How not to drink black tar in Paris?

Cafesamazone2

Two days back home, back to my very own Rancilio Silvia and Blue Bottle beans, I am wondering to myself why are French coffees so bad?

No, I’m not arguing that it’s not at all possible to get a good cup of coffee in Paris. That’s certainly not true. Verlet, Cafe Amazone, and Comptoir Richard sell the best coffees one could find anywhere. But what is absolutely true is how bad coffees at any random cafes in Paris are. Seriously bad. Burnt asphalt on the nose, black tar on the palate.

It’s all in the beans, as my friend Ptipois said somewhere, the French market is saturated with Robusta beans, grown in their own former African colonies. Robusta coffees are high in caffeine content, and brew into dark, oily, acidic liquid that gives me a toothache just thinking about it. In countries that are known for better coffees, like Italy and Spain, the predominant type of bean is Arabica, which is much more aromatic and less acidic than Robusta.

In France, expensive restaurants, cafes, and tea salons serve the better and more expensive coffees made from Arabica beans as well. Those are delicious. But that romantic notion of walking into a random Parisian cafe and ordering a cup of coffee to drink standing up at the bar will get you a cup of dark, sticky, and oily liquid surely made of Robusta beans. The only thing that cup of black tar is good for is to kick you awake from your jetlag. So, yes, perhaps it does have some use, but from a taste perspective it is pure crap.

In a futile effort to make Robusta coffee drinkable, I would drink café crème, an espresso with hot milk, hoping that the milk would temper to bitter Robusta for me. Alas, that doesn’t always work either, because of yet another problem with an ingredient, this time the milk.

Many cafes prefer to use sterilized milk in coffees, because they are cheaper and have longer shelf life than regular pasteurized milk. Sterilized milk doesn’t need refrigeration even, not until after the container is opened. This nasty, nutrition-less milk can be found everywhere in France, in supermarkets and hypermarkets. They are displayed prominently on the regular, non refrigerated shelves.

Adding insult to injury, sterilized milk has a stench that is unmistakable. Well, especially if you grew up in Asia and had to suffer through years of drinking those horrible canned milk! I can identify that smell with my eyes closed. Ugh.

So, what to do? Well, if you were like me you’d opt for a Tisane, or herbal tea. Or you could make sure that you only drink coffee in expensive restaurants, cafes, and salon de thé, who are much more likely to use Arabica beans and would never touch the nasty, cheap sterilized milk with a ten foot pole. Another way is to look for signs that the bistro in which you are sitting serves Italian -ergo better- coffee, look for brand names such as Illy or Lavazza.

If you are lucky enough to have your own kitchenette, drop by Verlet, Cafes Amazone, or Comptoir Richard, where you could buy yourself a bag of flavorful, aromatic single origin Arabica beans grind to order, (or even sit down for a perfect cup of coffee made for you.) Pay a visit to the fabulous Bodum shop at Les Halles and get yourself a press pot, and then off to your local fromagerie or farmers market for good, fresh, possibly raw whole milk. That’s a recipe for your very own fantastic cup of coffee, even in Paris.

Verlet
256, rue Saint-Honoré, 75001
close on Sunday and the month of August

Cafes Amazone
11, rue Rambuteau, 75004
open on Sunday

Comptoir Richard
145 rue Saint-Dominique, 75007

Bodum shop
Forum Les Halles
103 rue Rambuteau, 75001

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  • http://www.eatstuff.blogspot.com clare eats

    If you want the best coffee, roast the coffee yourself. It is really easy, cheaper and TASTES 100 times better (I am serious). It takes all of 10 minutes and only requires green beans, popper (popcorn maker),a tin can, wooden spoon and a sieve.

  • http://www.deliciousdays.com Oliver

    Even in places that do have the right beans sitting on the shelves waiting to be ground, there is a high chance the coffee produced is just mediocre. With the proper beans as a basis, what makes all the difference is how the coffee is prepared: amount of coffee used, condition of the coffee machine, pressure, temperature and extraction duration (max 22seconds). Milk, taste and texture, like you pointed out is another key element.
    Illy and Lavazza produce for the masses, but in every bigger city I’m sure you’ll be able to find smaller coffee shops that also offer wonderful beans such as Indian Mysore, Indian Nugget, Haiti (Trie a la main 5 X) etc. Illy and Lavazza certainly have good coffees (their 100% Arabica, however, are mostly a mix of different Arabica beans!), but they can’t compare to an authentic, single-growing area, single harvest coffee – hm, if that makes sense. ;)
    Putting theory to practice, I think I’ll head over to my favorite coffee shop and have a cup o’ coffee :)

  • http://www.kottke.org/remainder/05/06/8655.html kottke.org remaindered links
  • jean louis

    Very sensible comment on the norm of coffee (l’express)in Paris and, I would add, in France in general. As you note, the stuff is vile and there is no way to redeem it. I have not visited the shops you mention, but they are but a drop of water in the ocean of tar oil that passesfor coffee in France. They should have a warning label on every cup, as in WARNING: DRINK AT YOUR OWN RISK. THIS COFFEE HAS BEEN MADE WITH THE WORST BEANS ROASTED IN THE WORST WAY.
    I think this all started when the govt., in its usual wisdom, controlled prices and put a ceiling on the price of l’express across all bistros. Sure enough, good beans went out the window and the cheap stuff took over.
    Granted, the better restaurants and shops sell better coffee.
    Keep it up.

  • http://www.romej.com Steven

    Is it worse than Folgers? To me it’s like wood chips with coffee flavor dripped onto them.

  • Fred

    Illy ESEs? come on Pim I told you about the Lucaffe months ago. They are soooo much better. Am I going to have to send you a box of good ESE pods?

  • Felix Sargent

    Also, the french invented french roast, which is quite possibly one of the worst roasts in the entire world. French Roast is quite litterally, burnt coffee. If you did the same thing to popcorn, or anything for that matter, you wouldn’t eat it.
    Try some smoother blends, african grown coffees maybe, Starbuck’s Ethiopa Sidamo is beautiful. (I know I know it’s Starbucks, but there is ONE good bean!)

  • charmar

    I can’t understand this. Every cup of coffee I’ve had in Paris is as good as the best stuff I’ve had in America, and most of it was far better than anything I can find here.

  • Stefanie

    Pim and the rest…
    has anyone ever tried the beans roasted fresh at La Brulerie –58 rue des folies mericourt (on the corner of folies mericourt and oberkampf) in the 11th. I too, detest French coffee and have always wondered about this place. Looks very aritisinal.
    I stick by La Colombe roasted out of Philadelphia and make my mom send me pounds of fresh roasted beans from the States…
    cheers, stefanie

  • http://www.markme.com/jd/archives/007930.cfm JD on MX

    Parisian coffee advice

    Parisian coffee advice: Off-topic, but I’ve never seen this info presented before, and many of us do take enjoyment in our daily caffeine, and some reading this will likely visit Paris… first-aid kit for the mind. [via Jason Kottke]…

  • http://nothingbutnoise.org nick

    well, when I went to New York over your winter, I found it very hard to get a good coffee. Everytime I ordered coffee, it was that terrible drip stuff you guys have. Seriously? What the hell is that? Here in Melbourne, you ask for a coffee, and you will be asked ‘Latte, Cappuccino, Macchiato, Short Black, Long Black’ etc. Everything here is espresso based. As it should be… Beans are always Arabica unless you go somewhere very cheap. I know you guys have espresso, as your Starbucks chain has the machines. But if you don’t want that burnt milk from some college student, I don’t know where you go. I’m sure a million people are going to list the locations… But I’m just saying in Melbourne you couldn’t get drip if you wanted it. Thankgod. Thats a bit sad about Paris though. I guess its all a romantic myth – Apparently in Italy the coffee is only good in the centre of the country… *shrug*

  • felix

    People in England drink instant coffee (freeze dried granules plus boiled water) and enjoy it. We even have something called chicory, which is for when instant tastes too much like coffee.

  • derek

    Now that you’re back in SF, at least you have Blue Bottle in Hayes Valley and Ritual in the Mission for good coffee. I still haven’t found anything in NY that matches James’ espresso from Blue Bottle.

  • http://inspector-sparky.blogspot.com sparky

    wow, another mystery solved and i thought it was all my (lack of) tastebuds that French coffee couldn’t be this bad.

  • happi

    Thanks for clarifying lots of points in the great coffee mystery for me. (‘It’s the beans, stupid!”) I’ve been saying that Parisian coffee is lousy for 20 years now but no one ever takes me seriously because of some ill-conceived (and damned tenacious!) myth about coffee being good here. I think the rest of the world has just gotten educated about good espresso in the past decade or so and they are just starting to get hip to the fact that coffee in Paris is funky, in the worst sense of the word….
    Cheers –Happi

  • Ptipois

    Hi Jean-Louis,
    The poor quality of French café coffee has nothing to do with price control. It’s all in the beans, as Pim points out. Precisely, in the robusta beans, because the former French colonies in Africa produce mostly this type of beans and they remain the privileged origin for most of the coffee drunk in restaurants, cafés and most collectivities. It could be otherwise — it’s only a tradition, a bad habit, reinforced by the somewhat stubborn state of mind of French café owners. The French gulp this horror down without hesitation and for some reason, on an international level, it is bad manners to say that, as a rule, the French cannot make coffee. I believe it’s true though: we have to be bad at something, don’t we?
    However all hope is not lost and Verlet is my favorite coffee place.

  • dirty girl

    no wonder the cute little french girls didn’t like me in paris, their coffe sucks! I thought it was me. i’m so relieved! next time i’ll stick to the beach breaks and black tea. thanks again pim,
    dirty girl

  • Julles

    It’s not only the coffee beans, it’s also the horrid longlife milk, just stick with wine!!

  • Jimmy-in-Seattle

    Hi Pim…The most award winning coffeee bean ever, is the fabulous Columbian Supremo!! Not the plain Colombian..please..Colombian Supremo…. The French simply over-roast their beans. They love it that way……Hey Pim, did you ever write the review of El Bulli?? If you did, could please direct me there. Also, WELCOME HOME!……Jimmy-in-Seattle

  • http://smallfarms.typepad.com Tana

    Hey, Pim, I just saw that your blog is on the Chow magazine site, and stopped in to say congratulations!

  • http://www.gridskipper.com/travel/paris/food/parisian-coffee-roasters-109398.php Gridskipper

    Parisian Coffee Roasters

    Food blogger Chez Pim did the impossible: She didn’t like Parisian coffee. Personally, we think anyone who complains about the sainted rocket fuel of France is off their rocker… On the whole, Parisian cafes offer some fine coffee, but…

  • http://www.gridskipper.com/travel/paris/food/parisian-coffee-roasters-109398.php Gridskipper

    Parisian Coffee Roasters

    Food blogger Chez Pim did the impossible: She didn’t like Parisian coffee. Personally, we think anyone who complains about the sainted rocket fuel of France is off their rocker… On the whole, Parisian cafes offer some fine coffee, but…

  • kala

    to jean louis (pourtant un prénom bien francais mais un exil trop prolongé ?) :
    “I think this all started when the govt., in its usual wisdom, controlled prices and put a ceiling on the price of l’express across all bistros.”
    1. We say “expresso” and not “l’express”
    2. Coffee prices are NOT fixed by the govt ! If it was the case, coffee would not be 5 time more expensive in Paris than anywhere else in France. There are not that much of fixed prices in France !!!! you should come and visit France instead of saying bullshit

  • happi

    Let’s play fair here. Perhaps the coffee prices are fixed, perhaps not. But does a simple (and quite believable one at that) mistake merit an insult? I don’t know where you are posting from but from where I stand (and sit, and eat, and sleep….) I hear the word “express” hurled across zinc counters every morning all over Paris!
    Cheers-
    Happi

  • richard

    i so agree that paris cafe coffee generally is not as good as its reputation. as an american in paris for the past 15 years, i have discovered many french things are not as good as their reputations … having travelled all around europe, my personal favorite coffee countries are Italy and Austria. The temperature and flavor are (most) always right! Coffee in Germany not bad either.

  • nojetlag

    Well as long as it’s not Starbucks, all is fine. I’m getting sick and tired to see their logo all over the planet.

  • http://www.davidlebovitz.com David

    Gee, I’ve been thinking perhaps I should stop in a Parisian Starbucks for an espresso just to see if it’s any better…
    I recently discovered Molongo coffee, available in supermarkets in France. It’s fair-trade and slightly more expensive, but it is the best brand of coffee (for making at home) that I’ve found in Paris. Dare-say-it…it’s almost Italian-tasting!
    And believe it or not, I recently tried the Monoprix brand of Arabica coffee (I normally buy Lavazza) and it wasn’t too bad. Yikes, perhaps I’m becoming French?
    -(the other) David (who doesn’t live in Santa Cruz)

  • http://www.aussielass.com/archives/2005/09/caffeinated.php An Aussie Lass, a Frenchman and a Burmese

    Caffeinated

    I’d like to dispel, once and for all, a terrible myth. Coffee is generally crap in Paris. I don’t know how the French have managed to keep up appearances for so long, but they do look terribly brave in the…

  • http://coffeeratings.com/theshot/2005/11/french-coffee/ coffeeratings.com

    How the French Ruined Coffee

    Vive Le Burnt Tires!
    When people think of France, and Paris in particular, they most often think of grand boulevards, beautiful architecture, beautiful people, high French cuisine, and the sidewalk café lifestyle. What they often dont associa…

  • http://mikenbondi.blogspot.com Mike

    Was disappointed to discover that Amazone *only* does black coffee, Verlet seems to have disappeared, and the coffee bar at the Bodum shop has either been renamed “Bar Ferme” or I miss the 10-minute window each day when it’s open. Still looking for some great coffee in Paris :-(

  • http://www.gridskipper.com/travel//parisian-coffee-roasters-109398.php Gridskipper

    Parisian Coffee Roasters

    Food blogger Chez Pim did the impossible: She didn’t like Parisian coffee. Personally, we think anyone who complains about the sainted rocket fuel of France is off their rocker… On the whole, Parisian cafes offer some fine coffee, but…

  • http://mikenbondi.blogspot.com Mike

    Correction: I found Verlet, but I got fed up with les grandes dames de la 1er squeezing in ahead of me, and walked out after 10 minutes of trying to buy some coffee.
    I’ve been making my own thermos-full for school each day with an italian caffetiere using the Matinal blend from Amazone. My classmates are impressed with it too. BTW it’s important to make the distinction of a “cafetierre italienne” if buying such a device or coffee ground for it: if you just say “cafetierre” then it is assumed that you mean a plunger-style.
    Someone suggested Cafe Malongo’s outlets, but the petit latte I got was very watery and all taste boiled out of it. Same for my 4 companions. The beans may be great – but the barista wasn’t!
    When I go to London shortly, I shall be hurrying to Monmouth Coffee (http://www.monmouthcoffee.co.uk/) and Munson’s (http://www.montauk.co.uk/coffee.htm).

  • beret

    I live in Paris, I usually order “un serré” (a ristretto, sometimes called “un italien”) and I get an excellent espresso in let’s say 50% of cases.

  • cathy trione

    where can you get best coffee with chicory in paris?

  • http://cafedelsolroasting.com Vicki

    I am a partner in a small roasting company in Iowa. We are artisan, specialty roasters, over 60% organic and as much Fair Trade as we can get.
    I agree with the analysis of the robusta bean and if you wanted we would burn your coffee but would probably choose not to do so.
    When I first started drinking our coffee I was amazed at the distinct taste from the different regions where coffee is grown.
    I encourage you all to try some specialty coffees and taste the difference.
    Vicki

  • Nick V,

    I too have not found a decent espresso in Paris but will try the ‘un italien’ approach tomorrow. Amazone does supply great beans for you to take home, it’s where I buy from now. I have not tried Verlet yet and am looking forward to pushing in line.
    While on the subject of coffee in London, I agree monmouth is great, so too is the ‘Drury’ brand (quite common in central london), also the french style cafe chain ‘apostrophe’ serves a great espresso, across most locations. Everyone else (costa, nero, coffee republic, starbucks) burn your espresso. Lastly, this guy;
    http://www.hrhiggins.co.uk/ has an EXCELLENT coffee store, around the corner from bond street tube with a cafe downstairs. Prices are worth it.

  • Luc

    Your assumptions concerning coffee in Paris are false.
    http://www.tradeforum.org/news/fullstory.php/aid/675/Bitter_or_Better_Future_for_Coffee_Producers_.html
    Consumer profiles
    Country
    Arabica/robusta ratio
    United States
    76/24
    Canada
    75/25
    Germany
    76/24
    France
    50/50
    Italy
    56/44
    United Kingdom
    50/50
    Nordic countries
    96/4
    Japan
    73/26
    Russian Federation
    35/65
    Brazil
    65/35

  • Luc Lafortune

    And all the Italians use the same longlife milk in cappuccini, caffé macchiato, etc.

  • Louise

    My husband and a friend, all of us recently arrived in Paris for a long spell, were just discussing the bad French coffee just last night. We thought we remembered better coffee, or American coffee got better in the last decade (It did.) But the coffee is disappointing in Paris.
    I did buy South American Arabica, thinking it would be better. Mais non, it was only a marginal improvement. Dunkin Donuts has better coffee (And I’m not one to slam this beautiful city–love almost everything about it but the cafe and feel awful about outing them on the cafe.). The three of us concluded the roast isn’t right, plus the grind is powder. So we’re going to track down your recommendations or ship a planeload of Trader Joe’s Anything Coffee over here. (Up until now, I deplored people who have to have their maple syrup and peanut butter.) But coffee? This is a daily fix, mes amis!

  • Rupert

    Hmm… what can i say, Lavazza seems to be a prominent brand here in Paris, that is saying a lot about how they don’t have a boutique roasting & gourmet coffee culture here It is purely for the caffeine hit. And I have seen a few Starbucks which is coffee blasphemy even a double shot cappucino barely tastes of coffee. And coffee union on Bvd Beaumarchis is another poor example (much like Starbucks – fully automatic machine, massive milk jugs with thermometers, a spoon!!)
    I believe that even with poor beans, some experience in setting a correct grind and pulling a good espresso you can make a great coffee even with this UHT milk they seem to love…. So perhaps there is hope with a little education.
    And by the way, i never hear mention of Australian coffee ? All these Europeans seem to be on a pedestal regarding there cuisine. However I believe Australian coffee (in major cities) to be one of, if not the best on this planet. Will someone back me on this ?

  • http://www.a-night-in-paris.com/paris-coffee.html Teena

    Aaaaaah the coffee of Paris :-)
    I was on a mission whilst in Paris in June 2007 and I found two places where I could drink the coffee – the lattes were made with real fresh milk (no UHT for me!!) and flavourful coffee.
    I’m heading back to Paris for the month of June 2008 and will be searching hard for more great cafes with Australian-like good ole Italian espresso flavour, where the person making the coffee feels like a proud Barista, and you can feel the love in the coffee cup :-)
    Well – that’s what I’d LIKE to find :D
    This year I’m bringing my Italian espresso Bialetti coffee pot with me, and my hot-milk plunger/frother, so my expat Aussie friends will be able to come visit my apartment for a real coffee reminiscent of home.
    Can’t wait!
    Teena
    http://www.a-night-in-paris.com/paris-coffee.html

  • http://www.pressoamerica.com Mister Coffee Maker

    I rather stick to my trusty presso coffee maker with my costa rican coffee beans.

  • edward

    Curious you mention Comptoirs Richard, as they actually supply coffee for a very large fraction of french cafés, by my estimation. That said, their rue Saint Dominique boutique is right by my house, and their Sumatra is absolutely heavenly–almost no acidity, and a very balanced, smooth taste. Incredible, though I’m not sure how often they roast–it may sit for a while, so it could be a bit luck of the draw on how old it is.
    I’ve had some odd luck at Verlet. I love the place, and the coffees are good, but maybe I haven’t found the right one yet or something. I feel like it should blow me away more than it has to date, by the reputation I hear.
    I also am surprised you didn’t mention Brulerie des Gobélins (end of rue Monge, across from the Boulangerie du Monge, a bakery to rival Eric Kayser). I had a great Moka Harrar from there, and the guy really seems to know what he’s doing.

  • edward

    Oh, and just to throw it out there, by far the best coffee I ever had was a brevé at the Flying M Coffeehouse in Boise, Idaho (a surprisingly nice little city). If you’re ever there, you _must_ check it out. If you’re truly passionate, it may just make your trip.

  • http://parispointgriset.blogspot.com G@ttoGiallo

    Next time you’re in Paris, contact me and try my coffe ! or an arabica Musetti at La Locandiera…

  • http://parispointgriset.blogspot.com G@ttoGiallo

    Next time you’re in Paris, contact me and try my coffe ! or an arabica Musetti at La Locandiera…

  • sofia Guerreiro

    Hi im just arrived in Paris a few days ago and im complitily desapointed with the way how french sucks with the coffe. Some places they have a good coffe, but i think they kill the coffe.
    So im planning to buy a Manual coffe machine like we had before and make it at home.
    Do you know where to buy a good manual coffe machine in Paris?
    We have a Sunbean coffe machine but they just have it in Australia.
    REgards

  • sarah

    Does anyone know how long the beans sit or when they roast at Le Grand Epicierie (at the Le Bon Marche)? I picked up a decent ethiopian for my french press there not too long ago.
    I was actually thinking this morning that I am going to check for an arabian from yemen and mix it with java… DIY arabian mocha java, as they don’t seem to have this blend on first look. Is this a good idea?

  • John Smith

    85% of coffee drunk in France is Arabica. I understand you certainly have been paid to create this blog to advertise those places listed above but next time try Wikipedia for better informations…

  • http://flickr.com/photos/gaygoygourmet/sets/72157600394214341/ mjm

    I’d like to mention two of my favorite places for good coffee here:
    Lapeyronie, just north of to the Musée Pompidou, in the Quartier de l’Horloge, which roasts many well selected équitable single origin coffees, and also has a light roast espresso blend (central american + african) called Ste-Lucie which is closer to Intelligentsia’s Black Cat than anything else around. Second, the espresso at the well known gelateria Pozzetto is always ristretto and always a pleasure to drink. En salle for your extra 50c or whatever, you often get a panettone-like cake or a cookie of some kind.

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  • Euroyank

    Sad to say, I went by Cafes Amazone and it looks like his doors have closed.  I must have been one of his last customers as I stopped by only a week before I noticed the ‘Closed Permanently’ sign.  I still have some of his beans left.. they’re stale but I feel like throwing them out is a sad thing to do…

    I get my coffee from Terres de Cafe right down the street now.  It helps that the weekend employee is smoking hot.