French Coffee 101

French Coffee and Café Culture. Photo by Joanna Shen.

We Americans love to rush out the door sporting extra hot non-fat no whip lattes in to-go cups. But if you’ve ever been to France, you know that the French don’t quite do coffee that way.

Imagine the scene: you’re at a café in Paris, obviously accordion music is playing in the background, and for the past hour, you have been leisurely enjoying a very lovely café au lait.

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Ah! C’est magnifique!

If you’ve ever experienced this bliss in real life, then you know just how wonderful French coffee culture is. In the US, coffee is a means to an ends, but in France, the purpose of coffee is to enjoy it. They do not power-walk to work, chugging 20oz to-go cups. They sit, sip, and smell the roses. And unlike Starbucks counters that limit seating to two bar stools by the bathroom door, French cafés are built for customer comfort. The bars are long and beautiful, with the enticing deal of 50% off coffee. Since you don’t need a waiter when you’re seated at the bar, your coffee will be about 2 euros cheaper. If you are seated at a table, the waiters aren’t ignoring you by not bringing the check after 15 minutes – they’re just letting you relax.

It’s not uncommon for French and other Europeans to sit for a couple of hours while they collect their thoughts, share pleasant small talk, or simply watch the world go by. (That’s why terrasse chairs are next to each other, facing out!)  There’s a reason why cafés and outdoor terraces are the original haunts of many writers, philosophers, and intellectuals. Some cafés are famous for their famous cafe-sipping loiterers: Les Deux Magots in Saint-Germain-des-Prés has caffeinated such literary greats as Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Hemingway, Camus, and Picasso.

Now, as for the coffee itself, Americans might struggle to order what they want. Ordering a café in France will get you an Espresso. Looking for just a plain-old regular coffee? You’ll find it, and get judged while you order it. The French equivalent of our coffee is café allongé or café AméricainTo adapt and meet France in the middle with their espresso culture, order the watered-down espresso-based Américano, which was originally created for American servicemen stationed in Europe during the war.

In the French espresso culture, there are some different ways you can get your caffeine fix. Similar to how our coffee drinks are variations on drip coffee, theirs are variations on espresso. A popular drink you may not have hear of is a noisette, an espresso with dash milk. The literal translation, “hazelnut coffee”, refers to the coffee becoming the color of hazelnuts once milk is added, rather than actual hazelnut flavor. You’ll be a bit embarrassed (though still understood) if you ask for a café au lait. In France, café au lait is drip coffee with plenty of milk, consumed at home, in a bowl, with breakfast. What you should order for your daytime coffee is the watered-down espresso with milk drink, a café crème.

A cappuccino in France in an espresso with some steamed milk, milk foam, and a sprinkle of cocoa powder on top. Café viennois could be confused for a Starbucks drink, maybe: light espresso, whipped cream, and chocolate powder. Café gourmand is always the best choice on the menu because it’s espresso with a few desserts on the side. And whatever you do, don’t order a café serré unless you’re ready for a body jolt. It’s espresso with half the water, so it’s really bitter!

There are a few coffee basics you won’t find. First of all, don’t expect to find iced coffee in France. Or iced tea. The French like their soft drinks hot and strong, as embodied by the popularity of Espresso (which has far too little milk or pumpkin spice syrup for American tastes). And that hemp milk you want in your coffee isn’t available. France just has milk. Period. What kind? Sadly for those with dietary needs, it’s not soy, almond, rice, or hemp milk, or even skim milk.

When it comes to sweeteners, America subscribes to quantity over quality. Of the million different flavors from Carmel to Pumpkin to S’mores, the defining taste of most syrups in American coffee shops is tooth-aching sweetness. In France, beautifully wrapped sugar cubes are a tasty and tasteful accessory.

And once again, it was fantastic. Let’s get one thing straight- French coffee is really good (and really helpful for jet lag, my go-to excuse to have some more coffee when abroad). As they say in France, joie de vivre– the joy of living- is really all about food and drinks.

So yes, I will have another.