Paris. “All it takes to make a scene is more than one.” Surprisingly, for a nation whose café culture is synonymous quality of life, those with a taste for good coffee have always found France lacking. But is the French attitude toward coffee changing?

“They don’t know any better,” says Channa Galhenage, project and operations manager at Alto Café, one of the better cafes in Paris. “The product exists, but we need to go through a huge reeducation program.” He continues, “When we compare coffee to wine and talk of preparation and tastes, the French understand immediately, it seems to click into place.” He believes big companies like Starkbucks and Nespresso are “educating people, talking about the flavors.” He believes that “things are about to change,” hinting at a new caffeine-fueled zeitgeist and couple of interesting new openings planned in the near future.

The French coffee paradox is due to a few reasons, the first being that the country’s most widely consumed coffee, robusta, is the standard. To most of the people I spoke to who chose to remain off the record, a shadowy monopoly exists, with robusta using “subtly threatening” tactics on new businesses, making people afraid to strike out on their own, with different brands. Also, as one French barrista explained, “The French have a romantic, colonial mentality of being the best, without looking elsewhere.” For most café owners, that means less effort and more money.

Since 2005 , the undisputed star of the Paris coffee scene has been La Caféothèque, who roast their single origin Guatemalan beans — imported directly from the plantation — on site. Their baristas have world-class training, and are hip to the coffee culture, and their equipment (La Marzocco) is the best. The owner, a former Guatemalan ambassador to France named Gloria, is considered the godmother of coffee in Paris. Her partner, Bernard Chirouze, was once a telecom consultant in Guatemala, and together, they decided to come back to France after realizing that French coffee was “undrinkable.” image

“It was largely for historical reasons,” says Chirouze, “as the French coffee, in the beginning, came mostly from robusta in West Africa, and wasn’t the more fragrant coffee, like the Italians got from Ethiopia.” Even though the French need to be educated, he says, “Terroir is the future,” he says of the popular coffee brand. “There is an irreversible trend towards quality coffee. In the beginning, the French didn’t know what it meant, and we needed to explain and educate. It’s a battle, but the first reactions were a grand merci! Thank you for having made us discover this! We can’t drink coffee elsewhere now. “

“Now it will be an unstoppable wave, the market will grow exponentially, and there is space for quite a few people, especially for younger would-be baristas, many of whom Gloria trains. It will create a new métier, but it may take a generation for it to take hold. It’s like the minitel before the internet.” (Bernard was one of the first to set up e-mail systems in Guatemala in 1989.)

Also launching in 2005 was Alto Café.Their coffee is roasted in Italy by one of the best in the business, La Piantagioni. Pending a decision from the Mairie de Paris on street installations, their two colorful vans, which are currently inside, and a specially designed bicyclette, will be roaming the streets of Paris.

“It’s like the jazz scene in New York, when all the greats would get together and jam,” says Galhenage. “We have frog fights,” he says of the almost clandestine get-togethers between pro-baristas, home brewers, and other enthusiasts. These gatherings are the pole of all the brewsters in Paris, and it’s there that they compare notes and skills. “People are turning up who we don’t know, and have never seen before, complete novices who are really into it and who want to be a part of our community. And that’s really amazing.”

And although enthusiasm is high, one anonymous expert couldn’t resist mentionning that the “Big producers have a very powerful resistance to the Terroir coffee, as they have been in business for a very long time. In the beginning they laughed at us, said that Terroir coffee didn’t exist, but they will be the first concerned when quality coffee takes hold. He goes on to explain, “Terroir, by definition, is from a small space and a small producer, which limits the large producers, meaning they can’t make billions of cups per day from small family run plantations.”

Photos by Stéphanie Solinas.

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