Bad Coffee Is Dying a Slow Death in Paris

Coffee in Paris has been, historically speaking, rather dreadful—a bitter, black brew made from robusta beans. But now new cafés with a passion for good beans are slowly beginning to change French coffee culture for the better.

|
Sep 11 2014, 8:29pm

Photo via Flickr user Pal-Kristian Hamre

People in Paris had no idea that the coffee here was bad. There was a post on the New York Times coffee blog a few years ago with the headline, "Why Is Coffee in Paris So Bad?" Loads of people were outraged, saying, "No! It's great!" because they associate drinking coffee in Paris with the whole experience, which in itself is nice: sitting outside, grumpy waiters, all that. It has a kind of romance to it. But no one really realized how bad it was until people started opening coffee shops, or until people traveled and tasted coffee elsewhere.

For us, we knew what we wanted to do at Le Bal Café, but we weren't really quite sure how to go about it, because none of us had worked in the coffee industry before, or worked anywhere that had taken it so seriously. We made the decision to find someone who did, so the first barista we hired had worked for Intelligentsia in the States, and he's the one who showed us the ropes. And our first coffee supplier, Café Lomi, which is a local roaster in Paris, also did loads of training with us and all the staff learnt latte art and how to do the perfect espresso. Then we switched and we worked with Has Bean, in London, and then our business partners Anselme Blayney and Thomas Lahoux opened a roaster a year ago called Belleville, so now we serve that.

We've been open four years, and we were one of the first new coffee shops, but there were already a couple—Coutume started probably four or five years ago, as well. But Le Bal is more of a restaurant than a café—coffee's part of it, but it's not the biggest thing about Le Bal. We really wanted to be part of the coffee shop culture, so we opened Ten Belles two years ago, and that's a proper New York-style coffee shop.

And now there are loads of coffee shops, mainly led by Australians, Americans, and Swedish people: Holybelly, Telescope, which is one of the original ones—it's probably been open three, maybe four years. Fondation is very good, as is KB CaféShop, Fragments, and The Broken Arm.

Many coffee shops would like to have local beans, and some do. And Belleville supplies a lot of those places, but they often have "guest" coffees from all over—from Scandinavia, from Australia, from the States. Our business partner Thomas just traveled to Rwanda recently and brought back some goods from there.

A lot of places now—especially young, trendy places—would like to have good coffee, and so they'll contact local roasters and say, "Hey, we want to do coffee because we've heard you're cool and we'd like to have a small, locally produced coffee. But they're not always willing to buy the equipment that's necessary to make good coffee, and not willing to train their staff and have someone who has specifically trained for several hours to make a good espresso, especially if they're a restaurant and not really a coffee shop.

Some of the roasters are reluctant to sell them coffee because they want it done a certain way. Chemex takes a lot of time in a restaurant setting, and you have to be quite skilled to do a good Chemex. Anyone could do it if they wanted to—but to do a really nicely done one, you need to practice. A lot of people don't want to buy the hand-made, Italian machines because big wholesalers supply free machines, free grinders, and bags of really cheap coffee.

In terms of people being skilled enough to make make good coffee, there's a good example in the Barista Championship. In a place like Australia, they have regional ones for each city because there are so many people who are interested in coffee. In Melbourne, for example, they might have 6,000 people wanting to participate. In contrast, our business partner Thomas took part three years ago and he was one of 13 in the whole of France. That's how little people care about it! The international coffee community really cares about it, but your average French person? Not so much.

People are really shocked by the acidity and the fruitiness in our coffee now, because that's kind of the way it's going with the way the beans are grown and where they're from and how they've been produced. A lot of people were—well, maybe not upset, because we have a lot of international customers who are looking for it—but a lot of Parisians were kind of shocked at the acidity.

At Ten Belles, the customers know they're going there for a specific kind of coffee. At Le Bal, where people come for lunch or dinner or a drink, every day we have to justify our choice in doing something that's different. And they think everything's too bitter, too strong, or too short, whereas they're just not used to it. But it's a constant battle. Sometimes you want to educate people and sometimes you kind of just say, "Fuck it."

We're both self-taught, and opening Le Bal was quite a big risk—it was our first business venture. We hadn't cooked in a while when we did open, so the year before we opened Le Bal we went back to working in kitchens in Paris. The question that whole year was, "Do we still have it? Are we going to be able to do it?" And then you open, and you've just got to go for it. It's a bit like when you learn how to ride a bicycle. You just have to to keep going, otherwise you'll fall off. And we're still on the bike.