For this Paris specialty coffee feature, I spoke with Anselme, the owner of Ten Belles, to discuss the ways in which wine may be the answer to the specialty coffee industry in Paris.
Is it a coincidence that wine lovers are often coffee connoisseurs, and vice versa? The two drinks have polar opposite effects on our nervous systems. While caffeine is a stimulant, jolting us awake and alert, alcohol is a depressant, slowing down our judgement and inhibitions. Yet both products take an intricate chain of labor to create with high quality, and both are saturated with social and environmental issues that touch various aspects of the supply chain. I personally arrived to coffee with a foundational understanding of wine from my undergraduate thesis research. When I discovered specialty coffee in Vienna, I was fascinated to find out that many of the sensory components of wine translate to coffee. Yet I was also devastated to learn that much of the economic and social injustice that occurs with farmers who harvest wine are common to coffee farmers.
Anselme, the owner of Ten Belles in Paris, also approached coffee from a background in wine. Prior to owning his two Ten Belles coffeeshops in Paris – one just a street down from Canal Saint-Martin in the tenth arrondissement, and the other in the eleventh arrondissement – Anselme worked in wine in New York. His first sip of well-brewed filter coffee was alchemy to Anselme, serving as fuel to shift his career focus. He explains, “The epiphany for my coming from wine was the first properly made Chemex that I had. Whereas before I had always enjoyed a well-made espresso, drinking well-made filter coffee was what sealed it for me because it suddenly exposed me to all the subtleties in an aroma that you can find. In a way, I approached it similarly to a glass of wine.”
Similar to wine, Anselme notes that coffee’s sensory component is influenced by its growing location and conditions. Both taste and story play into the fact that Ethiopian coffees are his personal favorite. He explains, “In Ethiopia, I think what’s beautiful is that they’ve documented over 5,000 varietals, and they think there’s even more, and you’re drinking a very pure variety of the birthplace of coffee. The magic plays into it, the story plays into it. But also, just for personal taste, I tend to like lighter coffees, and ones that show a bit of citrus, so (Ethiopia) would be my go-to place.”
Nonetheless, Anselme explains that origin may play into coffee’s taste less than wine because of the technical element of brewing that goes into coffee. He states, “I’m always a bit cautious about the word terrioir, which describes a particular type of place and climate and the way it affects the end result in wine. With coffee, there is a big geographical element, but it’s a bit more limited than with what we both consider terroir in the wine world.”
Practical brewing skills were also a very important aspect of coffee that did not translate directly from wine. Anselme states, “In terms of technique, that was something new to me and something that was quite fun, you know, the way for the first time you’re able to pour a beautiful heart on your coffee.”
Despite these two important differences between wine and coffee, Anselme thinks that leveraging common knowledge of wine is an important way to improve the popularity of the specialty coffee industry among French locals. He explains, “We’ve tried to approach (the French) with filter coffee. Because it’s more of a novelty, they tend to approach it with more of an open mind. And also linking back to wine, (filter coffee) is less concentrated that espresso so you’re able to wow them a little bit more with more readily available aromas. Their palate is more attuned to the flavors they find in wine and therefore they will take a similar approach.”
Anselme affirms that transmitting knowledge on coffee is important but warns that there is a fine line between open education and snobbish preaching. He explains, “We still need to educate people a lot in a non-judgmental, non-nerdy kind of way. Just take people by the hand and invite them into our world.”
Timing is key in extending this invitation. He continues, “Coffee remains something that some people just really need in the morning so I think there’s a time to talk about coffee, and then there’s a time when people just really need a cup of coffee and a good one, but they want it brought fast. So I try to tell our staff to use a lot of empathy and gauge what people want and how open people are going to be to learning about where coffee was grown and the extraction technique that we’re using. It’s baby steps…”
The first baby step to education is allowing customers to taste their coffee. This requires the reversal of a decades-long trend of adding sugar to poorly-roasted, burnt espresso in France. Anselme explains, “We try to graduate people from using less and less and eventually no sugar because if you go to a French terrace today and watch people drink coffee, I’d say 80% of them are going to add sugar to their coffee. And they should do because it’s really not good… Before waxing lyrical about this amazing producer in Bolivia and the environmental and social impact of coffee, it’s more about, ‘Why don’t you try and have a macchiato today? We’ve steamed the milk properly so the natural sugars are going to come out. and you don’t need to use sugar.’ And eventually graduating them to a slow pour or an espresso without any sugar.”
Rather than shoving unwanted information down his caffeine-hungry customer’s throat, Anselme’s approach is to educate by example through weaving social and environmental consciousness into his business model. He says, “We’re recycling 100% of our organic waste now, which is a small but necessary step in the right direction. We work with a lot of NGOs to make sure that everything we produce is then put back into the system. We have zero waste spent on food. In terms of coffee, we’re recycling the ground coffee. We’re making ricotta from the leftover milk from the milk drinks we prepare… On the other aspect of it, which is takeaway, we started selling thermoses a long time ago, where people can get 50% off of their coffee for life if they buy the thermos for their coffee and bring it back in.”
Despite his best efforts, Anselme says that coffee continues to have an unavoidably large environmental impact. He states, “There’s no way that drinking coffee in France and it not having a massive environmental footprint because it’s come from a very faraway place, it’s traveled in temperature-controlled containers, it’s been stocked into warehouse, it’s been trucked into our coffee shop, and then within our coffee shop, we’re then using a huge amount of electricity to then transform it.”
In addition to providing the best means for customers to taste the wine-like nuances of coffee, filter coffee may also produce the lowest levels of environmental impact compared to espresso-brewing. Thus, Anselme comes back to filter coffee as a golden future for specialty coffee in France. He explains, “I want people to start buying beans and using all the gear that they already have at home. Every single French house has a French press, but they’re addicted to their espresso machines, which have massive, massive, massive environmental consequences. I want to see people buying beans, buying hand grinders, and making them at home. Going to somebody’s country house and seeing them break out a fresh bag of beans and then grinding the coffee – it’s getting back to the roots a little.”
In addition to being able to taste high-quality French press at his Parisian friends’ homes, Anselme hopes to be able to experience specialty coffee alongside the best traditions in French dining. He states wistfully, “I dream of walking into a run of the mill bistro in Paris one day and being able to order a coffee knowing that the machine’s going to be clean, the water’s going the be filtered, it’s going to be properly tamped, and come out the right temperature in a clean cup. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for, but it is.”
Anselme says that Michelin-star restaurants are the next location that specialty coffee should spread to in France for the niche movement to truly become mainstream. He explains, “France being a culture that respects food so much. There need to be more 3-star Michelin restaurants and high-profile restaurants that really put the effort in. It’s sad to think that 75% of Michelin restaurants use Nespresso as coffee... Maybe we’ve got a role to play in that, get on our horse, go out, and show them the right way.”
Delicious French wines are readily available in grocery stores in France for mere Euros, and the country’s Michelin-star restaurants are known for being home to the world’s best wines. Wine represents an important example for the specialty coffee industry to emulate in France, all while remaining engaging, optimistic, and unpretentious.