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Sharing Coffee at Coutume Café with France’s Champion Barista

For the final Paris specialty coffee feature, I sat down for coffee with Caroline, France’s Champion Barista and Wholesale Manager at Coutume Café, to discuss coffee as an opportunity for global human connection.

On my last day in Paris of the summer, my agenda was filled to the brim with last-minute non-negotiable work: Just one more run along the Seine, just one more macaron from Ladurée, just one more chocolate from Alain Ducasse, just one more Simone de Beauvoir book from the librairie, just one more yoga studio to try, just one more interview with a specialty coffee expert… Where could I possibly free up space to savor more of this sweet city? I wanted desperately to capture every moment and store it away in an easy-access spot to come back to during the harsh winter months in Boston.

On my long walk down to Coutume Café’s newest location in the 5ème arrondissement, the summer sun beamed on my skin enough to make me forget the weight of my last-minute book buys in my backpack – Beauvoir’s Belles images, Duras’ L’Amant de la Chine du Nord, Hemingway’s A sun also rises, a French-language wine tasting book, and a hefty locally-written coffeemakers’ guide titled Le café c’est pas sorcier (…okay, I may have gotten a bit carried away with books). I wondered when I’d next be able to live a day reading French lit in a dress instead of staying glued to my computer screen in yoga pants and snow boots.

When I arrived to Coutume Café, the sun followed me indoors, flooding through the wide windows and into the open café space. “Coutume Institut”, as the owners called this location, was built upon the rubble of a cinema whose doors closed in 1985. This space was later transformed into a Finish cultural institute. Light bathed the simplistic Scandinavian design, making the coffeeshop an ideal place for nearby university students to curl up with work and locals to comfortably mingle in conversation.

Caroline greeted me with a smile and offered me a coffee of my choice when I arrived. When I sat down with my beautifully-crafted flat white, it dawned on me that Caroline was the only woman I’d spoken with during my exploration of the Paris specialty coffee scene. And in her mid-20’s, she was incredibly young to be decorated by her many titles: Wholesale Manager and Head of Communication at Coutume Café, 2018 French Brewers Cup Champion, 2018 Paris Aeropress Champion, and competitor at this year’s barista world championships.

Like many of the coffee leaders in Paris, Caroline had her first taste of specialty coffee in Melbourne. Despite the reputation of Australia’s coffee scene, Caroline says it may not be worth quite all the hype. She explains, “Australia has this amazing coffee culture, but what I realized is that because everyone is doing coffee, drinking coffee, and making coffee, the quality of it is toned down a little bit. In Australia, it’s a student job. (Baristas) don’t do it as a real job… they think that latte art is all that matters.”

Once she moved to Paris, Caroline had to relearn many of the techniques she thought she had mastered as a barista in Melbourne. Yet she didn’t blindly follow all the training she received in Paris. In her progression up the ladder from “baby barista” in Coutume Café to French Champion Barista, she states that she has grown by challenging the status quo in coffee. She says, “In coffee, no one has the truth so everyone needs to make their own truth. Sometimes it’s really hard to be back with the guy who trained you and be like, ‘No, I don’t believe you.’ And it’s really hard because the guy has more experience and has proved he is better than you. So that’s why you need to actually learn your own truth out of your own experience, and after you gain your own confidence, that’s when you get better at being a barista.”

For Caroline, what’s more important than following the rules to make beautiful latte art is honoring the human connection that coffee offers. She states, “It’s not just about buying good coffee just to buy good coffee. You need to buy the coffee because it’s actually a human product.”

Caroline’s understanding of coffee’s human connection grew much deeper through her trips to origin locations, such as Brazil and Costa Rica. She explains, “(Visiting the origins) really gave me another dimension to what I’m doing here, realizing that the coffee chain of people working is massive, and all of the people in specialty coffee are passionate about what they are doing. From the grower to the roaster to the barista to the cup itself, it’s a massive challenge, and a lot of people really want to do the best with what they have to make coffee great again.”

For example, in Brazil, Caroline was touched by the passion of the growers despite the fact that they never had the privilege of drinking their final product. She explains, “I met people who were growing coffee, sending it back overseas, and then for them, it was just disappearing into the darkness. I remember one really young producers, I told her, ‘Your coffee’s gonna be served in one of the biggest palaces in Paris!’, and she’s like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing!’ Traveling with my coffee is emotional… because it’s a real exchange of knowledge that’s so important in what we’re doing.”

Additionally, in Costa Rica, Caroline had the opportunity to understand the experience of pickers by working alongside them during a harvest. She says, “I realized how tough this job is – so tough because they’re harvesting 6 months out of the year, 6 days a week from 6 in the morning till 6 at night. I was washing coffee, but I never actually picked the coffee because I saw that the guys who were picking the coffee were Panamanians, who were migrating during harvest to get paid in Costa Rica and go back to their families. You could see that they were being paid by the bucket, and as a European, you can’t be like, (in a high-pitched voice) ‘Oh, I really like to pick coffee!’ – when I was doing this for the first time, but those people are actually living on it. I don’t want to take their money because I don’t need it.”

Despite the poverty that she witnessed in Costa Rica, she affirms that coffee pickers in specialty coffee do get paid marginally better than those who pick for conventional coffee. Although the price difference may be insufficient to relieve the impoverishment experienced by these migrant workers, it is a first small step in the right direction.

Serving education to coffee drinkers on the experience of coffee growers and pickers may be the next step to making a positive change in their lives. Caroline bridges the gap between consumers in Paris and workers at origin through her experience. She recounts, “Once we had this coffee from Congo. My boss went to this island called Kivu, where he started working with ladies who were refugees from the war, and they were making a women’s community to sustain themselves because all the husbands were dead or had left, but they lived with 8 kids. We bought a lot from then, but the lots got old super quickly because they had some issues drying it. This (customer at Coutume Café) was like, ‘I didn’t really enjoy it this time, I tried it, but...’ And I was like, ‘I understand, but just think of it like an experiment. We are engaged with these women, and we really want to help them. and it will be better next year… and then she bought another packet.”

From the growers to the consumers, Caroline connects people who are passionate about the product through her work. By nourishing this global connection, we can share the human value of coffee.


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