Mar 25

Decoding French Coffee: Why is the coffee so bad in France and what should I order?

by in food, france, paris

Oh la la! We all know the classic French clichés : croissant for breakfast, wine for lunch, baguettes & bad service but when you dig a little deeper into French stereotypes you will discover that in the country where cafes are sacred, the coffee is not.

Coffee in France has a reputation for being la merde. Not good. Pas du tout. Over-extracted. Burnt-tasting.  This apparently stems from a history of cheap, strong beans from former French colonies to which the French have become accustomed. And stereotypically, the French just don’t care.

But I do. And living here has made me want to find the right French coffee for myself, and to figure out how to order it without sounding like an idiot.

So if you are dreaming about sipping a petit cafe on a terrace in Paris, you might first want to know what to order and where to get the good stuff.  With prices ranging from 1€ standing at the counter to 4,50€ on a touristy terrace, here is what you can expect from coffee in Paris.

Un Café (café noir or café express)
Your typical tiny single shot of espresso, French-style, meaning too bitter, and carelessly made. I don’t like it but for a 1€ stand-up-at-the-bar-coffee, can you really go wrong?  Yes.

Un Noisette
This is my go-to coffee in France, even though I don’t like it that much. Coming in at about 2,40€ on a terrace, it is just an easy and reasonable, everyday choice. Un noisette (meaning a nut, but actually having nothing to do with nuts) is that same single shot of French “espresso” with a tiny dollop of milk and/or foam. This is the local version of a macchiato but nowhere near as good a proper macchiato. As we all know, there are somethings that Italians just do better.

Un Cafe Allongé 
The closest thing you will find to an american black coffee, but sort-of better. Basically un cafe with hot water added. Perfect for that black coffee drinker who finds a single shot espresso just a little too strong.

Un Café Crème (or simply Un Crème)
Significantly smaller than a café latte and socially acceptable to drink at any time, this is your classic one-shot café served in a larger cup with hot milk. If you’re lucky, the hot milk is served on the side so you can put in just the right amount for yourself.  Not too bad on the scale of bad French coffee.

Un Cafe au Lait
Like a cappuccino in Italy, you should never order this anywhere other than your hotel and certainly not past 10:00 am. The French typically enjoy a café latte at home, in the mornings, in a bowl (for dunking un croissant, of course).  It is socially unacceptable to order this in a cafe or bar in France and is certainly never to be ordered after a meal. Bah!cafe gourmand

Cafe Gourmand
This little treasure can even be found at the McCafe. It is a typical café that comes with a side of usually 3 – 5 petits fours such as a macaron, crème brûlée, a small scoop of ice cream or other teeny dessert. This is, in my opinion, a real delight and can even make the bad French coffee seem good.

Hint:  If you don’t want to be an obvious bumbling tourist, please never order coffee with your meal. Not even with your dessert (unless your order a Café Gourmand). Un cafe or un noisette is typically ordered after dessert.

The Good Stuff
So if you’re a coffee snob or you come from a hipster coffee culture like Vancouver, or you just don’t like French coffee, you’ll want to know where to get the goods in Paris.

Wifi & a flat white, svp.

Flat White
My personal favourite, Aussie-born (correct me if I’m wrong), is the flat white. With considerably less milk than a latte, this coffee has a much higher proportion of espresso to milk making it strong and smooth.  I’m so happy to find this in Paris but at about 4,50€ a pop it’s not my everyday jolt.

KB Cafeshop
A hipster café, filled with geeks and macbooks and good coffees. Best flat white in Paris, free wifi and located in lively South Pigalle. Metro Pigalle

Australian-influenced and offering fresh savoury breakfasts & lunches and of course, proper coffee (and free wi-fi). Closed on Tuesdays & Wednesdays. What!?!? Metro Jacques Bonsergent

Cafe Lomi
Heard good things. Will report back.

Belleville Brûlerie
This is not a coffee shop but a trendy new roastery offering Saturday morning coffee cuppings (tastings) in French and over-priced but very delicious beans from South America & Africa, roasted onsite. Open only on Saturdays. Bah, oui! Metro Pyrénées


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20 Responses to “Decoding French Coffee: Why is the coffee so bad in France and what should I order?”

  1. From Rashid:

    nicely written, i was also shocked when i came here and tasted the horrible coffe, i always order noisette because the bitter taste is a bit burried. the only cafe i could drink in ile de france was in a cafe called “le Garcon” near the metro mairie de clichy.

    Posted on March 25, 2014 at 11:22 pm #
    • From jeanette:

      Thanks for your comment. I guess the noisette is the best of the worst. 😉

      Posted on March 27, 2014 at 1:16 pm #
  2. From JR:

    So true,

    I hate french coffee. It is really terrible. It has everything to do with the “Robusta” beans that they use. Not at all like the “Arabica” from italian roasters. Try to find a café that serves coffee made from italian beans. Blends of around 20% Robusta/80% Arabica can be surprisingly good.

    Funny enough, every joint in France has a decent to good espresso-machine.

    Posted on March 25, 2014 at 11:37 pm #
    • From jeanette:

      Don’t keep your feelings about French coffee a secret, Jan! Haha …. ! Thanks for your comments. The best coffee here for me is made at home in my Italian Bialetti!

      Posted on March 27, 2014 at 1:17 pm #
  3. From Jess:

    Nice article! A simple Cafe/ Shop at 4 or 5 Rue Brantôme next to Centre Pompidou offers high quality coffee for a fair price (terrace, take-away and you can buy roasted coffee to take home). Just can´t recall the name of the place. There r a few cafes serving good coffee these days but it´s like finding a diamond in Paris… my favorite place where you get a great milky coffee like in London or Berlin when you order a `Creme`is called Les Nicois/ Metro ST. Ambroise. PS: Noisette is called like that because of the hazelnut color , the spanish call it Cortado coz the milk is `cutting` the coffee. Cheers!

    Posted on March 26, 2014 at 9:02 am #
    • From jeanette:

      Thanks for the tip, will take a look at rue Brantome. For a good coffee in Paris, I find the Australian influenced cafes the best!

      Posted on March 27, 2014 at 1:30 pm #
  4. From Rob:

    When I first arrived in France I ordered a cappuccino and was given a coffee with fake whipped cream on top. I was also amazed at the expensive professional coffee machines in each bar but no one seemed to be trained in using it, not to mention the cheap coffee that they used. When I mentioned it to locals they did not think that the coffee was bad in France. Perhaps they have never tasted good coffee. PS I am from Vancouver, home of the coffee snobs.

    Posted on March 27, 2014 at 12:53 pm #
    • From jeanette:

      Thanks for your comment, Rob! I too have been spoiled by the Vancouver coffee culture, which is why the nasty French coffee is such a shock, even after a couple of years here!! Blech!

      Posted on March 27, 2014 at 1:18 pm #
  5. From Dakhil:

    A very interesting post with a much of enlightenment about types and taste of French coffee. Although the French tend to drink a tiny cup of coffee after every lunch or dinner, they haven’t discovered their problem with how to make a really good cup of coffee. I think the French don’t have the sense that coffee can switch your mood on/off; they’re gurus when it comes to wine though. So basically, paying full attention to their coffee is simply not their thing; nevertheless, they are some places in Paris (fancy and pricey) where you can find that one skinny white young French who just enjoys every single coffee he makes for his customers – I experienced in Paris and then I was broke for a week 🙁 Just kidding :p

    When it comes to coffee, just leave to the creators – Italians. I can’t forget that one espresso I had in Rome in a restaurant close to the Vatican, that cup kept me treating myself with every sip I drink, it was just magic.

    One last thing about this amazing beverage, is as long as you are in Canada, could you please have a double-double for me, because I sincerely miss that $0.99 small cup of Tim Horton’s famous coffee.


    Posted on March 29, 2014 at 12:48 am #
    • From jeanette:

      I agree with everything you’ve said …. except the Tim Horton’s bit! Tim Horton’s is a crime against coffee! :p

      Posted on March 29, 2014 at 9:43 am #
      • From Rob:

        I have to agree with you re: Tim Horton’s. I could never understand why it was so popular.

        You can find excellent coffee in Toulouse at:

        La Fiancée
        54 rue Peyrolières
        31000 Toulouse

        The owner lived in Canada for four years and knows his coffee.

        Posted on March 29, 2014 at 11:22 am #
        • From jeanette:

          Thanks for the tip! I’ll check it out in Toulouse next time!

          Posted on March 29, 2014 at 1:48 pm #
  6. From Gayla:

    I made the mistake, during my very first visit to Paris, of ordering a cafe au lait with my breakfast croissant. (Cafe au lait is what we typically called any coffee with milk in French-speaking Louisiana.) My Parisienne server was gracious enough to recommend a Café Crème and now I know why 🙂
    I appreciate the tips on the café etiquette. Next time I might try ordering a Café Gourmand for the additional treats!
    Gayla recently posted…Things to do in Amsterdam – Visit the EYE on the IJMy Profile

    Posted on April 15, 2014 at 1:50 pm #
  7. From Roni Faida:

    Wow! I totally disagree. I love coffee in France and I lived there for 4 years. It’s one of the things I love best, sitting in a cafe drinking my coffee. But hey, nothing wrong with different opinions! Thanks for all the pics.

    Posted on June 9, 2014 at 6:15 am #
  8. From Surya Bhattacharya:

    Strange, but I LOVED the coffee when I went to Paris. And I went from Milan. Weird huh. But this post is awesome! Definitely going back to Paris someday, and definitely taking learning this post up 😀
    Surya Bhattacharya recently posted…Why I Didn’t Go Solo in ItalyMy Profile

    Posted on June 17, 2014 at 1:34 pm #
  9. From Ben Garrard:

    We’ve just driven into Perpignan after a week of great café’s con leche all around northern Spain, back into the french coffee wasteland. Even so close to Spain the first milk coffee I ordered was rubbish. Incidentally I broke your golden rule by ordering a cafe au lait after dinner in an attempt to get exactly what they were making just across the border.
    Then I googled why is french coffee so bad and found your blog. Comforting, and I never realised Vancouver was a coffee hub, will have to get there soon!
    Ben (Sydney)

    Posted on April 26, 2015 at 9:18 am #
  10. From Stephen:

    Insightful! I was just in Australia and they seem to do coffee well!
    Stephen recently posted…My First Impressions of Queensland AustraliaMy Profile

    Posted on May 14, 2015 at 11:39 pm #
  11. From Tracey:

    Just ordered a noisette in Provence after reading all that and it was truly awful. The beans, the uht milk, it was dreadful.
    Coming from Sydney, Australia and abroad for 3 months I am really missing my coffee.

    Posted on May 30, 2015 at 9:12 pm #
  12. From Cristina:

    I’m experimenting with different coffees right now and this gets me excited about the French style. Although I’m surprised the French are not more keen on improving their coffee. I always thought they loved sitting for hours at cafes drinking coffee. Maybe a love hate relationship? In places like Prague or Budapest there’s a big focus on alternative style cafes and local places where they roast their own beans – it’s really renewing people’s love for coffee there!
    Cristina recently posted…Fair Trade and Coffee with a BaristaMy Profile

    Posted on April 14, 2016 at 4:51 am #
    • From jeanette:

      Thanks for your comment, Cristina! Alternative cafes in Paris are largely run by foreigners such as Australians and they make gooooood coffee although it’s not the mainstream here yet.

      Posted on April 18, 2016 at 10:24 am #

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