Brewing up a storm

LIKE so many people, I take my food and wine seriously. I won’t drink unnaturally pink California zinfandels and I turn my nose up at Jacob’s Creek. Wine-tasting courses and many meals in good restaurants have left their imprint. I care about quality – I’m a snob, and I’m not afraid to show it.

Why then is my appreciation of coffee limited to high street chains and my demands satisfied by a bitter Starbucks concoctions of milk and over-cooked coffee?

I’ve had flickers of coffee awakening before – who hasn’t basked in the wonderful aroma of an after-dinner espresso at a good restaurant? But nothing has ever stuck and the next day, there I am back in the Starbucks queue.

It wasn’t until I went to meet Rob Robinson and Fabio Ferreira, in charge of coffee at the wonderful Notes and Music coffee shop and music store next to the ENO, that my awakening finally took hold.

Robinson, who studied politics and economics at Oxford before setting up a coffee stand in St James’s Park and Ferreira, who was born into a coffee family in Brazil and ran a coffee shop in Sao Paulo, are on a mission. Thanks to their efforts, Notes and Music is one of a growing number of independent cafes that are taking their brews very seriously indeed. As seriously as the new breed of biodynamic wine bars are taking theirs. Or more. “There is a growing community of coffee nuts in London now. It’s happened with wine, and now coffee’s moment has arrived,” says Robinson. “It’s such a rich area – you can never stop learning about coffee.”

As you walk into Notes, light and airy but with a bohemian intensity (operas play on a TV screen between shelves of music), the first thing you see is the La Marzocco Strada coffee machine – hand-crafted in Florence. This machine is for espresso: nine bars of pressure are standard, but the Strada allows baristas to tweak the pressure at which the water is forced through the puck of coffee.

THE BEAUTY OF FILTER
But the big thing at Notes – and the focus of Ferreira and Robinson’s fervour – is the Brew Bar. The Brew Bar is all about filter coffee – which, according to aficionados, is where good coffee really shines (rather than espresso). “People started talking about filter coffee three years ago,” says Robinson. “But last year, Square Mile roastery opened up a pop-up filter coffee bar for three months and it was incredibly successful. There was no sugar or milk and cups of it cost between £2-£4. We thought, if they can do it, so can we.”

I’ve now had two carafes of filter coffee from the brew bar (it’s served, at around £5 a pop, in an elegant glass jug) and was startled by the shades of taste and smell both times. The technique brings out layers of acid, fruits, nuts, tobacco, chocolate – all the things one normally associates with wine.

Here’s how it works. The brew bar regularly rotates a menu of filter coffees. Each week, three different single-origin coffees are chosen from roasteries across the UK. Each coffee is matched with the brewing method deemed best for bringing out its flavour. Each morning, the barista tastes the three coffees so the grinder settings can be adjusted for the best flavours.

As the coffees age over the course of the week the optimum grind alters slightly, as dosage, water volume and pouring times are kept constant. The baristas use a refractometer, which works by forcing light through a sample of the brew to measure the total dissolved solids (TDS) of coffee in the water – simply put, how much coffee is suspended in the water. Then they use an iPad app to translate the reading from the refractometer into a measure of how well extracted the coffee is.

As for the brewing itself, the options are paper filter, cloth filter (allows the coffee oils to pass into the cup) or the centuries-old syphon process, which uses a vacuum to suck the coffee through at the right temperature.

I tried cloth and syphon and both resulted in the smoothest, fruitiest brew I’ve ever tried. Wine, move over. Coffee truly is the next connoisseur’s drink of choice.

Notes and Music, 31 St Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4ER. Tel: 020 7240 0424.