For this Paris specialty coffee feature, I sat down with Paul, a roaster at Café Lomi, to discuss the city’s coffee scene and the ethical implications of the trade.
Coffee for me holds the same value as a seventh pair of heels for Carrie Bradshaw. As a teenager, I remember laughing aloud at Sarah Jessica Parker’s iconic Sex And The City character for her notorious shoe obsession – a fetish so out of control that she was almost kicked to the streets of New York City for spending $40,000 on designer footwear at the expense of her rent. “I will literally be the old woman who lived in her shoes,” Carrie stated with overdue realization of her bad spending habit.
While my own tastes for specialty coffee have not yet led me to homelessness, I too feel economic irony of my spending choices. I lose sleep over my student loans, and I refuel with a $5 latte. My laptop is two years overdue for an upgrade, yet I throw it into my backpack that’s splitting at its seams to work away alongside my gourmet cup of joe. And each time that I travel to a new city, the first item on my agenda is to scout out the best brew – even if it means walking 2 miles out of my way and forfeiting the traditional hyped-up tourist attractions. Yes, I would rather stare into the depths of my latte art than gaze across the world from the top of the Eiffel Tower. I would prefer to be absorb the energy of a room of coffeeshop strangers than mingle at a party with friends. I would gladly choose to invest in my coffee fund over my savings for health insurance.
How do I justify the cost of my passion for coffee? Through the simple reassurance that I am not alone in my crazy quest to find the perfect drink, as I learned during my visit to Café Lomi.
On a sunny weekday afternoon of my month in Paris, I followed Google maps into the far depths of the 18th arrondissement, beyond a string of African restaurants that made me feel as though I had been teleported to my summer stay in Marseille. Nostalgia filled my heart as the busied Parisian pedestrians turned to smiling faces that greeted me with heavily-accented Afro-French. Bonjour, Madame ! Très jolie caméra ! Prenez-vous mon photo ?
Suddenly, I understood what the reviewer of my destination had meant when he wrote that Lomi was in the middle of nowhere, and I grinned, realizing that nowhere was a place I loved. A few more minutes of meandering, and Lomi appeared. I crossed the modern terrace of café-goers who happily soaked up the summer sun and entered the glass door to find a haven of patrons high on caffeine. Indie music and the strong scent of fresh-roasted coffee filled the space; a window-seat communal table for laptop workers called my name. Instantly, I was home.
From the office space in the back, I met Paul, a roaster at Lomi who had offered to speak with me about his passion for the trade. After touring me through the café, the roastery, and the training space, I asked Paul how his love of coffee developed. Paul, who is originally from Australia, told me that he became interested in coffee while working at a café in the Canadian Rockies after finishing his university degree. He brought his new hobby back home with him to Melbourne, which he calls “a paradise for coffee”, replete with opportunities to further his learning. Just as he became involved in the fascinating art of roasting at a Queen’s End roastery, he attended a barbecue with friends and met a French woman who would eventually become his wife. Not long after, he moved to Paris, where he has been based for the last decade.
In contrast to the wealth of coffee knowledge he soaked up in Australia, Paul says he was a bit trepidatious toward the scene when he first arrived. He explains, “When I moved here, I sort of got scared with what I saw. Because the coffee was kind of… disgusting’s relative – if people like it, then it’s good coffee, and I’m happy with that. But from what I was seeing, there wasn’t much caretaking in the preparation, and the coffee was being made with poor-quality ingredients.”
Despite the flaws, Paul saw potential in Paris and believed the city had a strong advantage in becoming specialty. He says, “Coffee cultures like Melbourne that have been going for a while, there was a lot of bad practice because nobody knew better, but the good thing about Paris, is that they jumped on board when there was a good, solid foundation of practice.”
This prediction proved to be true with the boom of specialty coffee that occurred in Paris. Paul says of the recent growth, “There’s still 90% of the work to do in terms of understanding quality of coffee – it’s still far from being understood. But generally speaking, these cafés that have opened recently have opened with a very good savoir faire – a very good knowledge as to how to brew coffee.”
Paul experienced the growth of the specialty coffee industry first from the view of a coffee cart, selling takeaway espresso near Galeries Lafayette before transitioning to his work at Lomi. At Lomi in particular, quality is the name of the game. Paul explains, “We work really hard on making sure that when we serve someone a kilo of coffee for whatever it costs, that they’re getting that amount of value out of the coffee… our whole value proposition is the quality we’re serving, and we also really want to focus on the customer more than anything.”
The key to sustaining quality, he says is keeping “an eye for longevity”. He asserts, “For (longevity), I think you need to be working with the same producers year in year out as opposed to just going to different importers and finding the best coffee you can. So the last couple of years, we’ve really been trying to work hard with different producers that we buy from.”
Building direct relationships with coffee farmers is a trait that is at the very heart of the specialty coffee trade. Nonetheless, Paul pronounces this statement with a caveat. He says, “I’ve still got a lot to learn about that in the sense that I would feel really uncomfortable going to a producing country and proclaiming to anyone that I’m going to improve their life because I don’t know anything realistically on a day to day basis about their lives and what they need… and I would never feel comfortable going over there and claiming to be the savior of anyone.”
Specialty coffee may not necessarily a cure-all to alleviating poverty in coffee-growing countries, but it may be a step in the right direction. First, having close relationships with farmers may eventually provide additional oversight into deterring environmentally-devastating growing practices and rethinking growing conditions in the wake of climate change. He explains, “In Ethiopia, for example, projections say they’re going to have to shift entire producing regions if things aren’t done with producing better varieties of coffee that can withstand climate change, or at least slowing down the effects of climate change. It’s like if someone suddenly said, okay we’re moving Bordeaux to Bretagne – it’s insanity! ... I think we really have more groundwork to do before we can make a real impact in a real way.”
Additionally, trade relationships fostered through specialty coffee may have a tangible impact on social conditions of farmers. Working directly with those who grow the coffee not only serves as quality control, but it helps to ensure transparency in labor conditions for farmers who are all-too often underpaid for their work. For coffee consumers in Paris, equitable trade conditions are reflected in the price at the counter. Paul says, “What we sell is a lot more expensive than what you find in the supermarket, and in terms of selling a cup of coffee… people have a choice to spend that on the coffee or not, but not everyone has access to be able to spend that on the coffee.”
When coffee consumption becomes a status symbol locally, does it negate the potential social benefits that it may have for farmers far away? The social divides that access to coffee connoisseurship may create are not something that many specialty coffee professionals have an answer to yet. However, the glaring reality is that coffee has been underpriced for centuries. Paul states, “Coffee’s insanely cheap. It’s just outrageous. The fact that you can have an espresso for 90 cents is complete insanity. It’s based on a historical system that doesn’t make any sense when you know the amount of work in growing the coffee, producing it, drying it, milling it, bagging it, and shipping it, roasting it, extracting it… A Euro makes no sense for that.”
Specialty coffee communities across the globe are no strangers to the many moral dilemmas of our $5 lattes or our 2 Euro espresso shots. Yet despite the hit to our wallets and the status of snobbery that may come as baggage with our favorite drinks, we are fueled by hope that we can shift the coffee industry to one that is overall more just. Perhaps more importantly, our work to perfect the process from bean to brew is energized by a fiery passion to continue on our quest for the best quality cup.