Remember the late 1990s? It was a time when many of us – when not putting on long-sleeved T-shirts and going out to superclubs (and, no, that’s not a mistype of “supper clubs”) – would sit around fretting about the effects of something called “globalisation”. One of globalisation’s most feared agents was Starbucks, a corporate coffee chain destined to drive out our neighbourhood cafés and replace them with mere neighbourhood-style cafés.
In the end, things turned out very differently. Independent or, as they’re properly known, “specialist” coffee shops have been on the ascent for the better part of a decade, and London is now recognised by the world’s most hardline coffee fanatics as a place they could conceivably spend some time in. The Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane will host the third London Coffee Festival (April 25-28), a popular event that explores the (oft-overlooked) borderland between coffee industry trade exhibition, food-and-drink fair and music festival. London-based roasters such as Square Mile and Monmouth have gained a kind of superstar status, name-dropped in menus by restaurants who wish to say “we care about coffee” and, by implication, “we care about everything”.
The key figure in all this is the barista. Ten years ago, making coffee was seen, at least in this country, as relatively unskilled work. Now, in places such as Kaffeine in Fitzrovia or Milk Bar in Soho it belongs to the same highly specialised category as the sommelier or the cocktail mixer. If you apply for a barista job at any specialist coffee shop, you will need to have several years of training to ensure you know how to get the best from your painstakingly sourced beans. Grind size, water purity, milk temperature, brew time: get these and many other factors wrong, as so many unknowingly do, and you’ll end up with that burnt-toast flavour we often put up with when we drink bad coffee. An adept barista will create a cup so delicious it distracts you completely from your business meeting or book.
This year’s World Barista Championship will be held in Melbourne at the end of May. Competitors will attempt to make the finest espresso, cappuccino and “signature drink” (involving alternative flavours like citrus). It is testimony to how far the UK has progressed in the international coffee pantheon that it has sported two winners of the competition in the past 10 years. The most recent, Gwilym Davies, has since opened his own café, Prufrock in Clerkenwell, which, replete with glass tubes and minimalist furniture, resembles a wonderful 1990s arthouse-cinema vision of what the future was going to look like.
But still, many ask, isn’t a cup of coffee just, well, a cup of coffee? What sets this so-called “specialist” coffee apart? I talked to the new-breed baristas to get some answers.
Seb Emina is author of ‘The Breakfast Bible’, published by Bloomsbury
Baptiste Kreyder, Caravan King’s Cross
From: Brittany, France
You can make a bad coffee from a good bean but you can’t make a good coffee from a bad bean, and there are a huge number of steps before the barista even enters the picture.
There is the terroir, which is where the coffee is grown, right down to what part of the mountain it was on and whether it was shaded or in the sun. There are the people who pick the coffee cherries and how those cherries are processed: a decent product can be ruined if the pip isn’t removed in the right way. There’s the storage and the way it’s shipped to Europe. Have they used the kind of sacks that will protect the beans? And, of course, there’s the roasting.
It all means that good coffee is scarce, and it’s why the prices that we pay for it are tremendously expensive compared with regular café coffee. Even then all that would amount to nothing if, say, I left my machine for too long without cleaning it or heated the milk in a flat white too much or too little. Coffee is really unforgiving in that way. After all those layers it’s my job to treat it properly.
Granary Building, 1 Granary Square (Off Goods Way), London N1C 4AA. www.caravankingscross.co.uk
Celeste Wong, Lantana
From: Dunedin, New Zealand
I drink coffee every day. I think you have to when you’ve been doing it for such a long time. I love making it, I love tasting it and I love being around it.
When I make coffee, I want to make sure it’s consistent. Every morning I set the weight, test the grind, extract the coffee and see if what all these factors give me is the same as what I want. Then I’ll keep the methodology consistent and I’ll keep checking in. I believe it’s possible to pinpoint when other variables come into play, so if the temperature of the room affects the grind, then I’ll know more or less what I need to do to get it back to where it needs to be.
Sometimes I’ll notice that the colour or flow rate has changed, and correct it. It becomes instinctive.
A flat white should be between 65C and 67C. Not lukewarm, but you should be able to drink it quickly. As you heat the milk, it gets sweeter, so the more you heat it the more you’re going to taste the milk and not the coffee. Sometimes I do wonder whether serving them too cool is a trendy thing. You go too hot or too cold and you don’t get the best out of the coffee.
13 Charlotte Place, London W1T 1SN. www.lantanacafe.co.uk
Ross Brown, Brown’s of Brockley
From: Kent, UK
I was really into music and zines when I was younger. My girlfriend and I went to a zine symposium in Portland, Oregon, and while we were there we went to a speciality coffee place called Stumptown.
I think I was probably interested in the idea of coffee but I lived in the Home Counties where there was nothing but Starbucks or Caffè Nero. I sat at the bar and had an espresso and it was a bit like the legendary “God shot”, a cup that tastes like nothing else. That got me interested in coffee.
I used to be really into the culture that surrounds it but now I’m just focused on making good coffee and don’t involve myself in the other aspects so much.
Getting people to understand that it’s not “just coffee” is hard. Do you need to know why it tastes good? Often I just want a cup of coffee.
I don’t want to be lectured. I don’t want to know about this non-homogenised milk that comes from a farm owned by one family. You have to strike a balance.
5 Coulgate Street, London SE4 2RW. www.brownsofbrockley.com
Victor Frankowski, Protein by DunneFrankowski
From: Sydney, Australia
I don’t think coffee is an art or a science. It’s a craft. There are scientific principles, but being a barista is more like being a chef, a baker or a sommelier in that it’s about understanding a product and working with it.
I think it’s hilarious how flat whites have caught on in London. But apart from that, the city does have its own really unique coffee scene. It might have received a boost from Antipodeans but it has now developed its own identity and has done so within a very short space of time and the UK has had two champions in the World Barista Championships. The world’s coffee eyes are on London because what has happened here can happen elsewhere.
It’s not just about making coffee. There is the culture as well, and the history. I enjoy working behind the machine but there are other avenues that I want to pursue. I’m trying to link it to my other passions, like photography, and the other things coffee is associated with, from art and design to breakfast.
18 Hewett Street, EC2A 3NN. http://df.studio-subsist.com
James Bailey, Prufrock/Workshop Coffee
From: Leicestershire, UK
In filter coffee 98.5 per cent of the drink is the water. It’s super important. Coffee contains things such as caramelised sugars, fruit acid, vegetable oil and fattiness and you want them all to be showcased in your drink.
But London tap water, for example, is a little alkaline, so it just knocks a lot of them out. Using it is a bit like spending a lot of time EQing a piece of music and then listening to it on your car stereo.
I’ve done tests using Evian and distilled water, blending the two to get varying hardness levels and then trying the same coffee with the different waters. I laid out playing cards in which the value – 10, say, or jack – represented the coffee, and the suits represented the water.
The question was is there more of a theme in the suits or the numbers? Is the water doing most of the work or the coffee? When you used very different waters, the water was more of a factor in how the coffee tasted than the coffee itself. It was a blinding result.