‘Why is Coffee in Paris so Bad?’ was the title of an article published in The New York Times in 2010. ‘Bad Coffee Is Dying a Slow Death in Paris,’ announced the title of another article featured in Vice magazine just four years later. What happened during this short period?
Despite being renowned for its iconic cafés, for a long time, Paris enjoyed the dubious reputation of being a capital of ‘bad’ coffee. However, this observation seems to have become less and less true, as micro-roasters and specialty coffee shops have begun sprouting on what seems like a monthly basis. With a foundation now in place, the next step is to make craft coffee an integral part of French culinary culture, worthy of the same attention given to food and wine. To do this, many are turning to the past, positioning themselves as a continuation of (or contrast to) Paris’s rich and complex history of coffee, both drink and shop.
While French coffee has often been cast as the black sheep of an otherwise glorious culinary culture, the Parisian café has long benefited from a romanticized image, being portrayed as a place where inspiration is extracted and revolutions brewed. However, the true story is much more complex, as is often the way with romantic depictions.
By retracing the history of coffee and cafés in Paris, we can not only come to understand how the Parisian coffee landscape was shaped into what it is today, but also predict where it may be headed next. However, looking back also reveals that the history of coffee in France is intrinsically linked to questions of class, gender, and oppression.
How coffee became ‘French’ and French coffee became ‘bad’
Although coffee arrived in the port of Marseille as early as 1644, it remained largely unknown to the general public, used mostly for medicinal ends by the French elite. This changed following the visit of a delegation from Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV to the court of King Louis XIV in 1670. During their stay of almost a year, the delegation pampered the court with Turkish delicacies, including—of course—coffee. This sparked a wave of ‘Turkomania’ among courtiers, and the new fashion soon trickled down from Versailles to the streets of Paris, where coffee houses sprang up, only to close down with equal rapidity as the fad subsided. However, one coffee house managed to not only outlive the hype and survive to become one of Europe’s oldest coffee shops, but also to form the very model of the ‘Parisian café’. In 1686, Italian-born Francesco Procopio made use of the monopoly granted to the guild of distillers (known as limonadiers) to sell both alcohol and coffee to seated customers by opening the Café Procope, a venue where patrons could sip their drinks from porcelain cups, seated at marble tables and surrounded by gilded mirrors, painted ceilings, and chandeliers.
The Procope set the tone of what would become the Parisian Café: an institution that is not so much about the coffee, but rather everything around it. Initially, patrons came mainly for the alcohol, but the café evolved into a place whose appeal revolved around socializing. The Parisian café has often been portrayed as a space for exchange and inspiration, where revolutions were conceived and debate stirred; the historian Jules Michelet went so far as to describe the advent of the café as an ‘auspicious revolution’ that ‘modified human temperament,’ and from its outset, the café was indeed frequented by artists and intellectuals. Honoré de Balzac drank his coffee black and on empty stomach to cover paper with ink; Rousseau and Diderot were known regulars; and Voltaire even wrote a play called The Coffee House. The café was also, as a senior diplomat wrote in 1685, a place where ‘all sorts of people assemble, especially foreigners’—making it a cause of some concern for the French establishment.
Pont-Neuf and Marbe Tables
However, what the Parisian café certainly was not was a democratic establishment. Its luxurious interior and stellar location in front of Paris’s most well-known theatre endowed the Procope with an allure of not only amusement, but also of refined taste, which helped to attract a high-status clientele and make the café a place where social class was both made and flaunted. Historian Ellis Markman has noted that the Parisian café was quite different to the British equivalent: in Paris, a café was much more expensive and far more luxuriously decorated than its British counterpart, attesting to the elite’s preference for separating itself from the popular class. An English traveller to Paris in 1701 could hardly contain his awe, writing: ‘There’s one Coffee-House near the Pont-Neuf, where there are no less than 34 Marble Tables! I have seen another with Looking-Glass all about it.’ And as for the revolutions, they were actually conceived in salons, which were held not in coffee shops but at private homes.
Cafés in Paris were not only restricted to the elite; they were also very much a gendered space. During the course of the 18th century, however, the Parisian café saw incredible growth and success. In 1720, there were about 280 cafés in Paris, while by 1790, there were at least 1,800. Following the revolution of 1789, cafés increasingly opened in more modest areas of the city, where working-class patrons socialized through coffee, tobacco, and gambling, perched at the bar or seated at one of the tables spread across the sidewalk. However, the public character of the café also meant that it was a largely masculine space; according to historian Jonathan Morris, very few women set foot in cafés for fear of being mistaken for prostitutes. Bourgeois women preferred to imbibe chocolate-flavoured drinks, which were considered more feminine and to have medicinal qualities.
‘Tout cela, nous le faisons nous-mêmes!’
The French Revolution of 1789 yielded significant implications not only for French society, but also for its coffee production and consumption. In Paris, industrialization aesthetically and socially shaped the café into its globally famous form—a fusion between the high-end, mirror-walled, porcelain-cup establishment and the zinc-bar proletarian café. However, inspired by the winds of change flowing from France, slaves in Saint-Domingue staged their own revolution and declared independence in 1804, abolishing slavery and erasing the many coffee plantations in the process, thus effectively ending the coffee trade on the island. A number of events that have taken place between 1800 and World War One had a marked impact on the quality of French coffee. As a part of an ongoing war between the two countries, in 1806, Great Britain blocked the French navy’s maritime route to its remaining colonies, thus depriving the latter of access to its sugar and coffee plantations. In response, Napoleon proclaimed ‘Tout cela, nous le faisons nous-mêmes!’ (‘We shall make everything ourselves!’), and went on to employ a fleet of researchers who succeeded in developing two major agricultural innovations: sugar made from beetroot, and a coffee-like beverage from chicory. Napoleon’s plan worked like a charm: the French soon developed a taste for the bitter plant, and continued to roast and mix chicory with their coffee until well after the end of the war.
French coffee took three more hits during the course of the 20th century. Firstly, industrialization and the advent of mass consumption reduced the number of small-scale roasteries across the country, which were replaced with factories producing significant amounts of cheaper, low-quality coffee. Then, the first and second world wars increased demand for cheap commodities and drove the quality of coffee even lower, following the invention and popularization of instant coffee. Finally, the financial crisis that accompanied the wars pushed France to plant robusta in its African colonies, and by 1960, 75 per cent of coffee consumed in France was robusta, which requires a darker roast to counter the bean’s bitter taste. During the decades that followed, the French commodity coffee market came to be dominated by large international labels, with the domestic market being almost completely taken over by Nespresso. A small number of industrial coffee companies came to control the foreign markets, offering coffee shops a tempting package deal for exclusive rights to their coffee beans and equipping them with machines and other equipment.
Charting new territories
That is, in short, how coffee became French and French coffee became ‘bad’, and brings us back to our starting point: Paris’s coffee culture seems to be in the midst of a sea change. This development gives rise to a number of questions: how did specialty coffee become a ‘thing’ in Paris? Why has this movement been slow to catch on? And, how can its reach expand further and overcome the various obstacles to become an integral part of French culinary culture?
France is widely considered a relatively late convert to ‘good’ coffee, which can appear surprising at first glance, given the country’s notable culinary culture, appreciation of high-quality products, and the importance placed on terroir. There are many possible reasons as to why Parisians continue to consume predominantly darkly roasted robusta coffee. One is the monopoly of a small number of industrial companies, and another is a tradition shaped by the country’s colonial history, two world wars, and chicory. However, there are yet more possible reasons, and it could well be precisely the success of the café that prevented coffee from developing into a gourmet beverage.
Some things have changed, though. In 2005, La Caféothèque opened on the Seine River’s right bank to become what many believe to be the city’s first specialty coffee shop, selling single-origin beans and providing fertile ground for the city’s bourgeoning coffee community. A wave of specialty coffee shops and roasters soon followed such as L’Arbre à Café, which was founded in 2009 and has since worked extensively with French restaurants and bistros. Between 2010 and 2013, it was joined by roasters and coffee shops that have gone on to become staples of the city like Coutume, Lomi, KB Caféshop, Télescope, Fragments, Loustic, Dose, and Belleville Brûlerie. For more about this period, we recommend Brones and Hargrove’s 2015 study, The Paris Coffee Revolution.
The specialty coffee movement in Paris is driven in large part by external influences: many of the establishments cited above were founded by Australian- and American-French duos, or locals who returned to Paris after having spent time abroad, inspired to bring home something of the buzzing coffee culture they witnessed. Parisian consumers are increasingly influenced by the global focus on ‘authentic’, artisanal, and ethically produced goods, and in this way, the specialty coffee movement got its foothold in the city.
The global—or more precisely, Anglo-Saxon—influence is still evident in many coffee shops. English is often to be heard on both sides of the counter, and muffins and scones dominate food menus. However, the growth of specialty coffee in Paris has been accompanied by a diversification of approaches and styles. Some have opted to ‘retrain’ the French palate by sticking to lighter roasts, while others have expanded their range to roasts that are slightly closer to the traditional French preference. The diversity is also reflected in the shops’ design; some go for a cleaner, Scandinavian-inspired look, while others have taken inspiration from the traditional Parisian café, expressed through either a ‘working man’s’ industrial aesthetic, an interpretation of the original luxury-chic-café look, or a fusion of both. However the owners and managers approach the matter, most seem to agree that in order to grow, craft coffee needs to connect with local culture and tastes, and this includes France’s rich gastronomic past and present. The coffee industry is very much a forward-looking movement focused on sustainability, innovation, and a constant quest for improved quality, but in order to become truly ‘local’, a nuanced and informed understanding of Paris’s coffee history may be helpful in charting its future path.