Laetitia Natali squints in concentration at the peaks and valleys forming on a widescreen display above her computer. Five or six batches of coffee beans wait to be roasted this Monday morning. She leans close to the 12-kilo Diedrich machine gleaming in the feeble Paris sunlight filtering into the roasting corner of collaborative roasting space The Beans on Fire—she should hear the first “crack” soon. Moving between computer and machine, she is quick and efficient. Though she’s been a professional roaster for less than a year, her movements suggest habit.
Natali, founder of Café 366, is a regular roaster at The Beans on Fire. A round-the-world backpacking trip with her husband in 2007 gave her the idea to start a coffee company, but it wasn’t until last year that things aligned in the just the right way to support her steps to becoming a roaster. “I discovered [The Beans on Fire] at just the right moment,” she says. “I was able to get started right away…and I received the support I needed to focus on my training.”
The name Café 366 is a nod to the trip that sparked Natali’s decision to quit a job in communications and try to make it as a coffee roaster. “Coffee is something we loved and consumed on a regular basis, but that we didn’t really know much about,” she says. It became the running theme of the trip, influencing which countries and regions she and her husband visited: Ethiopia for its reputation as the birthplace of coffee, Yemen for its influence spreading coffee consumption, South America for its deeply rooted coffee culture. The couple spent three to six weeks in each country, visiting coffee growers of all sizes, from the guy with a few plants in his backyard for family consumption to large-scale plantations. They kept a daily log of their journey, which lives on as the website Tour du Monde du Café.
“Finding local producers led us down less-travelled roads,” says Laetitia. “We had a completely different experience than if we had been regular travellers.” A pit stop in San Francisco on the way to Asia got her wondering why France didn’t have a culture of quality coffee. “My first experience in a coffee shop was in San Francisco at Ritual. I thought that we would find the worst coffee in the United States. It ended up being the best,” she says.
Back in Paris a year later, Natali started mulling over ways to make the switch to coffee as the scene in Paris developed at its own frenetic pace. Eventually, she mapped out roaster training that included La Caféothèque, CIRAD (French agricultural research and international cooperation organization) in Montpellier, and a machine-specific course at The Beans on Fire with Five Elephant’s Justin Miles. But it’s the collaborative experience of working hand in hand with other roasters to which she attributes her relatively pain-free transition to coffee professional.
Natali recognizes that the coffee scene in Paris has changed since she got back from her world coffee tour in 2008. “My only regret is not having started sooner. But maybe it wouldn’t have worked out then. The people who started earlier paved the way for the rest of us, which makes it easier to start a business in coffee today,” she says.
Natali’s experience selling micro-roasts at her local farmers' market in Pré-Saint-Gervais mirrors larger trends, with French consumers ditching coarse, dark roasts for more carefully crafted flavor profiles that sometimes surprise, but more often than not, convince. The key to getting consumers to make the switch is an ongoing dialogue about origin, flavor, and craft.
“Many of my customers are used to buying coffee at the supermarket. Some are pleased to find a coffee free of bitterness, while for others, that same bitterness is what they like about coffee,” explains Natali. “I try to explain how certain characteristics actually mask flavors. I also make the comparison with wine and terroir, which works well with a French audience. I’m pleased to be a part of this transmission of knowledge and discovery.” In addition to her regular farmers' market clientele, Natali also sells to a few professional clients, including Le Café Vert, a local bistro that has chosen to work with small and/or local producers, and also offers her coffees from within the cafe inside The Beans On Fire. The interest in food provenance and craftsmanship is a strong argument in favor of small coffee professionals in France, and is perhaps even more of an influence than the ongoing specialty coffee movement for some consumers.
Certainly, mentalities have changed and today there’s a bigger market for specialty coffee in France, but none of that makes learning to roast any easier—that’s part of what attracted Natali to her new profession in the first place. For her fourth batch of the morning, she proudly drags a sack of coffee stamped with the Café 366 logo out of the stock room. It’s the first batch of coffee she’s imported herself, from a Colombian grower she met while on the road: Finca El Placer. She’ll spend this morning and probably a few others finding the perfect roast profile for these beans. “The craft of roasting is so vast, I’ll never be done learning, and that’s what I find so exciting,” she says. “For the first time in my life, I’m doing something I really love.”