A Definitive Guide to Coffee Culture in France

By Matt Gulizia – ISA Associate Director & Geographic Oversight Manager, France & the Netherlands

Before studying abroad in Paris, I wasn’t really a coffee drinker. I can already tend toward being a bit hyperactive and didn’t really want caffeine jitters keeping me awake at night! It didn’t take long, however, before the intoxicating aroma of freshly brewed espresso drew me into one of the cafés near my apartment. From that moment onward, I was completely hooked. Coffee is one of those indulgences that feels so comforting, decadent, and satisfying, especially when getting your bearings living in a new city. I started to learn that culture is made up of thousands of little elements of life in a particular area, and we can choose which elements we want to latch onto based on our own unique interests. For me, coffee culture in France became one element I felt a real call to uncover.

 

Firstly, it’s important to note that when visiting an authentic French café, you will not often find a menu anywhere in sight. For that reason, it’s great to have a baseline knowledge of the most common coffee drinks available:

  • Café/café noir/espresso/café express: the French word for coffee is “café”; however, if you order “un café” at a French coffee shop, you will be given a shot of espresso rather than the drip coffee we are used to here in the States. A shot of espresso is the most standard coffee beverage you will find in France.
  • Café filtré: the French do not really drink drip coffee (“café filtré”) in cafés, opting instead for the richer and deeper flavor of espresso. Café filtré may be found in some of the more touristy parts of larger cities or in French homes, but I would not recommend even attempting to order it while out in the city if you want to experience authentic French café culture!
  • Café allongé: this is an espresso diluted with hot water. It is much like an Americano and is the much more culturally acceptable European answer to drip coffee.
  • Noisette: the literal translation for “noisette” is “hazelnut”, which describes the color of this small espresso-based beverage. It consists of a shot of espresso with a dash of hot milk.
  • Café crème: this is espresso topped off with quite a bit of foamed milk. It is quite similar to a cappuccino, and I would recommend ordering it in place of its Italian counterpart while in France.
  • Café au lait: this drink is technically filtered coffee with milk and is often served in a large bowl. Café au lait is almost exclusively served in the comfort of one’s home with breakfast (the typical French breakfast being a tartine with jam and/or butter).

Now that you know the basic types of coffee beverages that can be ordered in France, let’s delve into some tips for ordering/consuming coffee like a local:

  • Drink your coffee “sur place” – you will never see a French person drinking a coffee from a paper cup while walking down the street. The French enjoy coffee in their homes, up to a bar at a local café, at work, etc. The only exceptions I have ever seen to this are at airports or train stations with small stands offering “café à emporter” (coffee to go) to hurried travelers.
  • Only drink milky coffee in the morning – most milky coffees are enjoyed at breakfast time in France, though you may occasionally see a local sipping a “café crème” as a mid-morning pick-me-up. The French never drink café lattés or crèmes after lunch. Instead, opt for an espresso (café) throughout the day.
  • Drink espresso sans food – the only time coffee tends to be consumed with a meal is during breakfast. Otherwise, espresso is often taken between meals or even after a meal/dessert as a digestif (digestive aid).
  • Additional useful vocabulary – do you want your café to be decaffeinated? Simply add the word “déca” or “décaféiné” to your order. Need more sugar? Ask for “plus de sucre, s’il vous plaît”.
  • Become a regular at a café-bar in your neighborhood – I offer this tip and more in the article “How to Uncover the ‘Real’ Paris”, so check it out!

I hope this helps as you explore French café culture for yourself, whether studying with ISA in Lille, Paris or elsewhere!

 

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