« Qu’est-ce qu’un vrai café ? » (“What is ‘true coffee’?”) was the opening question of a two-hour training at La Caféothèque. In any other context, I would have doubted that a coffeeshop that ranks among the best in the world, according to The Telegraph, would have had to justify to its patrons that it makes “vrai café”. Yet in Paris, contemporary coffee lovers have spent the past decade battling tête-à-tête with the traditional European-style café culture that has been the unquestionable way of life for centuries.
Wandering through nearly any road in Paris, we see the ever-present mark of café culture. Parisians may greet the day by people-watching from a café over a coffee, a cigarette, and a croissant, or they may finish their lunch by standing socially over a shot of coffee at the bar. In their dollhouse-sized coffee cups is the taste of “expresso” made from mystery blends of beans that have been over-roasted to a potent, uniform crisp and whose burnt overtones are frequently masked by a packet or two of sugar.
As romantic as the image of French café culture may seem, ex-pats and re-pats to Paris are attempting to revolutionize business as usual by infusing it with a healthy dose of modernity. Ruben Grande, a roaster, a barista, and the leader of our “voyage” at La Caféothèque had exactly this evolution in mind when he opened our class with his question of vrai café.
« Pour moi, il faut ajouter du sucre, » (“For me, it needs sugar”) one of my classmates said with a grimace as she wrinkled her nose to her cup of filter coffee that was served to open the discussion. My other two classmates, who were also locals, hesitated to respond.
Ruben glanced at his audience with amusement as he paused to allow us to ponder the philosophical nature of his question. Finally, he interjected into the silence with three potent words: café de spécialité (specialty coffee). He explained that when we add sugar, it is impossible to taste the goût de terroir, the taste of land that can raconte une histoire (tell a story) of how, where, and by whom the coffee was made. Just as a Bordeaux wine has a taste that is distinctively full of black currant notes and mouth-drying tannins, a Kenyan coffee can also be characterized by its taste – a pleasantly high acidity due to the bare minerals on the high plateau on which it is grown to complement its notes of bergamot, berries, and lemongrass. As proof of the similarities between tasting coffee and wine, Ruben brought out an elaborate tasting chart to describe the flavors in our cup, which he said could be even more nuanced than the tastes of wine.
The path to exploration of these regional differences in taste is lit by specialty coffee. This movement is characterized by production of high quality coffee through attention to each step throughout the bean to brew production process. From the oversight of equitable wages for coffee farmers to roasting single-origin beans to perfection to exploration of alternative brewing methods to topping with Instagram-worthy latte art to tasting the subtleties of the world through our cups, third wave specialty coffee emphasizes an advanced understanding of coffee enjoyment. As birthplace to sommeliers, gourmands, haute cuisine, and gastronomy, leaders in specialty coffee believe that coffee connoisseurship should come almost as second nature to the French if and when it is properly integrated into café culture. La Caféothèque has made its mark in this cultural integration by being the first to feature single-origin coffees when it its doors opened in 2005 and the hotspot to educate many of the first arrivals to the specialty coffee scene since then.
Nonetheless, it takes time for palates to adjust and culture to evolve, which was precisely why my classmates and I found ourselves pondering the meaning of vrai café on that sunny Saturday morning.
Ruben did not shove the message of specialty coffee down our throats, but rather allowed us to sip thoughtfully on it in 5 different ways. After we had exhausted the why of the workshop and sufficiently reflected on the meaning of life, Ruben got to work, crafting us an array of concoctions.
The sweet alchemy began with Dominican Republic (DR) beans, which were declared indisputably by the La Caféothèque label to taste of grilled banana, cinnamon, and sweet potato. Although I don’t yet have the tongue to ascertain the difference between notes of grilled, frozen, and fresh banana, I could tell that each brewing method had an undeniably distinct taste:
We first tasted Hario V60-brewed coffee. For this method, our ground DR beans were placed into a funnel-shaped vessel that was lined with filter paper, boiling water was poured by a gooseneck kettle, and our brewed coffee dripped into the serving vessel within less than 4 minutes. This produced a rich, dark, full-bodied and refreshing coffee that allowed us to fully taste the subtleties (for better or for worse) of our final product.
Next, we tried coffee brewed by a Chemex. This followed a process of filter brewing that was comparable to V60, except that the coffee dripped into science beaker-shaped glassware. However, the final product was noticeably different in color, mouthfeel, and taste. Compared to the V60 coffee, which was borderline over-powering, the Chemex coffee was light-colored, crisp, and clean – almost too clean to fully taste the drink.
The French Press was the baby bear of our goldilocks coffee experience. While the V60 was too strong and the Chemex was too weak, the French Press was just right. Having been on the scene since the 1920’s, this device is the grandfather of home-brewing. It has a reputation for being easy to use, but the catch is that it’s nearly impossible to do with 100% perfection. The trick, we learned is to remove the “mousse” or sediment-y layer of course grounds that rises to the top of the brew after pressing our plunger down onto the ground DR beans and allowing the brew to bloom as water reaches the grinds. When complete, this variation gave way to coffee that was full-bodied without being overly-acidic.
The final two variations fit into an entirely different category. Rather than use steeping like the French Press or filtration like the V60 and Chemex, espresso is made by pressure. After tamping down our fine-ground DR beans, we placed the grind into an espresso machine, and allowed pressurized water to flood through the grind until a shot of their flavor was extracted. Espresso is often wildly more expensive to make for home brew than the other methods because it requires a several-hundred-dollar machine at minimum to be of true quality. Yet the potent result is usually closest to what is consumed today in France as vrai café. What’s more relevant in the real world of third wave specialty coffee is espresso’s use in latte art. Steamed milk is the only ingredient required to turn an espresso shot from boring black to the next face of the World Latte Art Championship.
Ristretto is similar to espresso in that it is made by the same fancy machine with the same amount of coffee beans, but the amount of water in the shot is halved (the opposite would be a Café Allongé or Café Lungo, which doubles the water content). This results in a richly smooth, melted dark chocolate sensation on the tongue. Ristretto is commonly known as the black in a well-made Flat White – a drink made with velvety-smooth microfoam that tastes like sweet heaven when I can handle the kick.
Five cups of coffee plus a warm-up bonus drink in, and we were buzzing with excitement. Thankfully, I had made the wise choice to sip rather than swallow each of my coffees. “I think you don’t like my coffee!” Ruben accused me at the end. Giddy off of the mouthfuls, I reassured him that it was just my unfortunate sensitivity to caffeine that kept me from downing each of the marvelous creations, and I followed my racing heart out the door.
So what is a vrai café and how does one consume it when she sees it? The answer is probably not by chugging six at once. Yet even when this option is ruled out, the question of vrai café remains to be determined by the future success of the specialty coffee scene in Paris.