Opened in 2011 by Australian Tom Clarke and his French partner Antoine Netien, Cafe Coutume has become a well-established fixture on the Parisian coffee scene.
One would think that Paris, with its long traditions of local wine and cheese production, all based on highly nuanced subtleties of flavor and texture, would be first in line to embrace a new understanding of coffee along the same lines. Perhaps the attention lavished on these local products has much to do with their direct connection to French soil, so coffee, not being a product of the French terroir, is not favored by a similar obsession.
In any case, while cafes are a mainstay of Parisian culture, the chief offering of these wonderful establishments has often been, shall we say, a little bitter. The French like their coffee well done. Or as some would say “burnt” and this has become the de-facto standard for the country. And that is not easy to change. I found a similar situation in Vienna and Italy where the classic coffee houses tend to serve very bitter traditional roasts, rejecting the products of younger roasting companies in favor of the status quo.
It has taken some time, and an enormous effort by people like Tom, to start grinding down the resistance of Parisians to new kinds of coffee roasts and techniques. Now a small but dedicated community of coffee aficionados is taking hold. The realization is sinking in that coffee is like wine in its subtleties, reflecting the conditions and regions in which the coffee bean is grown, and in the way flavors can be manipulated in the preparation process to bring out the best from this delicious little green bean.
The day we visited Tom to chat about coffee, Coutume was buzzing with locals, with a few foreigners mixed in. Tom tells us that when he came from Australia to study in Paris he really longed for the vibrant fresh coffee culture he was fond of back home. Coffee culture came to Australia early, brought by Italian immigrants. And somehow the combination of the Australian give-it-a-go attitude with the traditions and techniques of Italy kicked off a dynamic and innovative coffee culture that is gradually spreading around the world.
To an Australian palette the local French roast was simply not a drink one could enjoy. So Tom began to develop an idea for how a third-wave coffee movement could be started in Paris. The end result is his café cum laboratory cum coffee education center, Coutume.
Now just four years later, all the hard work Tom and his team have put in is paying off. Coutume is quickly increasing in popularity, there is now a Coutume in Tokyo and a new roasting facility in Paris supplying restaurants and hotels all over Paris and beyond. As a result, there is now great coffee on offer in Paris, which was Tom’s original mission.
Coincidentally Paris’ first coffee house was opened by an Italian named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli in 1686. A former lemonade vendor, he opened Cafe de Le Procope not far from where Coutume is today. The coffee was probably pretty awful to taste but the caffeine would have been a revelation.
Coutume’s laboratory/cafe/school is situated in a typical old Parisian storefront space partly excavated to reveal its history and partly renovated to accommodate the coffee technology. Walls are scraped back to their original plaster surfaces and old wood floors exposed, in contrast to a gleaming white tiled counter and stainless steel laboratory area for coffee education. The laboratory does double duty as extra counter seating and is accessorized with live lush coffee plants; a reminder that your daily fix of caffeine comes from a little fruit tree far away.
If you are hungry Coutume offers a small, fresh breakfast and lunch menu, and on Sundays brunch is served. The place is usually occupied by locals chatting, working on their computers or having meetings. It’s a dynamic atmosphere.
Now it’s time for some tasting. Tom and Nikkos, one of Coutume’s barrister crew, prepare a cold brew coffee with the Hairo Syphon, a science-like procedure with equal parts technique and theater. The taste is unlike anything you have tasted from a coffee bean. You realize that coffee beans are actually part of a fruit and what we are drinking is a kind of fruit juice. This kind of coffee tasting is an eye-opening experience. Fascinating and delicious. I highly recommend you give it a try.
Coutume is located in the 7th Arrondissement close to the Rodin Museum and Bon Marche. So it’s a perfect side trip for your next Paris adventure. Now we are off to see Napoleon’s Tomb just around the corner.
< More fascinating vacation destinations await. Let’s go.
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