COFFEE: What’s going on in London?

John Harris – food, knowledge, experience
A continuing blog on food, drink and London’s foodie trends

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Photo Credit Nick Dawe

Coffee is currently in its Third and most experimental wave in the London coffee scene. Is this a good or bad thing? To answer the question, you’ve got to look back to what went before. But seriously, as John Harris writes, your daily cup of java was never so interesting

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In a synopsis of the relatively recent love affair with the black gold, our coffee, which so many of us have grown to love – where did this habit begin? Well it all started back in the 50’s. Obviously this wasn’t our first brush with it, for that you need to go back as far as the 17th century when we had 2000 coffee shops in London, 100 years before Continental Europe stopped drinking beer porridge as their main beverage of the day (which did mean most of them were half cut by lunch time)!

A brief surge happened with the 1950’s-60’s coffee bars. Italians came over to show us how real coffee was made, aimed at the younger market who are always looking for the next Zeitgeist to make them different from their parents. Most of the bars have disappeared over the years apart from a few, the most famous being Bar Italia on Frith Street in Soho. Up until a few years ago the coffee was let’s say a little harsh, proudly blended by the bar itself to give it its own unique character and style. The main claim to fame for the bar, apart from the coffee, was that it was the home to the Soho Italian community that were running the new cool Italian restaurants in the area. If you were a waiter in one of these establishments and had a couple of hours between shifts, there was always time to drop in for a coffee and a catch up on the local gossip. It was the first place in the UK to get satellite TV (for the Italian football). Being open 24 hours a day, if you came out of a club or music venue at 2am needing a pick-me-up, the bar came into its own. Just one espresso could keep you going for hours. It could taste a bit like burnt tyres, but it felt as if someone had stuck a syringe of pure caffeine straight into a major artery. These days Red Bull is drunk for a similar affect.

How times have changed! If you go to Bar Italia now you will get a perfectly good cup of coffee, which I know should be considered an improvement, but I kind of miss the days when you just got a straight cup of supercharged rocket fuel.

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Iced coffee granita, Sicily

After this first flush of a burgeoning coffee scene, in the late 60’s and early 70’s it went into a bit of a nose dive. Once the mods and rockers disappeared, the interest in the bars they hung out in went too.

The First Wave

Coffee’s popularity was being spread by the ease of use given by the new freeze dried instant coffee. This was a bit like if NASA had come up with a new way of drinking coffee on the moon; it was very tomorrow’s world, and so very seductive. This is seen now as the First Wave of coffee biting into the UK comfort zone of tea drinking in and out of the home. There was a quick shift into using those little plastic pre-dosed pour over cups from people like Romberts. The height of sophistication in the mid 70’s was sipping very weak coffee of dubious quality, through a big cold puddle of pretty indifferent cream. A bit like an Irish coffee without the Jameson’s, consumed in places with names like The Norwegian Wood whilst listening to The Carpenters and trying to look cool in flares and round collar shirts – whoops! I’m showing my age.

The history of coffee as a drink of course goes much further back, thousands of years, to modern Ethiopia. In fact the first liquid coffee drunk was made from dried then subsequently roasted leaves of the coffee plant, which would then be crumbled and a brew made with boiled water, something like tea. It’s still brewed like this in the countryside of Ethiopia although quite rare; it goes by the name Kati. Personally I’ve never tried it but the resulting amber coloured liquid is said to have an attractive flavour similar to Lapsong souchong tea, but a bit salty and sweet with a slightly gelatinous texture.

An interesting fact from around this time (give or take a few hundred years) is that Islamic alchemists from around 600 AD believed that the mixing of coffee and milk caused a form of leprosy. The remnant of this belief is why in many parts of the southern Europe there is still a disdain for drinking coffee with milk.

Back to the UK’s caffeine habit. The 80’s was very much about the cafeteria with the French style of coffee the most admired. Imagine the scene, a café on the Left Bank, a pot of coffee on the zinc bar, a small cognac and a lit Gitane, in the ashtray. You get the picture that was the image being bought into: Parisian sophistication.

The Second Wave

Then the 90’s struck, and in 1995 Scott and Ally Stevenson started what is know known as the Second Wave of coffee in the UK. The Seattle Coffee Company was born and it was ground breaking for London. It changed everything. The concept was based on what the couple had seen in their home town of Seattle, where in 1983 a small independent quirky company called Starbucks started out. The Seattle Coffee Company very quickly turned into a lifestyle brand. Customers didn’t just buy into the coffee and a better line in cakes, cookies and muffins; they bought just as much into the furniture, wall coverings and music being played – it was becoming a lifestyle brand. The image of buying your latté and breakfast muffin on the way into work was the height of cool. Seattle grew quickly setting a trend, initially, for the small coffee house chain but relatively quickly a nationwide chain. They were followed by Costa and Nero. One or two other hopefuls jumped in but a lot didn’t make it. The competition really hotted up when Starbucks turned up, buying out Seattle Coffee in 2002 to give the brand its first foothold in the old country.

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In 1994 Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver opened St John Smithfield, where people struggled to understand dishes like Bone Marrow and Parsley salad; Boiled Egg, Sea Salt and a Bunch of Carrots. They also became the first commercial customer for Illy Café in London. The coolest iconic Italian brand had arrived in the UK market with its amazing cool Ferrari designed tin, which sits onto the coffee grinder rather than the anonymous looking plastic hopper containing any old beans .There were Illy espresso cups with artwork commissioned by Illy to go on them in limited edition sets. Rumour had it that there were artists queuing up, waiting to get their work onto the cups.

With an eye watering price tag Illy was the Fendi bag of coffee; so cool it was scary. Legends of how it was produced spread far and wide. Dr, Ernesto Illy, the man truly behind getting the coffee at the level its at today, used his background as an industrial chemist combined with a passion to produce the best espresso coffee possible. Sadly no longer with us, he was once asked by a journalist around the time when everyone was buying into adding flavour syrups to their coffee, something I have never been able to understand. Did he not feel Illy had been caught on the back foot not buying into this new trend? Wasn’t this showing how Illy’s once great brand was getting left behind? After a few moments thought he replied, simply, “You only need to use a deodorant if you suffer from BO, AND Illy coffee doesn’t have that problem.” Illy’s attitude to price kind of reflected buying a Rolls Royce; if you had to ask how much, you probably couldn’t afford it!

It was around this time I became aware of Illy and quickly succumbed to its overpowering charm. It was soon after this initial love affair with the brand that I realised great coffee beans on there own don’t make a great cup of coffee. Yes they are very important, as a good machine is important, but the key element is the skill of the barista and their attention to detail. These coffee machines are not automatic givers of black gold, they are more like a British Motor bike: treat them with great care, love and attention and they will make you a phenomenal, perfect espresso with the perfect crema to then build your preferred coffee drink, whether a cappuccino, latté whatever you want, but without the perfect building block espresso, all is for nought. Treat them rough, don’t back flush them as many times as they need (varies depending on how much coffee your making per hour), don’t give them the constant attention they demand and they are just a hissing, burning pain in the behind supplying you with awful black yuck.

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As Marco from Illy says, ‘You will get a better cup of coffee from a well made poor quality coffee, than from a badly made high quality one’.

So when I started my business Illy was the only brand of coffee I would consider. Made well, it would provide you with that perfect round flavoured coffee that I intended to love for the rest of my life; all the style that came with the brand just made it even more attractive and let’s face it, just dead sexy.

The third wave

Then around 2008 something new started which got called the third wave of coffee. One of the first places to be referred to under this tag was Flat White in Berwick Street in Soho. This style of independent coffee shop tended to be run by Antipodeans. Their approach is to look at the whole chain of producing the cup of coffee from production methods, right through to the roasting, the latter done by small independents with roasters that could fit on the average kitchen table. That focus is on making everything the best it can be. It’s very much the Artisan approach with as much effort going into the making the end product as any high quality wine.

When you arrive in one of these places you can spot the signs that you’ve stepped into the high church of coffee. The sheer intensity of the approach in simply making a great coffee is startlingly impressive. The white heat of someone trying to do something as well as humanly possible, the look on their faces roughly how I imagine a scientist working on The Large Hadron Collider would look on the end game of discovering the Higgs Boson (still don’t really know what that means but it sounds good). It may not be the forefront of particle physics but your morning latté never had so much pent up effort put into its production.

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So what’s the negative side to this (you knew there was one)? Well it’s this: when you’re running late for a heavy meeting with your shares analyst or whatever you might get pent up about and all you want is a cup of well made coffee – for me that’s always a single espresso (doubles only exists in this country and the States, if you asked for one in Rome, they’d give a look similar to the one you’d get if you wondered into a greasy spoon and asked for a double tea). It’s a simple straightforward request really, “Sorry we don’t do single espressos we only do a double shot that we then run half the water so it looks like a single, but its actually a double Ristretto” – OK, however you achieve it I just want a coffee. In Italy, the place where they invented the pressurised brewing system that we all love the results of, it’s in the law you can only charge one euro for what we term as a single shot espresso they call un café. The Italians adore their coffee and the culture of the bar where they get it from, but it is just a coffee; well made, but still a coffee, not a Damien Hirst installation. Dare I say, it’s all a bit too serious. I do obsess about coffee and the making of it in my business, that’s my job. However, as a customer do I need to feel the burn of white heat that is going into making my morning beverage? I don’t think so, maybe you do? There just isn’t any fun to be had when it’s taken this seriously.

I know a few Italian’s, out of ear shot of our Antipodean friends who whisper, “The way they behave you’d think they invented it”. For years the Italians were the upholders of best coffee making, now I think they feel they may have had their crown stolen by a bunch of Aussies and Kiwis. It’s hurt their pride, although they may not admit it, they can recognise a really well made coffee when they see one.

In my experience, the best barista/café manger I’ve ever worked with was a mad Kiwi called Warren Joe who used to run a place called the Crazy Lounge back home. He rapidly became the coffee trainer within our business and it was like having Gordon Ramsay on the coffee machine. Many prospective baristas left in floods of tears after 15 minutes with him training on the machine; he was seriously scary but knew coffee and it flowed through him like blood. Warren is long gone now; as with so much talent he now runs his own worldwide barista supply company. I know you never knew such a thing existed.

My own very personal view of the coffee scene in London is that I still find it inspirational, especially all the new and different ideas that are showing up around town. If you want to see what I mean in one hit, go to Speakeasy of Carnaby Street. They have examples of practically every delivery system around, from siphons, single group espresso machines designed for home with a Flavio head considered one of the best by pros. Also one of the most bizarre things I have come across in a long time is the 24 hour cold brew delivery system. All I can say about it is you’ve just got to try it, cold of course, but it’s very different from anything else around. You will find all this kit downstairs from the main coffee shop and if you are interested, John the manager, a very knowledgeable charming Northern Irish guy, will talk you through it all and if you want to buy, it’s all for sale too. It’s well worth a look but be careful the single group machine has a very high price tag. It might be worth leaving your plastic at home just in case your carried away with all its gadget charm.

The Third Wave of coffee has a lot of positives but there is one thing I have noticed. Something initially I thought was just poorly handled beans, not being left long enough after roasting to mature and settle, giving a distinctive sour back note to the coffee. It’s particularly noticeable if like me you drink espresso. I then discovered that this was no accident, being influenced by the Scandinavians (I know all Swedes are innately cool, but I’m not sure about their coffee) to use lighter and lighter roasts, giving taste from the other end of the flavour palette. OK I do get it, there’s just one problem. It doesn’t taste very nice. Yes you can pick up different flavours; interesting fruity, vanilla etc, but to me it has a distinct unpleasant astringency that overrides anything else.

I had decided that it was probably just me. After so many years of drinking one style I just couldn’t adjust to this new modern flavour, as ever lighter roasts were being used.

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Nude Espresso, off Brick Lane

The other day I stopped at Nude Espresso off Brick Lane, considered to be at the forefront of the Third Wave. The only difference since the last time I’d been there was that they were now roasting their own beans. Being used to the Scandy style of coffee they all buy into I ordered a macchiato, something I very rarely do, as I couldn’t handle yet another cup of sour java, even if it’s the height of fashion. Once I got it, I realised this wasn’t what I was expecting. It tasted, well, very good. I needed to find out what was going on, because one look at the hopper above the grinder and you could tell that the beans were dark, not the expected lighter Ikea beige they all use. So in a quiet moment I asked the barista what was happening? He said they had gone down that line with ever lighter and lighter roasts, but one morning when they were all having a coffee, checking that everything was right before opening the doors, they realised that, yep, it was doing all the expected flavour trail, but…it didn’t actually taste right, so they changed back to a high roast. See it’s not just a grumpy old man thing! Yes I do feel vindicated but is it going to change them all? I don’t think so.

What I am trying to say is that I have had a personal love affair with coffee and all its accompanying paraphernalia stretching back decades. I still love the taste of Illy coffee but watching the new kids on the block going for something different, trying to improve on what’s gone in the past, you can’t help admiring their sheer dedication.

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