Slow in coming, gourmet coffee finally comes to Paris

It's famous for its sun-kissed sidewalk cafes, but Paris has lagged well behind New York, London and Sydney as a Mecca for connoisseurs of fine coffee - until now.

Gourmet coffee bars and small-batch roasteries are popping up in the French capital, introducing locals to thick rich espressos, artful lattes and the idea that a cup of Joe can be savoured like fine wine.

"Coffee is a big part of the culture" in Paris, said Tom Clark, co-owner of the Coutume Cafe, which recently became the city's newest coffee bar and specialty roaster when it opened its doors on the Left Bank.

"It's just that it's not been respected... It is a living product. It has to be handled with care."

Driving the trend is an entrepreneurial network of young expats like Clark, an Australian living in France for three years who grew up on artisanal coffee, and well-travelled French contemporaries like his business partner Antoine Netien, a champion roaster in Melbourne before his return home.

"Before I went to Australia, I was drinking coffee with no idea how it was made," said French bartender-turned-barista Thomas Lehoux, who now mans the coffee machine at Eggs&Co, a hip Left Bank brunch spot.

"Most French people don't have any idea that coffee can be like wine."

Take an espresso, for instance.

Unlike the Italian original, "un petit cafe" is typically made with cheaper, lower-grade Robusta beans that are not always fresh or perfectly roasted, and with little if any attention given to the coffee machine behind the counter.

The result is often a thinner, less flavourful brew which, coffee aficionados say, leaves something to be desired. "Most of it tastes like cat piss," said barista and art student Britney Bachmann, from Canada.

David Flynn, an American who honed his barista skills in Washington, attributes this state of affairs in part to the fact that, in Paris, a cup of coffee entitles customers to linger at a cafe for as long as they wish.

"The majority of people take coffee after a meal, or because it's the cheapest thing on the menu and they want to sit outside," said Flynn, who brews shots at Le Bal, a Right Bank art gallery and coffee bar.

If the Parisian coffee revolution has a birthplace, fans agree it is the Cafeotheque, a cozy hole-in-the-wall by the River Seine, founded two years ago by Gloria Montenegro de Chirouze, a former Guatemalan ambassador to France.

Patrons weave their way past a shining brass roasting machine and stacks of burlap bags full of aromatic beans from Africa, Central America and South America to reach the tasting bar and salon at the rear.

There, baristas in checkered shirts and jeans wait on a hip and multilingual crowd - making a point of introducing the precise origin of the coffee, which changes every day.

The Cafeotheque trains baristas, too, with 30 hours of professional-level tuition available for 1,200 euros ($1,700) for those who desire a career in coffee.

Taking coffee culture to the next level, Flynn and Lehoux last year founded the Frog Fight (www.frogfight.tumbler.com), a monthly coffee-tasting where baristas also compete to create the most delicate designs in latte foam.

The venue changes every month, announced via Facebook or word of mouth, but the coveted prize remains the same - a white cup with a frog on top, donated by an Australian artist.

This month a record two dozen baristas squared off, deftly turning steamed milk into floral-like motifs. "It's a heart or a rosette, usually," said Bachmann, "maybe even a swan if you're incredible."

Judging the results was a panel of three that included a bookseller and a coffee blogger.

For book publisher Helene Pouchot, a two-time Frog Fight attendee, discovering artisanal coffee has been life-changing: not only does she now steer clear of regular cafes, but she has her own real coffee machine at home.

"I no longer drink capsule coffee," she said as she took in the aroma of fresh beans from Bolivia, Columbia and Costa Rica. "It's finished with Nespresso."

With a professional coffee roaster from far-away Iowa City on their payroll, and ambitions to supply gourmet coffee to top hotels and restaurants, Clark and Netien see plenty of room for their niche market to grow.

Artisanal coffee is no threat to big players such as Cafes Richard, the leading industrial roaster in France, which accounts for a staggering 2.426 million cups of coffee sold every day.

But over thick late-morning espressos at another gourmet coffee spot, the Kooka Boora Cafe, near Pigalle, Flynn and Lehoux predicted a bright future.

"In France, there's a tradition of standing at a bar, taking a short espresso for a euro, then off you go," Lehoux said. "You can still have this culture - but with better coffee."

Added Flynn: "There's more excitement here than I've found anywhere else about making coffee... I don't want to see a recreation of the New York coffee scene or London coffee scene. I want Paris to create its own style."

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