Parisians and their historically poor taste in coffee
Coffee has been part of the French diet since the 17th century and the institutions that served it, like Le Procope in Paris which opened its doors in 1686, quickly became the center of civilized society. Voltaire famously drank 40 cups a day here, a regime his physician warned was slowly poisoning him to death. Long-term health risks aside, it’s a small wonder the Enlightenment philosopher didn’t keel over instantaneously given the ghastly taste of the substandard coffee he was hell-bent on drinking.
By the early 19th century, the French had acquired a taste for the bitter notes of chicory and the predominance of robusta beans after the world wars, which were imported from the nation’s colonies in West Africa, solidified their preference for harsh-tasting coffee. Even at the end of the 20th century, the coffee served in most French restaurants and cafés lagged lightyears behind the quality of the food and wine on the menu, a nasty surprise awaiting many a tourist or expat at the end of an otherwise delightful meal.
Still, many of Paris’ 7,000 cafés are locked into cost-effective but flavor-prohibitive contracts with large distributors whereby the low quality of the beans is offset by the provision of expensive espresso machines, normally a huge investment for these small business owners.
The French Coffee Revolution
While the sea change in coffee making raged in Australia, America, and Scandinavia, business carried on in France pretty much as usual for the best part of 20 years. You might have found one independent roaster per Parisian arrondissement but even they tended to carry only mid-range beans which they zealously over-roasted. Certainly, the term barista didn’t mean anything to anyone.
This all changed with the opening of La Caféothèque in 2005, which, like so many of Paris’ early specialty coffee shops, was founded by an expat, in this case a former Guatemalan ambassador.
With the trail blazed, fellow roasters and coffee aficionados l’Arbre à Café arrived on the scene in 2009, followed by Café Lomi, Coutume, and KB Caféshop in 2010, and Télescope and Ten Belles two years later.
However, it was in 2013 that the scene really exploded. Trendy cafés like Holybelly, Fondation, and Loustic all entered the mix as did the roastery Belleville Brûlerie which supplies many of the coffee shops in its immediate, artsy vicinity and beyond.
Since then, their number and diversity have continued to grow, especially in the northeast of Paris, while at the same time an authentically French approach to specialty coffee has emerged, one that borrows elements from its international precursors and blends them with the café culture for which the capital is renowned.
The Maison Verlet, a café a century ahead of the curve
Founded in 1880, the Maison Verlet took up the mantle of Paris’ first purveyor of top-quality, single-origin coffee in 1921 when Auguste Woehrlé took over his mother-in-law’s grocery store. Woehrlé was an intrepid mariner and brought back beans from Brazil, Colombia, and Costa Rica. This tradition of sourcing beans from beyond the realms of France’s colonies was continued by his son and grandson.
When Eric Duchossoy became the manager in 1995, he decided to take things one step further, importing not just from a single country but a single plantation. Over the past two decades, he has sourced beans from ecologically minded growers in places like Burma, Thailand, Laos, India, and Panama. Today, customers can choose from 35 varieties, served exclusively as espressos, and the coffee shop operates a generous try-before-you-buy policy with its beans.
Verlet has its own philosophy when it comes to coffee drinking. There’s no rush, there’s no queuing, and there’s no grabbing a cup to toss back halfway down the Rue Saint-Honoré. As Duchossoy puts it, ‘We must have time for coffee. It’s very important. This place exists outside of time. We are not in a hurry. We take our time.’
He is also an ardent roaster, describing his atelier on the Rue de Montpensier as his chapel, where he works in solitude, removed from the hustle and bustle of the 1st arrondissement.
What to do if you’re in the neighborhood
The gardens of the Palais Royal and the shops that line its arcades are perfect for a caffeinated wander and Daniel Buren’s Les Deux Plateaux is a must-see work for admirers of contemporary sculpture.