The Bitter Truth About French Coffee Culture

French Coffee and Café Culture. Photo by Joanna Shen.

Francophiles have an obsession with France’s “café and coffee culture”.

We long for the French cafés with their historical and cultural significance, and yearn for the delicate, dark café noir–because if cafés are so important to French culture, the coffee must be good, non? Sadly, they are mistaken. France is a country of café culture, not coffee culture.

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The famous Café de Flore Photo by Joanna Shen.
The famous Café de Flore
Photo by Joanna Shen.

Parisian cafés have a pronounced place in history. From the French Revolution to the French Resistance, cafés were where freedom fighters developed their ideas and plotted rebellion. Cafés were also hubs of famous writers and philosophers. Many famous literary prizes are named after these cafés. For example, le Prix de Flore, a literary prize started in 1994, is awarded annually at the renowned Café de Flore. Le prix des Deux Magots, a major French literary prize, derived its name from the Parisian café Les Deux Magots, When I travelled to Paris, visited both. Sitting beside the terrace, I basked in awe as I sipped my espresso. Perhaps I was sitting in the same spot as Hemingway or Sartre a century ago!

However, the eminence of café culture stops short of the actual coffee sold. Sorry to break your illusion of great French coffee, but it’s over-extracted and bitter–often brewed with used coffee grounds that escape the filter net. Ever wondered why the French put so much sugar in their coffee? Now you know.

You can go ahead and blame Nestlé for the bad French coffee. France typically sources coffee from large, industrial-scale manufacturers that import beans from all over. Most traditional cafés in France are stocked exclusively by these large-scale chains. And while Americans are used to Arabica beans–the higher quality bean sourced by Starbucks, Intelligensia, and artisanal roasting houses like La Colombe–the French market is saturated with cheap, harsh Robusta beans.

It’s ironic that France, a country famous for its preference for small, artisanal, local food production, offers bland, harsh coffee with no diversity or distinctive flavor. But in true French form, mediocre coffee quality has become almost as much a heritage and a tradition for the French as literature and philosophy.

A cup of “mediocre”espresso at Café de Flore. Photo by Joanna Shen.
A cup of “mediocre”espresso
at Café de Flore. Photo by
Joanna Shen.

Recently, however, café culture itself is under threat. According to Bernard Quartier, President of the French National Federation of Cafes, Brasseries and Discotheques, the number of cafés in France is in decline. There were 200,000 cafes in France in the 1960s; today, there are only 40,000, with an average of two closing daily.

This may have something to do with that other beloved French pastime: Smoking. On January 1st of 2008, France extended its smoking ban to cafés, bars and restaurants. Those French who were used to a cigarette with their espresso can no long enjoy that privilege. In addition, eight years into the global financial crisis, French cafés continue to feel the effects of people’s changing habits.

During my various visits to cafés across France, I was surprised at how few customers patronized local cafés. But perhaps this is due to changing habits in socializing and communication. Before the Internet, previous generations would gather in cafés for important news, gossip and debate. iMessage eliminates that need. And with no one there to order, cafés have little incentive to improve coffee quality.

A cup of specialty coffee at Mana Espresso in Aix-en-Provence. The origin of the beans and the type of roasting are all written on the black plate. Photo by Joanna Shen.
A cup of specialty coffee at Mana Espresso in Aix-en-Provence. The origin of the beans and the type of roasting are all written on the black plate. Photo by Joanna Shen.

But there is good news on the horizon for French and Francophile coffee lovers! Inspired by the streets of Williamsburg, specialty coffee shops are taking hold across France. These small, independent stores check all the hipster boxes: They source coffee beans from independent farms, and use precise roasting methods for maximum preservation of flavor. They are training battalions of talented baristas, who value craftsmanship and are up-to-date with all the latest latté art trends. They are also introducing rotations of single-farm-origin beans, to educate customers to the diversity of coffee tannins. These shops also offer coffee-making and coffee-appreciation workshops to spread awareness about the coffee cause. Many French customers are surprised at their first sip of artisanal black coffee, to discover natural accents of lemon, chocolate, apple or mushroom.

More importantly, unlike O.G. cafés, these stores are run by management who understand the importance of social media marketing. This new French wave of artisanal coffee shops is revolutionizing French’s taste of coffee, and bringing customers back to cafés.

An ideal future is before us: One where the great literary and philosophical dialogues of France may be fueled by equally world-changing brews.

Vive les cafés et vive le café!