“People would walk in and be, like, ‘What are you?’ ” David Flynn recalls of the early days after he opened a coffee shop called Télescope in Paris. “Vous êtes quoi exactement?”
Four years ago, customers were confused not just by the spare decor, nothing like a traditional Parisian cafe, but by the concept: a place focused on the coffee, really good coffee, with just a few pastry options on the side.
In fact, the phrase “coffee shop” has yet to get a French translation; the coffee shop’s characteristically high standards for beans, water and the processes for combining the two come so clearly from the English-speaking world.
The fact is, although Paris is famous for its street-side cafes and artisanal food culture, the city generally serves up an unappetizing cup of coffee.
“So many of our customers over the years [asked], ‘Where can we go for coffee?’ ” says Paul Barron, a New Zealander who runs a bike tour company here. “And we had a hard time telling them where to go.”
But a movement was afoot. Flynn and Barron are part of a growing artisanal coffee culture in France, inspired abroad but newly infused with a French flavor and direction.
Flynn, an American expat, opened Télescope in 2012. In 2015, Barron and his American business partner started their own coffee shop, Le Peloton. Some two dozen others have opened within the past five years, many, but not all, in the trendy northeast part of the capital. Americans would call this area “hipster.” The French call it “bobo,” short for “bourgeois and bohemian.” Many are in the same neighborhoods targeted in the terrorist cafe shootings in November.
French coffee is typically bitter, says Hippolyte Courty, who runs an importer and roastery, L’Arbre à Café, supplyng both his own boutique and a handful of coffee shops and restaurants around the city.
A historian and Frenchman whose previous passion was wine, Courty has studied and written about French coffee culture. He says the French, who have been drinking coffee since the 1700s, developed a taste for the bitter flavor of chicory in the early 19th century and later for the harsh-tasting robusta variety of coffee bean imported from the country’s West African colonies.
By the late 20th century, most cafes in the country had contracts with a few large distributors who provided not only the affordable, bitter, lower-quality beans, but also the expensive machines that made espresso, which would otherwise require a significant investment for cafe owners.
Consequently, Courty said, “The quality of the coffee kept falling, and the French, who didn’t pay much attention to coffee, unfortunately, paid even less.”
So, as a coffee scene has finally emerged in France, it’s not surprising that a lot of the people involved had roots elsewhere.
“You had a specialty coffee culture that had grown significantly in the States and in Australia,” said Anna Brones, an Oregon transplant who with photographer Jeff Hargrove has published a book called “Paris Coffee Revolution.” As a result, “a lot of the people that opened up places [in Paris] had either traveled, lived and/or worked in either one of those places.”
An exception is the pioneering Caféothèque, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary in a cozy spot facing the Seine: It was founded by a former Guatemalan ambassador. But at most other establishments, you’re likely to hear English spoken behind the counter, in some combination of British, American or Australian accents.
Many of the new generation of artisanal coffee shops share a certain white-walled, wood-and-steel aesthetic some in this city call Nordic and others, more derogatively, “Brooklyn.” A striking number carry copies of the trendy “slow-lifestyle”magazine Kinfolk.
However, while they may offer expats a familiar setting in which to spend quality time with a laptop or book, they have had to adapt their business models. French coffee shops must pay higher wages than in the United States or Australia and do just a fraction of their business in high-volume takeout — a term most still don’t bother to translate from English since the French won’t take their coffee to go. The economic realities can result in things such as the six-euro cup of filtered coffee — that’s almost $7 — but most places have instead balanced their budgets by offering more food.
You can get an unusually hearty breakfast (for Paris) at Holybelly, the coffee shop in the trendy Canal Saint-Martin neighborhood that Frenchman Nico Alary founded after training as a barista in Melbourne. It’s also one of the only spots in town that you’ll find coffee served in a mug.
Next, though, Alary has visions of taking over a classic French cafe — the kind of place where the French will stand at the bar for a morning espresso and sit for hours in the evenings, preferably on sidewalk patios, talking and watching the street life pass by.
“The only thing really wrong with our cafe culture is our coffee,” Alary says. “We all love to hang out in a real Parisian cafe early in the morning and see what’s going on and people-watch.” It would be “a dream,” he said, to get Holybelly-level coffee in a traditional cafe.
“My objective is really to democratize specialty coffee,” declared Aleaume Paturle, whose Paris roastery, Lomi, has grown over the past six years from a closet-size workspace to a sunlit cafe with the machinery in the back.
“For me, specialty coffee becomes really interesting once it reaches a greater number of people,” he said. This is part philosophical but part practical. If specialty roasters can reach a certain volume, Paturle believes, they can begin asking coffee producers to tailor their growing processes specifically to French tastes.
In addition to chic “coffee shops,” Lomi now supplies a small but growing number of traditional cafes.
So does Flynn. He left Télescope, his first venture, to open a micro-roastery, Belleville Brûlerie, with a French business partner in the fall of 2013. They’ve staked out a specialty in varieties suited for drip or filtered coffee — as opposed to espresso — which Flynn says may be the side door to transforming French tastes. There is a French phrase for a bad cup of drip coffee: “jus de chausette,” or sock juice. However, while people here may have certain expectations for the bitterness of their espresso, or for the passable cup of drip coffee they make at home in the morning, he says a professionally prepared cup of filtered coffee remains relatively undefined.
Unlike his first venture, Flynn says the roastery needed no translation for the older residents of Belleville, this gentrifying neighborhood of northeastern Paris. They remember a time when Paris had dozens of such small establishments.
“We have 80-year-old ladies of the neighborhood who come by, and it’s funny because this space, they totally know what it is,” Flynn said. “They get it.”
Jacobs is an independent journalist and audio producer based in Paris.
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3 Rue Marcadet
Spacious coffee shop in a near-central location offering a short rotating menu of tasty food options. An espresso starts at about $2.25.
10 Rue Pradier
On Saturdays, you can visit the storefront to pick up beans and participate in a tasting. Bags run roughly between $16 and $22.50.
Le Peloton Café
17 Rue du Pont Louis Philippe
A small spot with big windows and bicycle-themed decor. Prices start at $2.80 for an espresso. Also serves waffles.