A coffee stop away from the Tour de France, dare we say a look at a “French cultural thing”? Many foreigners and perhaps some French people too complain about the way coffee tastes in France but what if actually getting a coffee during your ride was the real problem?
Is French coffee bad?
Every year the Tour de France brings complaints from followers on the race about hotel breakfasts and café pit stops, particularly the bad tasting coffee. Ask someone in France and they’d probably disagree, after all the French consume tons of it, even if the stats say they drink more tea per year than coffee. Maybe there’s a touch of ethnocentrism about the complaints: nobody goes to France for the coffee, just like nobody goes to the Tour of Britain for good weather; nobody expects good beer at the Vuelta or a fresh salad on the eve of Gent-Wevelgem. Still the “complaints” about coffee are usually good natured if the café as in the place is celebrated, the coffee rarely is.
One explanation for the taste difference could be colonialism. In an article on Slate.com French coffee shop owner Aleaume Paturle explains that in the past, coffee from French colonies could be imported back to France duty-free and the crop planted in places like Vietnam and Laos was the Robusta variety rather than the more prized Arabica. Robusta, as the name suggests, is more hardy but the taste isn’t as rich and sometimes it’s over-roasted to give it more aroma. In general this makes for a more bitter, rougher taste, with notes of burnt wood and ashtray rather than chocolate or vanilla. All the same if you buy some Segafredo in Italy it tends to have this same taste, compared to the smoother varieties from Lavazza or Illy.
Coffee culture like we see in other places has been slow to catch on. Order un café and it’s a small shot, an express, or better known worldwide by the Italian espresso. You can have varieties on this like a café serré which is like a ristretto in Italy or a café-au-lait which is a milk white coffee. But that’s about it, there’s not the same variety as you might find in a London or Melbourne coffee shop, a typical café in France is more of a bar and a communal space rather than the cloned assembly of exposed brickwork, LED filament bulbs and ersatz vintage sofas you find all around the world. As for Wifi, it’s rare, maybe there’s payphone instead. For the cyclist though these dusty village cafés offer a quick pick-me-up and you can ask for a free carafe of water to fill your bottles up. Do it right and you can be sitting on terrace, browsing the house copy of L’Equipe on a stick and watching the world go by and personally this beats any single-estate-brew-artisanal coffee with a pattern made in the froth on top… although it’s even better to do this in Italy, read La Gazzetta and all for one Euro.
But whether the coffee tastes good or bad, an increasing problem can be simply getting one when you’re out on a ride in France. Cafés are closing at an astonishing rate. According to an article in Le Parisien there were 600,000 cafés and bars in 1960 and just 34,669 in 2015. That’s 30 closures a day, every day, for the past 55 years. Another report says there were 200,000 in 1960 which is still eight closures a day on average and over the past decade if an average of 2,200 new establishments have opened per year, 2,700 have closed meaning an average net loss of 500 a year.
Why? This is a significant issue in France and there’s plenty of reading from magazine articles to industry analysis and government reports and statistical surveys. Here’s the summary take:
- many villages are declining as populations move away remote rural areas towards the cities and suburbs
- a smoking ban introduced in 2007 may satisfy many cyclists but it’s deterred core customers
- drink-driving is reducing meaning passing motorists are less likely to visit for a quick one
- annual alcohol consumption in France has almost halved since 1970
- coffee is easier to make with machines at home and the workplace reducing the need to drop by the café
- once upon a time the café might have been the only place with a TV; more recently it was a place to read the newspaper but today most have a TV at home and many get their news online
- improved food hygiene standards have required investment that some cafés haven’t been able to meet
- bakeries supply sandwiches and drinks these days meaning the village bistrot no longer has a monopoly on fast food and snacks
- employing kitchen staff is relatively expensive and selling dishes for €5-10 makes it hard to recoup the money
- finally a personal observation that many places are old with dusty interiors and if they’re struggling they stuck in a vicious cycle, unable to make money to invest in more comfortable or cheery interiors so people go elsewhere
There’s no single factor here, just a series of societal changes that have undone what was surely never a lucrative venture in the first place. Reading some of these factors the decline doesn’t sound so disastrous if some cafés were smoke-filled hubs that relied on passing trade from drink drivers while poorly-paid staff served up unhygienic dishes.
Bitter and rough tasting, French coffee is often not as a smooth as its transalpine variety. The tale of colonialism, import duties and agronomy makes for a nice hypothesis, whether it’s true, who knows? Either way it’s a bitter dose of caffeine to start the day or for a boost during a ride. There’s no problem in towns and cities and the tourist visiting Paris is spoilt for choice. The cyclist traversing rural France will find things harder, they’re closing at an astonishing rate and can be hard to find in villages, time after time you’ll see the shutters closed and this leaves an even more sour taste in the mouth and any coffee can.