For years, I just accepted the sorry state of coffee in Paris: I’d go into a café, order my breuvage, and expect to spend the next half-hour or so lingering over the coffee and ruminating my morning thoughts in a public place. (Well, this really means I was just staring into space while waiting for the caffeine to kick in).
Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt
Other sleepy customers would push open the café’s glass door and let in the green-smelling gust coming off the beautiful square Gardette in the 11th, one of my favorite spots in eastern Paris. There I’d sit, wondering how long could I make one tiny cup of coffee last while I reflected on the day ahead, or on the meaning of the dream that woke me so suddenly this morning.
Like most Parisians, I was in denial. I didn’t want to admit that any food or drink specialty could be less than gourmet in our fair city. But coffee, until recently, was indeed just a wake-me-up, to be ordered with as little water as possible (called a café serré, which I mentioned in a previous post), and drunk, summarily, before the onslaught of the day’s tasks.
But with the arrival of the so-called third wave movement in coffee consumption, a reference to buying and drinking Good Coffee (in Paris), Parisians are finally starting to realize that coffee, like a fine wine, deserves just as much care in selection and preparation as any other gourmet food or beverage.
In the United States, specialty coffee has already gone mainstream. In 2014, according to an article and the Specialty Coffee Association of America, over half of all coffee consumed in the U.S. was specialty coffee. That’s because even chain restaurants are cashing in on the trend, and they’re also offering alternative additions like coconut or almond milk.
Single-varietal or single-origin?
But what is specialty coffee? What is this “third wave” all about? Most of the commercial coffee we drink is a blend of coffee beans produced in many different countries. If you visit one of Paris’ best sources for tasty coffee, La Caféothèque, you’ll find beans from over 50 countries. But they’re never blended together, so drinking a single-origin coffee is like drinking a single-varietal wine (like Pinot noir) instead of a mish-mash of different kinds of grapes in the same bottle.
Gloria Montenegro, the owner of La Caféothèque, distinguishes between industrial coffee, the kind you find in most Parisian cafés, and cafés fins, or what we call specialty coffees. In the video below, you can hear Gloria Montenegro, and quite a few other third wave café owners in Paris (Coutume, Lomi, Loustic, l’Arbre à Café, KB), talk a little about the coffees they sell, including the fact that like wine, coffee is a product of the terroir, roughly meaning the land and climate in which they’re grown.
One thing in particular that I like about La Caféothèque is that you’ll find a little box in the back of the conference room – the very same one you’ll find in wine schools – with tiny numbered vials. Each vial, when opened, contains the essence of rose, potato, oak, or any number of various essences. Since you have to guess what you’re smelling, they help you train your nose to recognize different aromas. It’s not as easy as it sounds!
At La Caféothèque, you’ll even find a “tasting protocol” that looks like the one you’d use for tasting wine. The professional act of tasting coffee is called cupping, and allows a coffee buyer, for example, to evaluate a coffee’s aroma and other qualities.
Wake up and smell the coffee
You’ve probably guessed by now that coffee’s third wave involves highly passionate people, who are usually trained as baristas (basically coffee sommeliers – there’s that wine comparison again!). They know how to make latte art, they buy coffee from small producers through direct trade methods, and they know how to prepare coffee in every type of device imaginable: the French press (strangely known not as "French press" in French but as a cafetière à piston), the V60, or even a beautiful and well-maintained espresso machine.
Far from being a hipster fad, as mocked in this video, good coffee is finally a real movement in Paris. As Gloria Montenegro says, “When coffee is good, we drink it with pleasure, and when it’s not good, we drink it anyway, because it wakes us up.” So even though it took Parisians years to wake up and smell the coffee, as it were, you can finally find a respectable cup of joe in the City of Light!
For a recent article (in French) on the coffee revolution in Paris, click here.