Hippolyte Courty, a medieval historian at the Sorbonne-turned-CEO of Paris coffee shop/atelier L’Arbre à Café, says he never understood why coffee is beloved by so many people. “I found it bitter and disgusting, until one day I accepted a cup of Guatemala Pulcal. I realised that coffee could have flavour, but it was generally treated as a convenience, a consumer product.”
In 2008, following his epiphany, he decided to create L’Arbre à Café to explore coffees from Ethiopia to Hawaii and started travelling the world to find different growers. Courty buys only hand-picked single-origin varieties, as opposed to the blends offered by most brands; and when he’s in France he spends time studying the degrees of drying, fermentation, roasting, milling and extraction techniques – all of which he does in his 14th-arrondissement workshop at 142 Rue du Maine. Today he sells the aromatic coffees in his postage-stamp-size shop on Rue du Nil, near Les Halles, which has recently been restyled by his friend, designer Sylvie Amar.
I was tipped off about L’Arbre à Café by chef Gregory Marchand, who has a bistro on Rue du Nil, and I now count myself as one of Courty’s loyal aficionados, crossing Paris frequently to buy, and taste, his cafés uniques. Peddabaylu (€15.50 for 250g), one of his cafés grands crus with notes of cacao and red fruits, is a particular favourite, the beans coming from Araku, a valley in India’s Eastern Ghats. And on my latest visit to his intimate gold-and-brown plant-filled space I tasted Bourbon Pointu from Réunion, which Hippolyte says is his “desert island coffee”; not at all bitter, with a very pleasant aftertaste.
A high proportion of L’Arbre à Café’s coffee, which is also available to buy online, comes from biodynamic agriculture, including Djebena Nekisse (€14 for 250g) from Ethiopia, a bean with caramel, flower and yellow-fruit notes. The rich, thick Brazilian beans of Le Jacu Bird (€39 for 125g), meanwhile, are something of an acquired taste.
Courty has created blends for pâtissier Pierre Hermé and collaborated on flavour pairings with chefs such as Alain Ducasse. For triple-Michelin-starred Anne-Sophie Pic, Courty has helped create dishes such as venison pithivier paired with a cold infusion of East Timor Lacu-ten, a rare coffee predigested by possums. The result has surprising mastery and finesse.
Courty’s gastronomic explorations are far from over – he’s currently using silver skin, the last membrane peeled off during the coffee-roasting process, and he recently launched the ultimate oval, aromatically correct espresso cup (€31). “I’ve hardly scratched the surface of this magical ingredient, which still hides myriad unknown tastes,” he smiles. “And, by the way, I use Volvic or Montcalm mineral water; it makes all the difference to the taste.”