One thing about the UK in the past twenty years or so is the coffee revolution that has struck with no sign of letting up. We have had chains rise, a Starbucks on every corner and more recently, there has been an upsurge in artisan cafes and specialist coffee roasters.
This has been a very personal journey though, I’m still on it. I am no expert but have picked up some knowledge over my time, which also led me to buy and run a cafe, selling specialist coffee. What I want to do now is share some of that knowledge with you, hopefully it can help you to discover your own way to better coffee.
One admission up front – I used to be a big fan of the chains, you know Costa & Nero, but never Starbucks. It was easy, the marketing told us what to expect and delivered it to a town near you, with wifi. It is so easy to go in there, to stand at the counter, ask for your drink, maybe have the ritual of having your name misspelled on a cup but what is the experience really like? Purely mass consumerism and not much else, in my opinion.
They have their place, of that there is no question but to me, coffee is so much more. For someone who wants to expand and truly understand what coffee can be, the big chains are not the breeding grounds but an end to themselves by their very nature. They want to keep you in by brand recognition in order that you will pass the independent / small chain of specialists who could give you so much more, so much passion for the product, in order that you could get a stamp on the card for a free coffee sometime.
What makes a good coffee? First, there is the coffee itself. Grown in equatorial areas, beans come in two main species – Robusta and Arabica, which have a number of different varieties and quality levels. They are grown in many countries which have different climates and soil types, all adding to the flavour characteristics. Each year, all these factors add together to have an impact in yield and flavours of the crops.
You can see now that the job of getting a good blend together into a cup can be very tricky and that is the skill of the roaster in sourcing from the right places then putting them together in a blend to end up in our cups.
I won’t go into the detail on roasting here, as it can be technical and as I say, I’m learning more about it daily, so I may come back to it at a later time. The techniques vary on equipment and one roaster I worked with was UE Coffee Roasters and at the time of writing, they are the only specialist wood fired roasters in the UK. Their product is different to others due to how they roast and when sampled, you can tell the that real passion has gone into their blend.
Now for the big difference – the barista. I walked into a place in the Highlands with my family, my wife asking for a latte and I had a flat white. They were exactly the same in shots and execution, what should be two vastly different drinks were brought to the same level as the Lionel Blair cut, if you remember the advert. That experience sticks in my mind and we don’t go there anymore on our trips north.
Now to what it should look like and what you should expect from a decent cafe. The barista should purge the heads, the baskets, wipe the steam wand before and after each use as this helps get the best flavour into each cup, not having old coffee waiting. If they don’t do this, I won’t say walk out but don’t expect a lot, even before you get the coffee.
The milk is where the difference is really made. It should be quiet, heat measured by hand and watched intently by the barista, without the sound of a 747 taking off in the cafe. It should be under boiling temp,which gives the milk a sweet spot and the correct texture for each drink, then poured with skill, maybe to give good art but certainly a beautifully finished product.
That is artisan, which basically means skilled execution and creation of a coffee. It is worth finding these places and talking to the staff about the coffee. You’ll get to know if they have the passion and the knowledge, which should transfer to your cup. If they roast the coffee too, then that’s a massive advantage to know just what they do and if they buy in, where from? An artisan will be keen to tell you of the special qualities that go into his blend and the passion will be on show for you to see.
They can be found anywhere, as can be seen in the Sunday Times top 25 coffee shops, which show exceptional places to try to find the great coffee, the perfect cup for you. In there is Coffeesmith , a cafe in Witney who has been really successful as Rob puts his heart and soul in his blend, getting the best experience he can in a cup. A truly great recognition for a small rural business and demonstrates how you can find great coffee in the most unlikely of places, you just have to look.
I’m on a journey and it’s exciting to see where this will take me next. Is it time to start yours?