As the capital, as well as a global gastronomic hub, it comes as no surprise that the focus of media attention on France’s growing specialty coffee scene would fall on Paris. But if you were to only look there, you would miss out on some of the exciting specialty coffee development that’s taking place elsewhere in the country.
Take a high-speed train a few hours southwest of Paris to Bordeaux and you’ll find one of these places: L’Alchimiste. Launched in 2014, L’Alchimiste started as a roastery, selling directly to customers and businesses, but with no brick-and-mortar cafe for people to enjoy their coffees. That changed this summer when they opened a new space—part coffee shop, part coffee boutique—on a small, cobblestoned street in the heart of the city.
Inside, the space is separated into two levels. As you enter, you are first met by the traditional specialty cafe decor. “Wood and white, it’s very ‘coffee shop,’” says L’Alchimiste owner and roaster Arthur Audibert as he chuckles. Pass the coffee bar and go up a few stairs to the second level and you’ll find the tasting room. Here, the walls are covered in a colorful, tropical wallpaper, an idea that came from Audibert’s wife, and business associate, Virginie Audibert, a nod to the warmer regions from which coffee hails.
While this tasting room feels very exotic, “we try to have a touche Frenchie,” says Audibert. To get that French touch, the menu features a variety of French pastries, like the classic financiers, as well as a dreamy dune blanche, which comes from a bakery just across from the cafe. This light pastry, similar to a chouquette, is filled with whipped cream and topped with pearl sugar, and as it turns out, pairs perfectly with an espresso.
In case the white ceramic tiles on the coffee bar are too reminiscent of Scandinavian decor, there’s a visual hint to remind you that you’re still in France; down on the bottom at one end are a few small red and blue tiles, the colors of the French flag. This combination of global specialty coffee culture with local tradition is refreshing, a change from the traditional cafe menus which all offer the same assortment of items no matter where you are in the world (I’m looking at you, avocado toast).
L’Alchimiste’s new space has allowed Audibert to plug into the heart of Bordeaux, offering a different coffee than what’s already on the market. “I am happy because we have a very positive response,” says Audibert, “that it’s not the coffee that they [customers] were drinking before.”
As if to highlight my point, on her way out of the cafe, one of the customers asks barista Yohan Caunegre what he did to make her espresso so good. He gives her a quick rundown about where they source their coffee from, and what flavor profiles they are trying to get out when they extract an espresso. Just enough information to intrigue the customer, but not overwhelm her. “It’s all about service,” Caunegre later confides in me.
“These are the people who will go to restaurants and won’t accept bad espressos any more,” says Audibert, highlighting the classic French restaurant conundrum where a sublime meal can be followed by a horrendous coffee. He hopes that if enough good coffees are served, perhaps this too can change.
Fortunately, Bordeaux has an edge that has made educating about coffee easier: wine. “We are lucky to be in a city where food and wine is important,” says Audibert. “We can make the parallels with wine.” That includes doing tastings with sommeliers, “speaking to them in their terms,” says Audibert.
Opening a cafe and running a roastery has been “a little adventure,” says Audibert. He jokingly tells me “we weren’t busy enough [with the roastery] so we opened a coffee shop.” L’Alchimiste’s roasting operation is on the other side of the river in an area called Darwin, and Audibert splits his time between the two. Here, old military barracks have been turned into a hub of co-working spaces, studios, and headquarters for a variety of ecologically minded organizations.
Today, more and more cafes are popping up in Bordeaux, and for Audibert it’s exciting to look to the future. While he—like many in the specialty coffee world in France—will tell you that it took awhile to get things going, the future looks bright. “I am fairly confident that in France we are going to catch up,” says Audibert. Next time you’re in France, book a ticket to Bordeaux and go and see for yourself.
Anna Brones (@annabrones) is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in the American Pacific Northwest, the founder of Foodie Underground, and the co-author of Fika: The Art Of The Swedish Coffee Break. Read more Anna Brones on Sprudge.