If you’ve ever been to Europe, you know that there’s nothing better than sitting in a sidewalk French cafe and enjoying a nice cup of java. But they don’t call it java there – they call it café. And if you’ve never had the opportunity to visit France, there’s a good chance that your idea of what French coffee is might be a bit misconstrued.
Between the French roast and the French press, it's understandable why so many people regard French coffee as superior. But is it really? Does it warrant the prestige that those of us outside of France have bestowed upon it?
Today we're answering those questions and a whole lot more!
Keep reading, s'il vous plait.
What is French Coffee?
Let's start with what it isn't.
It isn't a particular bean, brew, blend, or style. It doesn't mean that it's made from French roast coffee beans. It doesn't refer to coffee made in a French press.
French coffee is none of those things.
French coffee is a culture. It's how the French drink and enjoy their coffee instead of what they're actually drinking in their cup. Many coffee aficionados regard French coffee as slightly bitter, made from nothing more than average beans.
But the taste, flavor, and preparation have little to do with what it is. French coffee is about the experience — sitting in a sidewalk café, watching people and watching the world go by as you relax and enjoy a hot, strong cup.
It's less a drink and more a way of life.
Do the French Actually Use a Press?
Given its regional name, it’s easy to understand why people assume that French coffee refers to coffee made in a French press. It does not.
Two Frenchmen created the original concept for the French press in 1852. But it wasn't until 1928 that two Italians put a patent on it. The 1928 Italian version improved upon the original 1852 concept and became the basis for the French press as we know it today.
But do people in France actually use this brewing method?
Contrary to popular belief, the answer is no. You may find a press in people's homes, but you will not in most cafés and restaurants.
The French coffee culture is all about serving up a quick shot of espresso or a similar espresso-based drink. Unlike Italy, which is full of cafés that are full of baristas, you’ll be hard-pressed (pun intended) to find a barista in France.
In most cases, it’s just waiters and servers quickly pouring and serving cup after cup of espresso.
So don’t expect to walk into a cafe and see anyone working a French press behind the counter. You’re much more likely to see a few espresso machines with easy buttons to press and plenty of empty cups stacked nearby.
Related Reading: Here are The Pros and Cons of the Electric French Press.
How to Order Coffee in France (and Where to Order It)
Don't expect to see an extensive coffee menu or huge blackboard detailing all the various coffee drinks available in a French coffee shop. For the most part, the French drink espresso, albeit different types with varying amounts of water, foam, and milk.
Ordering coffee in France can be daunting, especially if you don’t speak French. So before you order a café au lait or a cappuccino in a Parisian sidewalk café, make sure you know what you’re asking for.
Here are the most common types of coffee drinks in France and how they compare to the versions you already know and love.
Café literally translates to coffee in English. But if you order a café in a French coffee shop, you’re not going to get a regular brewed coffee like you would in New York or LA. In France, a café is a shot of espresso. It’s usually served in small cups, so no one will be surprised if you order more than one cup.
Depending on where you’re drinking, you may hear locals order the “un café” as a café noir. It’s exactly the same thing: a cup of black coffee with nothing added.
Café Americain (Also Called Café Allongé or Americano)
Craving a cup of your standard American coffee?
If you’re in Paris or traveling through the French countryside, you’ll want to order a café Americain. It’s basically a watered-down espresso made with hot water. As far as French coffee goes, it tastes pretty close to what most Americans prefer drinking.
Some say that the French noisette is similar to an Italian macchiato. It's a shot of espresso plus a dash of hot milk or cream. The French word "noisette" translates to hazelnut in English, but in terms of French coffee, it refers to the color, not the taste.
Trying to keep your caffeine intake to a minimum? Say “un deca” to a French waiter when you’re in the mood for a decaffeinated beverage.
Want a premium decaf beverage to enjoy at home? Check out our decaf espresso!
Café Crème (or Café Latte)
When you’re craving a cappuccino in France, you’ll want to order a café crème. It’s a classic espresso with steamed milk topped with a lot of foam.
Café au Lait
Unless you want a bowl of milk and coffee, don’t order a café au lait in France. Typically, the French have their café au lait at home, with breakfast, in a bowl. It’s basically your classic drip coffee made with a lot of milk.
Order a cappuccino in France, and you'll get espresso with steamed milk, foam, and some cocoa powder sprinkled on top. It's tasty, but it might not be what you expect.
The café viennois is a bit more decadent than your average latte. This drink is light espresso, chocolate powder, and whipped cream. If you’re an American with a penchant for Starbucks, you’ll love it.
If you like your coffee bitter, try a café serré. This drink is basically espresso made with half the water, so it’s got an extra-bitter taste.
Café filtré is drip coffee, which the French don’t really drink. It is not a part of French coffee culture, but you can find it in ex-pat homes as well as restaurants and coffee shops that cater to tourists.
If you’re only in France for a short time, do yourself a favor and order a café gourmand. Not only will you get a cup of coffee, but you’ll get a plate of tasty little desserts to go with it!
You Won’t Find These in France
Do you know what you won’t find abroad?
Sugary-sweet Starbucks-style coffee drinks topped with pumpkin spice or thick vanilla creamer.
You won't find sugar bowls or dispensers full of Splenda, Sweet ‘n Low, or Sugar in the Raw. You're much more likely to get a sugar cube or two if you ask for one. If you want a specific type of sugar, you'll need to ask for it. They may or may not have it behind the counter.
The French tend to drink their coffee strong and hot, so if you’re an iced coffee fan, you may be disappointed.
Don’t expect to find any iced tea either. You’ll find plenty of herbal tea options, but you won’t find it iced, and you won’t find anyone drinking it with milk or sugar. Like their coffee, French tea is hot, straight, and usually not sweet.
And if you have dietary restrictions or dairy allergies, consider yourself warned. Almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, and skim milk are harder to come by in Europe. For the most part, if you order a drink with milk, it will be straight up regular whole milk.
One thing you will find in France (and you’ll find a lot of really delicious options) is hot chocolate. No, it’s not coffee, but when you’re in the mood for something velvety, rich, and sweet, it’s a perfect alternative.
Do you know why it’s called a French roast? Learn here: French, Italian, and Vienna Roast Levels Explained.
Save Money by Ordering at the Bar
Many cafés offer the option to order coffee at the bar or sit at a table and have it served. You’ll pay close to double the amount if you sit and sip your coffee at a table rather than enjoy it standing around the bar.
But the best way to enjoy a cup of coffee is to sit outdoors on the sidewalk or terrace. It's the perfect way to people watch, and it's the authentic French way to enjoy a pick-me-up.
Just don’t do it during mealtimes. If you see that a table is set with silverware and napkins, that’s your sign that the café intends to seat people who intend to eat. If all you’re going to do is drink, you’re better off standing at the bar.
What Do the French Eat With Their Coffee?
While coffee and donuts may go hand-in-hand in America, croissants and tartines are the preferred pairings in this part of the world. At breakfast time, the French enjoy their brew with a freshly baked croissant, baguette, or tartine.
And like Americans with their donuts, the French like to dip these tasty bites right into their cup.
At other times throughout the day, you’ll see many Frenchmen enjoying their espressos with a tray of petits fours or small pastry bites. Remember to treat yourself to a café gourmand, for those tasty side nibbles we mentioned earlier.
It is also common to order a cup of coffee after dinner. It usually accompanies a cheese course before eating dessert.
The French also love their cigarettes, so expect to see plenty of clouds of smoke! People don't smoke indoors, but if you sit and sip your coffee outside on a terrace, there's a good chance smokers will occupy the table next to you.
You may also be interested in: Is Coffee a Vegetable?
How to Enjoy a Cup of Coffee Like the French Do
Regardless of what you think of the taste, it’s the coffee culture that the French have mastered in a truly unique and special way.
In Europe, coffee is for sipping and savoring. You won't see Parisians pounding carry-out cups as they walk to work; their custom is to sit, sip it, and enjoy the experience.
Maybe you’re planning to visit France. Perhaps you’re looking for an easy way to bring a bit of Parisian je ne sais quoi into your home or apartment. Either way, there’s a right way and a wrong way to enjoy French coffee.
The wrong way is to drown it in sweetener and slurp it down while you’re in a rush on your way to work. The right way is to sit with a friend and enjoy it. Watch the sights, the people going by, and share in some meaningful conversation. This is how the French do it — and they do it well.
So pour yourself a cup of your favorite roast (French or not) and brew your coffee the way you like. You can enjoy the experience of Café culture from the comfort of home by merely drinking it on your porch, balcony, or patio, and watching the world pass.
Need beans? Shop our selection of delicious Fair Trade Organic Coffees.
Café culture is alive and well in France, and it has been for centuries. Just forget about the French roast and the French press — they play little to no role at all.
What does play a role is attitude.
Whether you prefer a café express or a café crème, if you want to drink coffee like the French, you need to set aside some time to enjoy it. Just remember this: when you’re sitting in a Parisian coffee shop, it’s never about the brew, how it’s made, or what it tastes like. It’s about the experience.
So channel your inner Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald, or Proust. The great writers and artists of the 20th century certainly knew how to enjoy the French coffee culture — and now you do too!
If you’re ever in the Sonoma County area, stop by the Taylor Lane shop for your own unique organic coffee experience!