OK, so I’m a coffee snob. I’m not an out and out loony coffee snob, but I am a coffee snob.
There are very few coffee chains that I have experienced that make a decent cup of coffee. One outfit in particular, has experienced spectacular success, and has literally cornered the market, with outlets wherever you look. They purchased a chain of 41 coffee shops from Italian brothers Bruno and Sergio Costa in 1971 and by 2009 had grown this to 1000 UK outlets. Having pretty much saturated the UK domestic market, they went on to Coffeeheaven by acquiring the chain of the same name in order to spread their influence into Central and Eastern Europe and presumably beyond the grave.
Grounds for celebration, I hear you say! But I’d claim that you haven’t really woken up and tasted the coffee.
They adopted the approach that worked so well for them in the old keg beer days: make a product that is easily accessible; a standard, reliable, boring, ubiquitous, but predictably not very good, cup of coffee; A Whitbread Tankard kind of coffee.
I suspect that, like the keg beer revolution with its flag bearers such as Party Seven, Double Diamond, and Watney’s Red Barrel, the boom times would come to an end eventually, and there would be a pushback from a growing sense of discontent from an increasingly discerning customer base. Or is this just wishful thinking?
Anyway, Hats off to Whitbread! Flogging Costa Coffee off to the Coca Cola Company seemed to be a really smart idea. I know they were pushed into it by their Hedge fund investors, but honestly, treating their coffee like Coke seems highly appropriate.
Other outfits, like Starbuckets, of the “Supersize me” persuasion, who should know better, make coffee that is simply beyond the pale and comes in massive bowls rather than cups. Inevitably, these taste predominately of milk or many of the other additives or adornments that come with them. But more of this later.
So, sitting in a commercial coffee outlet that I quite like, fiddling with an apricot croissant (big clue there), and drinking a flat white coffee in a smallish, somehow civilised-sized cup, to the strains of a bit of operatic music, I got to thinking about my history of coffee drinking.
I suspect most people of my age in this country grew up in tea-drinking households. My parents never drank any coffee when I was young. It never appeared in our house in any way as a drink, although my dear old mum did have a penchant for coffee crème chocolates. If my parents had aspirations to become coffee drinkers, they left them unsaid.
The lure of coffee was not to be confounded
As a very young child I remember being completely enthralled by the amazing aroma that came from an artfully positioned grill at the front of a shop in Balham Market. The front window area of the store held some kind of coffee roaster and the beans just sat there enticingly giving off a heavenly smell. I remember being dragged away from the shop front before I even knew what coffee was. A formative experience, I guess. Even as an inveterate coffee drinker, I still wonder why the smell of coffee is so much better than its flavour.
I think my first knowing contact was with Camp Coffee. It came in a really exciting bottle with a label showing a Sikh soldier holding a serving tray with a bottle of Camp, and a jug of water, waiting on a Scottish Highlander in front of a tent, holding his cup and saucer, preparing to drink it. All very Military, evoking memories of The Empire, The Raj, and so on. All this at the time that our magnificent Empire was quietly being dismantled in an embarrassed sort of way, and the brand-new Commonwealth of Nations was being proudly proclaimed.
Anyway, I particularly remember Camp coffee because I was entrusted with the task of going down the road, on my own, to The Home and Colonial Stores in Balham
where we lived, to buy it for my grandmother Mary. I have no idea where she got such exotic tastes from, but she also sent me to the same store sometimes for some gorgonzola cheese! Another real taste of the exotic in those pre-Danish Blue days.
The odd thing about the coffee was it had a sweet taste that I quite liked, but I hardly ever got my hands on any. My dad explained to me that it was made from a mixture of coffee and chicory, not that this meant much to me at the time, and then went on to tell me all about ersatz coffee that the Germans used to drink during the war. That, he said, was made from roasted acorns.
I wonder why that acorn memory has stuck with me for maybe 65 years, when I often can’t remember why I have opened the fridge?
But back to my story… By the time sachets, tins and jars of Maxwell House and Nescafe instant coffee hit our kitchen shelf, I was already a coffee expert.
It seemed to become the “in” drink quite suddenly. Even though it really wasn’t very nice. I settled on two acceptable ways of drinking it; one made only with milk, and the other as a black drink with loads of sugar. I really hated making white coffee from powder in a mug because of the difficulty in getting it to mix properly. You could stir yourself into oblivion trying to get rid of the small coffee spots that kept appearing at the top.
Woolworths, at that time, also offered coffee at their drinks counters and I’ll never forget the huge steaming urns whooshing and splurting great clouds of steam into cups, mugs and teapots. It was like being on a platform when a steam train was getting ready to leave. The other memorable thing about Woolworths were the teaspoons on very long chains, so that you could stir your drink with a much-used spoon anywhere along the counter. It was a brilliant way to add a little Oxtail soup to your Horlicks.
It may even offer an alternative derivation for the term chain store! Nice!
It was around this time that coffee bars started to spring up! Wow! Just like they were in the films. There was one near us called Rossi’s and they made frothy coffee! All a bit pricy but well worth a visit. We used to hang out there as long as we could for one small drink each and then maybe one of us would order something else like a rum baba to prolong our stay.
On the home market coffee granules came into use and this removed the coffee spots problem to a large extent, so, making instant mugs of the stuff got easier, but not really any tastier.
I’d been to someone’s house and they’d had a percolator – Now that was sophisticated. Very Dolce Vita! I managed to pick up an old coffee pot with the same kind of action, but I must say I never really got a nice drink out of it. It made great noises though.
I suppose the next thing to darken my teeth was the coffee filter machine. The sort of thing that could take ground coffee, filter it, and let it drip into a jug. It was really quite acceptable when it was fresh, but the tendency was to keep it hanging around on its integrated hotplate until you could almost taste the carcinogens so carefully crafted by the hour. Still, these machines formed the basis of many coffees in restaurants, homes, offices and so on.
I remember that there was a brief fascination for coffee liqueurs with spirits such as Cointreau being added, sometimes with double cream being floated onto the top, using the back of a warmed teaspoon. Quite a skill to acquire and all very sophisticated stuff at the time.
We also used to run into Greek or Turkish coffee occasionally, This seemed to comprise of amazingly sweet, coffee flavoured, mud. Oh! how we wondered about its amazing quality, as it coated our teeth with sediment that took a fortnight’s scrubbing with Pepsodent to remove. To paraphrase the cinema advert of the time “You’ll wonder where the coffee went when you clean your teeth with Pepsodent!”
A bit later cafetières came into vogue. I tried them from time to time, and still do when there is nothing else available, but I’ve never really got on with them. At home I’ve always found that cleaning them out between uses was a bit of a problem and in hotels and the like I’ve managed to squirt near boiling water up my sleeve on more than one occasion. Somehow the coffee still seemed to coat my teeth a bit too.
It was when I got my first espresso machine that things began to change for me. I had to buy ready-ground coffee or grind some beans, stick it in a hopper and press a few buttons to produce an amazing dark coffee nectar. If I wanted to add hot milk or froth, I then had to let it cool a little and faff around with jugs and things to try to get it to do what I wanted. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not.
It did give me a taste for what was possible, and my home kit has gone from strength to strength. I now have a bean to cup machine that produces different kinds of froth at the push of a button and I can play around endlessly with variations on a theme. So, I can generally make exactly what I want at home. I still hanker after percolated coffee from time to time and only recently bought myself a new 9 cup machine.
Even so, it is still nice to sit in a coffee house when you are out and about and sip coffee whilst watching the world go by.
As I’ve got older, I’ve found that people watching is a sport that requires little effort apart from not being too obvious and provides hours of harmless amusement. Having a coffee cup in front of you provides good cover for a daydream too.
I must say that many coffee shops leave me stone cold and that’s got nothing to do with the air conditioning.
Taken for a mug
Why do some deliberately use cups that are difficult to hold? Are their cup designers devoid of fingers, or do they just lack imagination?
Why do others delight in eccentric saucers where the cup sits cutely in an off-centred position? Is it just for the fun of seeing customers trying to put the cup back in the wrong place where it tilts precariously? Another triumph of style over function.
Why persist in serving drinks in superheated glasses that remain too hot to hold until the coffee has gone cold? I notice that the staff usually serve them on saucers so they don’t burn their fingers!
Why are some of these coffee containers so large that they could be used to bathe in, complete with rubber ducks (alongside all the necessary coffee accoutrements such as little umbrellas and marshmallows) ?
Why do they almost universally give their sizes ridiculous names? What is wrong with Small, Medium and Large? Or in one particular case Large, Very Large and Totally Gross?
I, for one, am sick to death with Tall, Grande, Venti, Trenta, Primo, Medio, and Assimo. When you add in Solo and Doppio for espresso coffee….well, just bring me a flat white will you? At least that only seems to come in one size, everywhere.
As for milks, well, words fail me.
I don’t mind the growing list of options but I just wonder when it will stop. Given that there is no end to the food faddists’ imaginations, I suspect there will indeed be no end. The search for new milks will become an eternal quest. Somewhere there is the perfect milk for every individual and surely it will be a matter of human rights that we should be able to buy it, in our coffee, at Costabucks.
Whole milk, Semi-skimmed, Skinny, Coconut, Soya, Almond, and these are just mainstream. What else is out there?
Oh, and adorn it with marshmallows, doughnut rings, pork scratchings, three syrups and synthetic cream with sprinkles. If that floats our boats.
My sympathies tend towards the Italians as far as coffees go these days, they seem to have a real love for the stuff and to know how to prepare it and to drink it! Besides, it’s a lovely place to visit!
I simply cannot understand that there is any connection whatsoever, between the memory of sipping a cappuccino or espresso with an Italian apricot sfogliatella pastry in a bar in Amalfi, and chewing over a Rocky Road, whilst wallowing in over half a litre of something called a Venti Pumpkin Spice Latte in a Starbuckets outlet anywhere.
But as I already said, I’m a coffee snob.