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".
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