Café Culture, or Coffee Culture?

French Coffee Café

Typical French “Café/Express” / Photo by Flickr user H4 g2

French coffee drinkers are increasingly turning away from the traditional French café in favor of more specialized, artisanal coffee, or “fast food” industrialized coffee (Starbucks). The poor quality of French coffee is frequently criticized; many claim that it is merely an overly-bitter afterthought served with excessive sugar cubes in an attempt to render it drinkable. In a response to this criticism, artisan and specialized coffee shops and even local roasters have begun to crop up throughout Paris, along with the industrial giant, Starbucks. For now I’m going to ignore the issues surrounding Starbucks, and focus on the other end of the spectrum: craft coffee in France.

Those who lament the loss of French “café culture” assume that this is a static and historically constant facet of French identity. But coffee is not indigenous to France; its cultivation and distribution is an artifact of colonization and extraction. The so-called café culture that emerged was a form of cultural adaptation to a new and popular global product forcibly removed and exploited from French colonies. Coffee beans from French colonies were duty-free, while other (more superior) varietals from the rest of the world were more expensive. France obviously promoted the cheaper, “French” coffee, and its legacy exists to this day – Robusta beans, the French colonial varietal, still comprises up to 50% of all coffee served in France. Nearly 70 years of consuming this harsh, bitter type of coffee has cultivated a French taste for the harsh bean, which was traditionally marketed as a truly “French” product. Since the colonies it came from were French property at the time, this was technically true, and since French culinary culture is so focused on traditional French-exclusive products, the coffee stuck.

Coffee Beans

“A Cup of Beans” by Song Zhen.

In modern France, the introduction of higher-quality coffee beans and roasting and brewing techniques has fostered another cultural adaptation – the emergence of specialty coffee shops and the decentralization of the café. There is now a distinction between a coffee shop, which specializes in high quality coffee and may not even offer food, and a café, which offers a wide array of food and beverages including coffee. Globalization and the opening of markets are both partly to blame for this new form of coffee consumption and expertise. With decolonization and the availability of far superior coffee on a global market, the only tie to bitter Robusta is a cultural nostalgia for “traditional” French café culture. But assuming that the continued consumption of this inferior coffee varietal upholds the French culinary tradition is a misguided illusion. French culture is not, and never has been, a static and unchanging entity. The France of the colonial period was irreversibly altered by the influx of global commodities and goods, just as globalization is changing it now. So why not accept a higher-quality good and adapt that to French culture? The alternative is to hold on to a legacy of French colonial rule, a hypocritical endeavor in itself – celebrating French cultural imperialism might be just as bad as accepting American cultural imperialism. In the end, the reality is that better coffee has now entered France, and the specialization of industries can only lead to more informed and vibrant consumer cultures and the introduction of new French culinary traditions. While the miniature, bitter French coffee may still exist, there is a new wave of artisan, craft coffee to be had, and the idea of locally-roasted (therefore inherently French) coffee beans is something the most adamant proponent of French cultural identity should embrace. Globalization is not always a force that brings standardized, homogenized, industrialized, shrunken forms of consumption – it also has the power to bring elevated, high quality products from obscure corners of the globe, and France has the perfect tradition of culinary excellence to accept and perfect these new traditions.

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