2010 seems like such a long time ago in Paris Coffee History time, but in fact, it was practically the Dark Ages. This was the year that Oliver Strand wrote his famous “Why is Coffee in Paris So Bad?” article which, if you didn't have time to read it, he summed up succinctly in this sentence: “It sucks so bad.”
He was right (and for the majority of Paris, he’s still right) but if you have been following along on our Paris coverage, you know that there’s a Third Wave of Parisian coffee that’s taken place, and it’s truly exciting. There are roasters, there are baristas, there are Kees Van der Westen machines. If you want a good coffee, you can get it. And all of us coffee lovers regularly rejoice in the amount of choice that we now have.
But how did it all start?
There’s no denying that La Caféothèque, who recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, has had a big role in helping to kickstart the scene. Started in 2005, this cafe, situated almost on the banks of the Seine, was for a long time the only place that you could go if you wanted anything other than industrial brew. Gloria Montenegro, its founder, has made a name for herself, daring to change the status quo of coffee of the early 2000s, and helping to lay the groundwork for the new wave of specialty coffee that you see taking place now.
“The three of us—Yadh [Elyes], Bernard [Chirouze], Christina [Christina Chirouze Montenegro], and I—came from other fields: music, communications, art and culture, and diplomacy. The ideal team to innovate in coffee… Because we could change things,” says Montenegro.
In the beginning, La Caféothèque was all about les méthodes douces (manual brewing). Back in 2005, it was a shop with a collection of 70 drawers, each featuring a coffee from different producer countries. In a country known for blends and espresso, that was revolutionary. But eventually the espresso machine landed. “Once the CEO of La Marzocco came and drank three coffees and [said]: ‘your coffees deserve my machine.’ One month later, the FB80 arrived in a giant box,” says Montenegro. Once they got into making espresso, they also got into training other people to make it, and there is a whole crew of today’s Parisian coffee entrepreneurs who passed through the doors of La Caféothèque.
While today we might still complain about the average Parisian coffee—I had one lately, trust me, it’s still awful—at least nowadays there are many alternatives. But back in the early 2000s, this was no man’s land. There wasn’t even a vocabulary in France for talking about the properties of coffee. When La Caféothèque opened in 2005, Montenegro had already been working on changing the coffee scene in France, trying to get people to understand coffee better.
“Back in 2001 when we founded the Academie of Caféologie, coffees were judged in a very confusing way because bitterness, astringency, and “âpreté” [bitterness] were considered qualities. There was not a single coffee [that was] 100% Arabica. The blends with Robusta were considered necessary to have crema in an espresso,” says Montenegro. “People were advised by doctors to stop drinking coffee because of stomach problems. The problem was not coffee, but defects in coffees.”
La Caféothèque was one of the first cafes I went to when I came to Paris, and what I have always loved about the space is that it feels more like a cafe from Seattle in the 1990s than some hip coffee joint. The space is spread out across several rooms, pillows on chairs and couches are covered in old jute bags. You can sit at the coffee bar and chat with the barista, or you can grab a chair and a table and read a book. It’s all made to encourage you to stay, and the smell of coffee always hangs in the air.
I attended La Caféothèque’s ten-year party, the cafe packed with coffee lovers, friends, and neighborhood locals. People celebrated with cake and champagne, and of course, a lot of coffee. If ten years of existence proves one thing for Montenegro, it’s that La Caféothèque has been, she says “confirmed by the coffee world as pioneers of specialty coffees in France.”
As specialty coffee continues to grow and meld into new forms in Paris, what happens next, both for La Caféothèque and all of the other cafes that have followed will certainly prove to be interesting.
And hopefully, we’ll get to a day when we can stop writing articles about how bad the coffee in Paris is.
Anna Brones (@annabrones) is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Paris, the founder of Foodie Underground, and the co-author of Fika: The Art Of The Swedish Coffee Break, available now from Ten Speed Press. Read more Anna Brones on Sprudge.