They queue in the rain for a crackly baguette, debate the merits of goose versus duck foie gras, and detect notes of blackcurrant or violet in a glass of red wine. So why will Parisians drink bad coffee without a peep of complaint?
Simply because they don’t know better, says Thomas Clark, the Australian co-founder of Coutume Café in the chic 7th arrondissement. Just as Australasians have injected good coffee into London, a New World-led movement is teaching the French not to take this everyday drink for granted.
The difference at Coutume starts with the beans. Clark and his French partner Antoine Netien source them directly in the coffee-producing countries, test the quality of the green beans and ship them back to the café to roast on the premises. Using either their espresso machine (as finely tuned as a grand piano) or a fragile siphon, they turn out concentrated cups with distinctive fruity or spicy notes. They also use the bizarrely assiduous 24-hour filter drip method – a glass apparatus with a cloth filter, which drips cold water very slowly over coarsely ground beans. The resulting coffee is served cold and is said to be richer in flavour than coffee made the traditional way.
If Clark grew up steeped in coffee culture, Netien had a caffeine revelation while working in Australia. He became fascinated by the roasting process, and eventually won the 2007 Golden Bean roasting championships in Melbourne.
At the bright and airy Coutume Café, which still has a largely English-speaking clientele, Netien makes it his mission to educate the French about coffee. “It’s difficult for us to let go of our preconceived ideas. People don’t believe me when I say you can drink better coffee in San Francisco than in Rome. Luckily, the gourmets fall in love with good coffee immediately. It helps to make analogies with wine.”
French chefs are a particularly hard sell, he says. “They grew up with the idea that coffee is strong and bitter and that you need to sweeten it. Even the Michelin-starred chefs think of coffee as something that you drink quickly at the end of a meal as a digestif.”
Across the Seine, KB Café Shop has also won a loyal following thanks to its laid-back atmosphere and meticulously prepared coffee. French owner Nicolas Piégay became enamoured with US-style coffee shops while travelling in North America. “At that time, around 2000, there was nothing like that in Paris,” he says. “In France we had tea rooms, but they were quite expensive and didn’t attract young people. I liked the idea of a quiet place where you could read or work without being disturbed.”
Later, while visiting Australia, he discovered the art of speciality coffee. “I learnt that to make great coffee you need a very good machine that costs a lot of money, you need to start with high-quality coffee and you have to pay attention to every step of the process.”
At KB Café Shop, he aims to serve perfectly made coffee rather than delve into the differences between beans of various origins. His supplier is the roasting company Café Lomi, run by a Franco-Australian pair, Aleaume Paturle and Paul Arnephy, who are also training baristas.
“The taste of coffee is a subjective thing, as for wine,” says Piégay. “But I prefer to concentrate on the objective qualities: the water temperature, the pressure, the measure of coffee, whether it’s correctly extracted.”
The result is that many of his customers stop by more than once a day for a lovingly brewed espresso, silky cappuccino made with fresh Normandy milk, or filter coffee that expresses all the character of the beans. Though much of his clientele is foreign, he also attracts Parisians who are drawn by the relaxed atmosphere and the sunny terrace.
If coffee culture is catching on in Paris, Piégay thinks it will be several years before good coffee is easy to find. “For the moment there are only a few of us,” he says, citing the Franco-British Bal Café and La Caféothèque, founded in 2004 by Gloria Montenegro Chirouze, the former Guatemalan ambassador to France. Café Lomi also supplies a handful of bistros including Bistro Volnay and Septime, as well as the Sugarplum Cake Shop.
Part of the difficulty lies in convincing café owners to invest in expensive equipment when selling poor-quality coffee remains a profitable business. Café Lomi’s Arnephy explains that a typical café might spend less than €1,000 on a machine, or receive it for free in exchange for buying coffee from the same company. For those who are serious about good coffee he recommends spending €7,000 or more on the machine and training staff over a period of weeks or months to maintain and master it.
And, says Piégay, while the investment might seem huge, good coffee does pay for itself. “I might sell 400 to 500 cups in a day, which is a lot for a neighbourhood café of this size.”
Superior coffee in Paris:
Coutume Café, 47 rue de Babylone, 7th
KB Café Shop, 62 rue des Martyrs, 9th
Le Bal Café, 6 impasse de la Défense, 18th
La Caféothèque, 52 rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, 4th
Sugarplum Cake Shop, 68 rue du Cardinal Lemoine, 5th