The Null Device

The state of coffee in Britain

BBC News Magazine has an article on the evolution of café culture in Britain.
But a good coffee can be a catalyst, says the three times UK National Barista Champion, Simon Robertson. "However busy you are, in the time it takes you to finish that coffee your normal world is put on hold and you go somewhere else in your head. It's about creating a moment, creating an experience."
We are in the "Blue Nun stage" of coffee drinking, says Mr Robertson. Just like wine a generation ago, people have started drinking coffee but don't know enough about it to judge if it's good or not.
While Britain hasn't had as pervasive a café culture as, say, Australia (probably due to the influx of migrants from Italy and Greece to the latter in the 1950s) or parts of the US, it is gradually catching up. Unfortunately, big corporate coffee chains have had the time to establish themselves in the minds of the public as the definition of what the café experience is (i.e., as a sort of McDonald's for people who read newspapers), and have gotten away with making execrable coffee and passing it off as something decent (case in point: Costa Coffee's "authentic Italian" coffee, which is vile). The notorious predatory behaviour by which chains have eliminated independent cafés elsewhere (opening three outlets to a block, running them at a loss until the rivals go out of business, close all but one) wasn't even necessary, because the bar for coffee, in most places, was set so low that Starbucks was actually an improvement.

Fortunately, there are signs that this is changing, and consumers are becoming more savvy and discriminating:

"I treat myself to one "special" coffee per week and was always disappointed with the big brand coffee shop that I used as they frequently messed up my order and lacked that personal touch. One week I decided to use the smaller place across the road and to my delight discovered that not only do they get my drink right 100% of the time but actually smile and chat to me while I'm there. Their prices are also substantially cheaper that the big names. Go back to the big brand coffee house? Not me."
Mr Robertson insists the coffee making experience is paramount. He recalls when an elderly customer stopped him to say the coffee he'd just drank was the best he'd had since his time in Italy.
"I asked him when he was last in Italy and he said during World War II. I realised the coffee I'd just made him - the smell, the taste, the experience - had transported him all the way back in his mind to wartime Italy.
The big chains have an advantage—deep pockets, allowing them to lease prime space—whereas the smaller cafés are often hidden away. Though web-based independent café directories like Delocator and Cosy Coffee Shops are helping to level the playing field.

Interestingly enough, Australia seems to have become a standard for coffee quality. I've seen two places so far which advertised that they employed "Australian-trained baristas".

There are 7 comments on "The state of coffee in Britain":

Posted by: Greg Sat Feb 2 13:19:06 2008

I feel an essay coming on - this is a topic close to my dopamine-receptors.

It's true - Australia, especially Melbourne, has world-beating coffee. I've been to places I thought would brew at a similar standard and been disappointed every time. In five east Asian countries I found one good coffee and nearly od-ed on the footpath. The US was so appalling I began to understand, and attend, Starbucks. I've not been to Europe much so won't comment except to say that I will take a thermos if I ever visit Eindhoven again.

Mind you even in Melbourne you have to know where to go as there is a lot of crap coffee around. My favourites in order: Jaspers (organic, bean expertise, good atmosphere), Atomica (best flavour), Dr Java (organic). I figure organic coffee is a good idea because you are basically washing the beans in water, then drinking the water. Like your post says, atmosphere matters - you are there for a "thinking break" or to talk with friends and the vibe is as important as the brew. But I guess different

Posted by: datakid Sat Feb 2 23:13:17 2008

Rosamond, just off Smith st, and Cavallero on Smith St are highly recommended if you are coming to town. Atmosphere and music at both are great, and I've tried all their coffees (except iced at Rosamond) and they are wonderful.

Atomica has the worst atmosphere - if it's not bad reggae, it's U2 on the stereo, still using cds when everyone with any sense has ipods on shuffle (cds scratch, skip, and need changing - all three I've seen in Atomica, sometimes in the same 20 visit), the staff are rude and surly. If their coffee wasn't great, I wouldn't go. It's amazing what a person will put up with for their poison.

Posted by: datakid Sat Feb 2 23:14:59 2008

*in the same 20 minute visit

Posted by: acb Sun Feb 3 00:39:40 2008

Seattle actually has decent coffee (it's not all Starbucks), and proper café culture. Much better than London, where cafés apparently are only for yuppies and people with young children. You actually see people sitting in cafés in Seattle for hours, reading books or writing in notebooks. (If you're ever there, Bauhaus on Capitol Hill and Cupcake Royale in Ballard are worth a visit.)

Posted by: gjw Mon Feb 4 01:11:32 2008

It would be a shame of coffee-culture replaced tea-culture, because it's damn hard trying to find a decent cup of tea. I've never been to Britain, but I assume you get something better there than a couple of Lipton tea-bags dangling in a pot of tepid water when you order tea in a cafe or restaurant...

Posted by: Greg Mon Feb 4 06:47:42 2008

Roger atmosphere - the Atomica cd-player makes it more stressful in there than outside. I was at Rays in Brunswick today. As I walked in there was a cd up loud. Then for some reason it stopped. You could almost hear the place breathe a sigh of relief. It was like we'd decided each other's thoughts and conversation were worth something. This lasted 10 minutes before a techno cd came on.

Posted by: acb Mon Feb 4 10:16:05 2008

Tea culture is a boutique thing anyway; in the average establishment in Britain, a cup of tea is made from a teabag. The British (or the English, at least), though, know the value of making sure the water used to brew tea is boiling.

Oddly enough, the best tea shop I've found so far is in Paris; . Their "Marco Polo" blend is particularly recommended.

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