Why coffee tastes terrible in France

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As any foodie who has dined at a good restaurant in Paris, visited one of the many sidewalk cafés or taken their morning caffeine in a small picturesque village knows, coffee in France is lagging behind that in most other European countries.  But I am pleased to report that this is now changing – in Paris, at least.

One has to wonder why the coffee is so bad when the food is always so good. I haven’t unearthed any plausible reasons why the French have continued to accept such nasty tasting coffee for so long, but a little research reveals a few interesting things.

Firstly, Napoleon Bonaparte, who ruled France for a while in the early 19th century, banned all imports in an historic event known as the Napoleonic Blockade. So with no coffee allowed in, the French resorted to chicory instead. Chicory is far more bitter than coffee and bears little resemblance to it taste wise. Regardless, it seems that the taste for chicory took on and in some areas of northern France it is still added to coffee to this day.

Secondly, the kind of coffee that grows in most (formerly) French colonies is lesser quality Robusta coffee that produces more bitterness in the coffee beverage than does the fine tasting Arabica coffees produced elsewhere.  It appears that a larger number of defects (often the cause of bitterness) have been accepted in the grading system for Robusta than are accepted for Arabica.

So a certain bitterness (that undeniable taste of badly brewed coffee made from poor quality beans) came to be accepted by French palates – and seemingly still is, by many.

A note on customer service. The French are famous for their high standard of service as much as for their food. But the service is different from the kind offered by the best baristas in the best cafes. It’s impeccable in its efficiency and it definitely has flair – but is detached and distant.  You usually don’t chat or make idle conversation with French waiters.  Eye contact is out as well. And you definitely don’t tell them how to do their job! They are there to serve you, they do what they have to do well and get out of your way as quickly as possible.

So it is a quantum leap for the French to set up places where convivial conversation takes place between barista and customer and where the customer feels free to voice exactly how they would like their coffee to be made.

But give the French a break. They are now doing something about the bad reputation their coffee has earned over the years. And they are learning how to be chatty to their customers. Take note: the French do most things well. If they apply this to coffee, I reckon we can look forward to a lot more exceptional coffee experiences in France in the near future.