French Coffee Refined and Redefined – 25 Magazine, Issue 9

French Coffee Refined and Redefined – 25 Magazine, Issue 9

UUntil recently, Paris was renowned more for its cafés than the quality of its coffee, but the past decade has seen the city experience a growing wave of specialty coffee shop openings.

NOA BERGER traces how French cafés and roasters navigate the “glocalization” of specialty coffee. All photos by Albin Durand for La Fontaine de Belleville. 

Despite being relatively slow to catch on, this movement has caught the attention of the culinary industry, as evident by the recent entry into specialty coffee of French chef Alain Ducasse.

Le Café – Alain Ducasse has, at the time of writing, two Parisian venues, each designed to fit its surroundings: one full of bright colors and clean lines to mirror a nearby luxurious department store; the other references the area’s industrial and artisanal past with its steel “zinc-style” bar, placed in the center of a large space decorated with antique coffee-making equipment. Both venues visually express a sense of luxury and attention to detail, with menus featuring single-origin coffee serve in custom-made cups offered alongside homemade madeleines, all prepared by leather-gloved baristas (here called cafeliers).

In part thanks to his reputation, but also through the way in which they mix visual cues from the high-end and workingman café, the two Alain Ducasse locations connect specialty coffee to both the French culture of fine dining and local artisanal tradition. But how does specialty coffee, initially strongly associated with Anglo-Saxon culture in both looks and taste, change and adapt to the culture of the countries in which it is introduced? What does it mean for coffee, a global commodity, to become “local?”

Nationalizing Taste: Becoming Local

Throughout its long history, coffee has been cast in very different roles: exotic beverage, colonial good, global commodity – but also a staple of the local cuisines of the countries where it was produced. As it moved from its native Ethiopia through the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century (“the wine of Islam”), then to the Tropic of Cancer as a European colonial good, coffee was initially seen as both a symbol of exotic delicacies and a threat to Christian Europe. To combat this, coffee was reinvented as an integral part of European culinary heritage by reimagining coffee’s roots as European – specifically, as historian Jonathan Morris tells us, Greek and by incorporating milk into coffee to create the kapuziner in Vienna and the café au lait in Paris, thus transforming coffee from a “black brew” to a “white confection.”

In the case of France, coffee first became popular as part of a wave of “Turkomania” that hit Versailles in 1670 following the visit of a diplomatic emissary of Sultan Mehmed IV to Louis XIV’s court. The trend then trickled down to Paris and led to the opening of dozens of cafés. One of those, the Procope, a luxuriously decorated establishment for the elite, became hugely successful and copied across the continent. “Workingman” cafés for urban popular classes emerged alongside the elite establishments following the French Revolution of 1789, and it was finally during the Industrial Revolution that the two models merged into one, in what would become the Parisian café as we know it today.

At the same time, France also developed a national drinking style, shaped by both historical events and political agendas. Its association with locally produced milk made coffee appear more French and helped it take hot chocolate’s place as both a breakfast staple and the drink of choice for bourgeois women. Coffee came to symbolize a “democratic” drink, representing all sections of French society from the Royal Court to revolutionary proletarians. But a succession of wars from the age of Napoleon to the Second World War affected the quality of coffee produced and consumed in France. This, coupled with a strong Italian influence, pushed France towards affordable Robusta, consumed as darkly roasted espresso blends that would hide the coffee’s defects. These events both sculpted the local coffee landscape and nationalized it, creating what we today know as “traditional” French coffee. But making coffee into a symbol of French culture also painted over its colonial origins and the heavy human cost involved in its production.

During the 1990s, coffee was “reintroduced” into France, this time through a different path. The “second wave,” led by Starbucks, imported the American take on Italian coffee to the country, popularizing the cappuccino and the latte as well as the Anglo-Saxon coffee shop model. The third wave arrived in Paris about a decade later. Many of those pioneering coffee shops reflected a strong Anglo-Saxon influence in both menu and design, the latter often more evocative of cafés found in Brooklyn, Melbourne, or even Stockholm than the classic Parisian café. This type of design not only reflected exterior influence, but also had an important role: to signal to potential customers that these shops were not your typical Parisian cafés with their traditional bitter petit noir, but places where you can find something different, something new, a taste of a revolution that may have started elsewhere, but is now transforming the local scene. In a consumption landscape of almost infinite choices, design and aesthetics are an important way to signal to consumers that a specific product is the best match to the specific tastes, lifestyles, and values they seek.

However, as specialty coffee took hold in Paris, roasters and coffee shops looked for ways to reference and dialogue with local traditions. La Caféothèque offered sommelier en café training, inspired by the country’s prolific wine industry. L’Arbre à Café focused on the restaurant sector, looking to connect coffee to France’s rich culinary heritage. Coutume Café combined elements from the Parisian chic café with the look of a botanical lab. Belleville Brûlerie invited its customers to rediscover filter coffee, previously thought of as undrinkable “sock juice,” and used high-quality blends and a “French Roast” as a way to dialogue with local preferences. Belleville also drew on the post-revolutionary workingman café in the design of its coffee shops, retail spaces, packaging, and even working overalls, shaping an accessibly French look while at the same time conveying a sense of revolution and newness. Le Café Alain Ducasse makes specialty coffee French through design, semantic, and menu choice, such as serving its coffee accompanied by locally grown and roasted almonds or highlighting its French coffee, grown on Reunion Island, by making it the most expensive item on the menu.

A Cafés Belleville roaster wears their signature blue workingman’s jacket.
La Fontaine de Belleville’s café space draws upon the aesthetics of post-revolutionary workingman cafés to imbue its spaces with a distinct Parisian identity.

Connecting with local traditions and history is one way through which specialty coffee can reach a wider audience. This represents a larger trend in the culture of consumption that was recently described by sociologists Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre. As margins made from mass production in the Global South decrease, new ways to generate value, and so revenues, evolve. An important way to create value in our economy is to distinguish between “standard” objects and “special” objects through narrative means, notably through a mobilization of the past, tradition, and nostalgia (thus separating, for example, an “old” car from a vintage car).

In this case, the specialty coffee market’s mobilization of the past and local traditions serves as not just a way to reach a larger audience, but as a means to extract and create value, in line with contemporary tendencies in global capitalism.

Negotiating Place: Becoming “Glocal”

While the specialty coffee movement may mobilize local traditions and history in its quest to reach a larger following, it also represents newness and innovation, seeking new ways to enhance quality that are more sustainable, ethical, and transparent. It may be interesting to consider the ways in which the spirit of innovation is communicated through space and packaging design, branding and social media. Is this achieved through turning to science and technology as inspirations? If so, how do we mediate this with making our spaces welcoming, accessible, and inviting for all? Do we do this by leaning on the past, evoking revolutionary historical periods to get across the idea of change? Is it possible that the idea of innovation, and perhaps more generally the future, has come to be represented by an Anglo-Saxon aesthetic?

As the specialty coffee market grows to become an integral part of local culture, it also negotiates “local” and “global” in new ways. Upon its first arrival in France, the geographical and cultural provenance of coffee was camouflaged as it was being nationalized: for coffee to become “French,” it first had to cease being Ethiopian, Ottoman, or Caribbean. As coffee arrived in France through a new itinerary, it again embarked on a journey to integrate in local culture. However, a significant difference makes it unlikely that specialty coffee will become entirely “French.” The specialty coffee movement placed the notion of “origins” at its heart as a central way to establish specialty coffees quality, morality, and authenticity. While roasters such as Verlet introduced single-origin coffee to the market as early as 1880, it was branded as an exotic good and was roasted darkly to cater to local preferences. Many of today’s roasters seek, in contrast, to develop profiles that reflect and highlight coffee origins, constantly looking for a delicate balance between achieving this and corresponding with local tastes. Conversely, highlighting origin also places coffee in semantic and symbolic proximity to wine, a staple of French cuisine, notably through the use of the term terroir. This creates the sense that specialty coffee somehow “belongs to multiple places, traditions, and histories. Specialty coffee is, in that sense, not entirely a global beverage nor entirely a local one, but rather a “glocal” drink.

Coffee is thus made both global and local, or “glocal,” through not only roasting choices, but also through semantics and aesthetics. If specialty coffee seeks to chart future paths for the industry, it may be interesting to also think of what this future looks like as well as how it is communicated through not only words, but also visuals. This becomes even more important in light of the role often attributed to coffee shops in the process of gentrification. How then can specialty coffee create spaces physical, virtual, and symbolic that connect with local culture while still representing coffees global origins and reflect both tradition and the future?

NOA BERGER is a PhD candidate focused on the sociology of consumption and culture at the École des Hautes Études in Sciences Sociales in Paris.

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