Pope Clement VIII is said to have declared some time in the late 14th century: “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall cheat Satan by baptising it.”
It wasn’t alcohol he wanted to reclaim from the fiery pit but coffee, and, according to legend, he was true to his word. He gave coffee his blessing and thus removed a major obstacle to its proliferation from the Arab world to Western Europe.
More than 500 years later, coffee still provokes an almost religious fervour. “We’re like evangelists, promoting the good word of quality coffee,” says Nick Tolley, owner of gourmet coffee chain Harris+Hoole.
But despite its “missionary zeal,” Harris+Hoole last year found itself at the centre of a very middle class outcry when it turned out it was part-owned by Tesco. It didn’t matter that founders Nick, Andrew and Laura Tolley, three Australian siblings, had been part of the artisan coffee scene since launching the Taylor Street coffee business in 2006: to many Harris+Hoole had, somehow, become less authentic.
In fairness, Harris+Hoole had gone out of its way to stress its indie credentials. A mission statement on its brand design agency’s website reads: “What’s inside the cup is only half the story, what’s outside the cup is just as important. We are not a commoditised chain, we are a group of independents, of individuals with our own local passions and interests.”
Indie clearly sells. Where you get your caffeine fix has become just as important as how it tastes. Midway through the noughties, hipsters from New York to Melbourne adopted the indie coffeehouse as their church, secretly hoping someone would spot them sipping a flat white while they tapped away on their MacBook, working on their latest screenplay. A decent espresso isn’t just a tasty pick-me-up – it’s a status symbol. The hipster coffee-joint became such a cliché that parody videos soon spread across the internet.
It’s not just hipsters who subscribe to this “theatre of coffee” – a well-placed cup of the black stuff can be a kind of office shorthand. Swagger into work 15 minutes late, clutching a takeaway coffee and it says: “Phew, I had a late one last night but one cup of this and I’ll be back on my game.” At least that’s what you hope it says. Of course, the more we come to rely on it – socially and physiologically – the harder it becomes to escape from coffee culture.
We’ve become a nation of caffeine junkies, feeding our acceptable addiction in public and with pride. And, as a result, the industry has gone into overdrive. While the high street is in the doldrums, coffee shops – both global and independent – are thriving. The coffee trade, unlike so many others, seems to be recession proof.
“I thought we’d see a dip in sales because of the recession but the opposite has been true,” says Eadaoin O’Brien, head of restaurants and hospitality at Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge.
“We are developing a real gourmet coffee culture. People associate their coffee with something – your morning fix or an after-lunch pick-me-up. It’s a ritual, part of your day.”
More than a third of UK coffee shops are independently owned. Many of them, particularly in London, class themselves as gourmet vendors, a trend inspired by – of all people – the Australians. “It all started with the first Flat White opening in Soho in 2005,” explains Baptiste Kreyder, head barista at the newly opened Caravan coffeehouse in Kings Cross.
“Somehow a coffee bar run by some Australians paved the way for a whole new generation of cafés, where the focus is on the quality of the coffee. In Melbourne there is a massive coffee culture. In the space of a few years the speciality coffee market went from niche to mass market. Most people under 40 – especially students – spend a lot of money on coffee, even if they are broke. London is going through this now – what we call the ‘third wave’.”
The “first wave” is the loose term for the coffee shops that opened from the 19th century, largely selling Italian-influenced coffee to immigrant communities. The second wave came far later, with the advent of Starbucks and the other big coffee chains. This brought the idea of “coffee culture” to the UK in 1997 – it's hard to imagine that only 16 years ago there were no Starbucks on this side of the Pond.
“The third wave is about really focusing on the origins and, of course, the quality of the coffee,” says Kreyder. “Sourcing it, roasting it and making a perfect cup. Today London has one of the best coffee scenes in the world: very vibrant, very dynamic.”
Nick Tolley agrees: “We have seen a trend towards good coffee for a while but recently it has become a gallop. People are prepared to walk a bit further for it – they have realised that life is too short for bad coffee.”
Almost all of the “gourmet” coffee we drink is Arabica, which is typically grown at altitude. Its less cultured relative is Robusta, which is grown at low altitude and tends to be loaded with caffeine but lacking in subtlety (caffeine is a defence mechanism against insects, who get a nasty shock when they try to eat the coffee cherries; those found in lower, wetter conditions have more insects to contend with).
Antony Wild, author of Coffee: A Dark History, describes Robusta as a “pestilential presence” in the coffee world: “Arabica’s crude, boorish, sour, uncivilized, black-hearted cousin… No coffee-taster worth his or her salt would seek to maintain that a Robusta coffee was better in flavour terms than all but the worst-produced Arabica.”
Robusta is generally used to make instant coffee and to give espresso blends an extra kick. It's safe to say the coffee sold at Caravan is Arabica. I can imagine Kreyder screaming: “I’m not drinking any f*****g Robusta,” in the style of Miles Raymond’s famous rant about Merlot in the movie Sideways.
“Thinking about coffee the way we think about wine is very much associated with the third wave,” he says. “It has a similar vocabulary – it’s all about the tasting notes.”
To show just how similar the process is to wine tasting, Kreyder sets up a blind test. Like wine tasting, when you’re swigging coffee you should take a sharp intake of breath to aerate it. Kreyder also spits out the coffee after each sip (“it sometimes takes seven espressos to get it perfect in the morning – can you imagine drinking all that?”).
“Not many people can taste coffee and know where it comes from – it’s a very tricky exercise. I can’t always tell. What we are interested in is the tale of what is in the cup: its origin, the way it was processed. We work with micro-lots sometimes, where so little is produced that we talk about the specific side of the mountain it was grown on and the time of the crop.”
To really understand the differences in taste, it helps to know a little about how coffee is grown and processed. All coffee cherries are grown between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. When they are ripe, they are usually reddish and bitter to taste. There are two methods to get the coffee beans from inside the fruit: drying or washing.
Drying means leaving the cherries in the sun, which bakes and cracks them, allowing the beans to be extracted. The process takes around four weeks and is difficult to get right – leave them too long and they will be brittle, not long enough and they will retain too much moisture and end up rotting. The second way is washing, which involves submerging the cherries and either machine-scrubbing the fruit off or fermenting them until the skin falls off (a far more reliable method).
The coffees I tasted were from the same part of Ethiopia, but one had been dried and the other washed. Kreyder prepared them using a paper filter over a glass jar, using electronic scales to get the ratio of coffee to water exactly right (33g of coffee, 530ml of water). The process should take around 12 minutes, including cooling, as the flavours are more discernible at lower temperatures.
The difference between the cups was stark – one was light and floral (the washed beans), the other vivid, with notes of dark berries and apricots, because the drying process bakes in more flavour. Neither of them had the heavy kick I usually associate with filter coffee.
“You should always remember to follow the crops,” Kreyder advises. “Coffee should always be fresh, so you need to get it when it's in season. The latest crops we have in are from Bolivia and Tanzania. The freshness means there is more complexity, a bit like the tannin structure in wines, which adds to the depth of taste.”
As the demand for gourmet coffee has increased, farms have in turn improved their production techniques. “Importers have really upped their game. Twenty years ago, the best coffee was from Brazil, Columbia and a few places in Africa. Today we have great coffees from every Arabica-producing country around the world. In almost every production country there are a few estates that produce stellar coffee.
“One country that's really coming through at the moment is Burundi – its latest crop has had some really amazing coffees. Rwanda has had a really positive recovery through coffee following its civil wars. We’re really proud to be working with them and the results are incredible.”
The explosion in coffee production during the last decade led to the myth, which persists today, that coffee is the second most legally traded commodity in the world, behind crude oil. The reality is less spectacular: the coffee industry, worth around $20bn, doesn’t even make the top ten (to put it in perspective, the oil industry is worth more than $1 trillion). However, we still consume 2.2bn cups of coffee every day. The size of the UK coffee industry has doubled in the last six years and is 10 times bigger than it was 15 years ago.
Even Starbucks’ well documented tax issues – it paid just £8.6m in corporation tax over 14 years, eventually agreeing to pay £20m over the next two years – don’t seem to have dented it: its UK stores reported their busiest holiday season ever. It plans to open 1,300 new outlets worldwide this year, while Costa owner Whitbread has 330 new stores in the pipeline, as well as 1,300 Costa Express self-service coffee bars.
Instant coffee still makes up – purists look away now – 74 per cent of all coffee imported into the UK, but that number has fallen from 84 per cent 15 years ago (which, given the sheer, unadulterated awfulness of instant coffee, is at least a step in the right direction). Supermarket sales of roast and ground coffee rose last year by more than 13 per cent.
All predictions for the industry are for sustained growth. It’s safe to say coffee is not going out of fashion. And the third wave retailers are at the forefront of this. Caravan doesn’t only sell coffee, it also sells the equipment to make your own. Moreover, artisan coffee sellers are usually happy to recommend their rivals, the theory being the more people drink high quality coffee, the harder it will be to go back to the stuff sold in the big chains or, worse, cups of instant. As Tolley puts it: “A high tide floats all ships”.
And it works – the thought of resorting to a watery Starbucks’ Americano fills me with a nameless dread. I’m a convert to the third wave of coffee – vive la gourmet revolution. Not that it needs my help.
The best beans: four to drink at home
Hope AA, Caravan
Caravan describes this coffee from the south west region of Mbeya, Tanzania, as: “Fresh with a delicate, glassy body. Heightened sweet red fruits, tangerine and a sparkly, grapefruit acidity.” Buy it from its outlets in King’s Cross or Exmouth Market. caravanexmouth.co.uk. £8.50 for 350g.
David Lynch Signature Coffee
Filmmaker David Lynch is famous for his love of “damn fine coffee”. Now you can drink his very own, sourced from high in the Sierra Madres of Oaxaca in Mexico. It has a creamy cocoa and hazelnut flavour and a rich aroma. Log on to davidlynchcoffee.co.uk to grab a bag. £21 for 350g.
Panama Esmerelda, Nude Espresso
Panama Esmerelda Boquete Geisha is described as “one of the best coffees in the world”. It has floral aromas and notes of citrus and honey. Buy from Nude’s cafes in Brick lane or Soho or log on to nudeespresso.com. £20 for £250g.
Vunga, Square Mile Coffee Roasters
This award-winning coffee from Rwanda has flavours of sweet peach syrup, prunes, a lime acidity, a hint of vanilla and jasmine in the finish. Visit squaremilecoffee.com for more information. £15 for 350g. Square Mile Coffee Roasters and Caravan also offer wholesale quantities.
Kopi Luwak: the world’s rarest – and cruellest – coffee?
Also known as Palm Civet coffee, this is often called the world’s most expensive brew. It is made using beans that have been digested by the palm civet, a weasel-like creature said to select only the finest, ripest cherries. Unable to digest the seeds, it excretes them, partially fermenting them in the process and, according to the marketing spin, infusing it with a unique flavour. It sells for around £25 for 57g – enough for two small pots – from retailers including Harvey Nichols.
The beans are yellowy brown with a dull, musky odour – a sharp contrast to the intense tangy smell usually associated with roast coffee beans. When ground and prepared, it has a mellow aroma and a dark brown hue. The taste is what you might charitably call subtle, with virtually no aftertaste – “like really good instant coffee” is how a colleague described it.
Most experts, though, say it is more of a novelty than genuinely good coffee, and there is controversy over the authenticity of the product – large amounts are said to be fake – not to mention the treatment of the civets, some of which are caged and force-fed the cherries.
Another contender for the “world’s most expensive coffee” title is a variety of bean plucked from elephant dung in Thailand. Not being natural coffee eaters, the elephants are tricked into eating the cherries when it is mixed with fruit and rice. The idea is that the elephant’s stomach infuses the beans with the earthy, fruity flavours of its gut.