I’ve always had a profound appreciation for caffeinated drinks of the brewed variety. Growing up in Washington State, I was exposed to coffee culture at an early age. I had my first drip when I was 4 years old, although I admit it was probably more cream than coffee and I distinctly remember sipping on lattes before ballet class at the age of 8. In fact, save for a few strange exceptions, i’ve had at least one cup of coffee every day for the past 10 years. So I think it’s safe to say that I LOVE coffee. This summer I had the wonderful opportunity to work at Vintage Heart Coffee in Austin (thank you Mallory!) and I feel like my appreciation for coffee has been taken to an entirely new level. I’ve not only become aware of how coffee is produced as an art form, but also how it is consumed as a culture. With Europe as the pioneer for gourmet coffee, I was of course excited to see the differences between France and the U.S. when it comes to coffee culture.
Coffee vs. Cafe
In the U.S., you have a pretty standard set of drinks that you can order at a coffee shop. You have your drip coffee, like you brew at home, your assortment of espresso drinks like a Cappuccino, Latte, Americano, [traditional] Macchiato, or straight shot, and then if you’re lucky, coffee brewed through a French Press or Chemex. In France, this is not the case*. Under the “boisson chaudes”, you can of course order a Cappuccino, a Latte or a shot of espresso, but the Macchiato is rare to find, often called a “noisette.” There is no such thing as an Americano, and there are no “drip coffees.” Don’t even think about asking for bottomless coffee or a special refill price. This is France, these things don’t exist. What they do have is “cafe.” While most people often compare it to espresso in the U.S., I should tell you that, having my fair share of both, they are not the same. While espresso is about 1-2 ounces and has a strong smoky flavor. Cafe is 2-3 ounces with a less intense flavor. It’s smoky and smooth and I find it to be a lot less bitter than traditional espresso. I’m usually a Cappuccino drinker, because I consider it to be the most perfect drink you can have without it being overpowered by either milk or espresso, but now that i’ve come to Paris, I’m proud to say that I’ve only had one cappuccino, and i’ve almost completely converted to the cafe. It’s also about 4 euros cheaper. This tiny drink, which i’ll often order with “une cafe, s’il vous plaît”, is served in a tiny cup with a serving of sucré (sugar) and sometimes a small piece of chocolate. You can usually finish it in about 3-4 sips, but it’s really all you need because you feel a jolt of energy almost instantly. The only thing close to drip coffee is a “cafe longé”, which is just cafe with more hot water. But don’t order this.
*With the exception of Starbucks, who we will ignore for this blog post.
Coffeeshops vs. Cafés
The entire dining experience is extremely different from the U.S., but that explanation is an entirely different blog post. However, at restaurants you eat and then you leave because it’s considered rude to stay if you’re not ordering anything. The only place where you can really just order a drink and some food and stay as long as you want in the U.S. is the coffee shop. I love that I can camp out in a coffee shop for hours to either have a long conversation or study and all it costs is the price of a coffee. Except for a few places, like the Caféothéque, which has no wifi and no tables large enough to work from, there really aren’t any coffee shops, only cafés. These cafés are on every corner and some like Les Deux Magots or Cafe de Flore, were hotspots for American expatriates like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound in the 1920’s. This is where people gather to grab a cafe or verre de vin and will sit for hours reading a book, talking with friends, and even painting on a slow Sunday afternoon. I would also like to point out that these cafés all serve fantastic food as well. In this way, the cafés are like coffee shops in the U.S., but even near La Sorbonne or Sciences Po, you will not see anyone studying at these shops. I don’t know if French students study, but if they do, I don’t know where they do it. I’ve never seen anyone doing homework out of a café because cafés are for leisure. You also rarely see people inside cafés. I know that it might be different because the weather is cooler here than Texas, and it’s not freezing yet, but I’ve sat on crowded patios in cafés and walked inside to use the restroom and found the entire inside is empty. People would actually rather sit outside than inside, which is completely the opposite in Texas. You can sit for hours and you will always find the same people working every day, and it’s not hard to become a regular at one of these places.
One of the things that I loved about being a barista (besides making beautiful and delicious drinks) is the tips. On average, I’d make about a dollar a drink. My good customers would tip 100%, and my worst ones tipped me in pesos. In France, you don’t tip. Not even baristas and bartenders. It was so strange at first because I felt awful about not tipping, but it’s something you just don’t do because it’s included in the price of the drink. It’s kind of nice to know that your 5 euro cappuccino is exactly what you are going to pay instead of $3.50 + tax + tip, which could be any amount, depending on how generous you are. I imagine the salary of waitresses and servers is higher to make up for this change, but I really don’t know.
The way people consume coffee is also done differently than in the U.S. Most people take their cafe black. Milk or creme isn’t even served when you order, only the side packet of sugar. In most cases, people don’t even add sugar. There’s no coffee mate in the grocery stores, and no one asks the server if they have agave or raw sugar to sweeten their cafe with. They don’t really buy into the whole “alternative” food movement. If you can’t take the sugar they give you, then don’t take it. If you can’t drink cow’s milk, don’t drink it. I’m pretty sure there’s not a lot of cafés carrying a steady supply of almond milk and I bet no one is asking if they carry goat’s milk either. That’s one thing I don’t miss about being a barista. All the weird dietary requests of people who absolutely must have coconut milk with their latte. Hemingway would shake his head in disappointment at the weak stomachs of society today.
I don’t know how I’ll be able to go back to the states without being able to drink my daily cafe, but as delicious as cafe is, nothing hits the spot like a vanilla iced coffee from Vintage Heart Coffee.
Cappuccinos with friends at Caféothéque by the Seine