English Coffee Culture

Having done so on several occaisons, I feel it is quite acceptable to talk about Italian coffee culture. An intertwining of taste preference, lifestyle and culture with the drink. I feel pretty comfortable defining elements of Scandanavian coffee culture, or French coffee culture. I could keep listing different countries – the USA is a particularly interesting one due to the role coffee plays in the history of American cultural identity back to the Boston Tea Party days. But I digress from the title of this post.

Square Mile Coffee Roasters takes its name in part from a time when London had a coffee culture – one of the strongest in the world, and in what is now the financial heart of London there were hundreds upon hundreds of coffee houses that would morph and evolve into different businesses and exert many and varied effects on a cross section of culture and commerce.

What is English coffee culture now? Sadly it is one of two things:

1). A semi apologetic, continued embrace of instant coffee. We managed to move past most freeze dried food (though I know some people have a weird fondness for Smash!) The thing is we all know it is bad, as a nation we joke about it and then get away with it by playing the anti-snobbery card.

2). An embrace of Americanised Italian coffee retail – chains dominate our high street (in all areas of retail) and we are served faux-Italian coffee drinks in convenient (for the retailer) portions.

All of this is very negative, and this isn’t a negative post. It really is a post with a hypothetical question:

What would I wish English coffee culture to be like ten years from now? What would be its defining qualities that distinguish it from other strong coffee cultures?

This is a wish list remember, and we can discuss how to get there afterwards. If I were treat English coffee culture as a blank canvas then I think there are a few priorities:

Traceability – people understand what they are drinking, and understand the factors influencing their choice. I really have no issue with labels like Fair Trade as long as the consumer understandings what the label means. More than that I wish people would want to know exactly where and how the coffee was grown.

Preference – people making concious and informed choices about their coffee, based on an understanding of the range of tastes, flavours and possibilities within the spectrum of coffee. This is just a long way of saying: death to the phrase “coffee is just coffee.”

Seasonality – this is a growing movement in food, and I hope coffee gets the opportunity to be included and swept along with other seasonal products. There is no downside to people understanding and embracing seasonality, enjoying fresh crops for those months where they really do taste fresh.

A strong base of brewed coffee – right now espresso drinks are the launching pad to getting people into coffee. Brewed coffee just isn’t as sexy as espresso, but I think a little coffee grinder and a french press in every home doesn’t involve a huge spend but would re-ignite people’s fondness for ritual and make coffee more accessable (more on this very important topic in a paragraph or two). Right now a lot of espresso machines are going into people’s home and the resentment of the process and the spend is just another reason to justify digging out the Nescafe. I don’t want to get rid of espresso, I just want it to be another weapon in the arsenal of coffee brewing. Espresso shouldn’t be the only method associated with quality.

These are all fine ideas but where is the roadmap to get there. It all comes down to one word: accessability. Right now the hardest thing to overcome isn’t monetary – we aren’t very precise spenders, despite the credit crunch and all – but we are terrified of appearing to be snobbish about anything. Snobbery has a terrible name. How the idea of not wanting to accept something below standard, something simply not good enough got a bad reputation I don’t know, but it certainly did. I am a snob. I don’t want to drink something that tastes bad. I don’t want to eat something that tastes bad and will probably hasten my demise (I am looking at you Ronald McD.). Yes, anti-snobbery is also linked in to anti-intelluctualism which dogs many cultures (but not all). I don’t really understand how knowledge and understanding aren’t desirable but many aspects of our cultures do really tell us this is the case. Maybe this is just the little bullied geek in me talking, but ironically it just seems a very stupid way to go about things.

Essentially we need to make it ok to love coffee, the way it is sort of ok to love wine, or beer (but not real Ale, we are still suspicious of them), or great food or cinema. I don’t think the super premium stuff is the way to do that, though it could certainly be a tool. The problem with the super premium lots of coffee is that because of the price it gets special treatment, exclusive treatment and it is very easy to dismiss as coffee for odd-ball enthusiasts. Exlusive by its very definition is not where I want to go.

That doesn’t mean we don’t need quality coffee – we need coffees that show distinct characteristics, often (but not always) indicicative of their geography and process and we need to roast and serve them as transparently as possible. We need to get people to fall in love with the product and not just the business that serve retails/serves it because if that business closes it must leave behind coffee aware and coffee thirsty consumers who still want to drink coffee, not just brand-x coffee. (though that doesn’t make that much sense for those of us starting up brand-x coffee!)

I really wanted to write this article as a roadmap for us, as well as (hopefully) a jumping off point for debate. Thoughts are welcome in the comments.

20 Comments

  1. Interesting and I know exactly where you are coming from, being a barista in the uk. Its a terrible shame the state of things in our country in terms of coffee at the moment but I do believe change will happen eventually. It may take a long time but I think people will come round to the idea of quality coffee and throw out the Nescafe. It is only through the time and dedication of yourself and many others spent trying to raise consumer awareness that this change will come about. So just to say keep up the excellent work, it is making a difference.
    P.S Love reading the blog!

  2. i agree with you on the under-valuing of brew: i often have long-ish conversations with customers/retailers on the virtues of press and chemex (including financial accessibility, relative simplicity, quality).
    these conversations are especially interesting with nouveau home baristas, who have fallen down the espresso rabbit-hole!

  3. Very interesting points of discussion James. I acutally think that the Australian and UK coffee ‘base’ culture are not too dissimilar now (though we greatly lack the historic coffee house stuff – we’re all beer, rum and tea from our short modern history).

    In Aus, 60% of coffee consumed is still ‘soluable’ the fancy name that marketing companies use for instant coffee, and outside the home, as I harp on about all the time, is 100 % espresso. (not all good!) We also have a dominant culture of the big company chains -and this seems to have served as a vehicle for education of the general public to a degree, at least to the scope of the espresso menu and the varied definitions etc.

    Without typing on too long – last week McDonalds McCafe announced a change that their espresso coffee will now be 100% rain forest alliance – apparently something they are already doing in Europe (& the UK?) I suspect this will put a bit more focus on tracability as you discussed but on the whole people here are very much attached to various brands of coffee and powerful marketing.

    I sometimes get jealous of what seems to be an endless supply of microlot talk and roasting in the US especially – we are not privy to such specific coffees most of the time – but what I have also found here is that many roasters still don’t even bother to taste coffees before they buy and roast them. Australia is a long way from being a bit more fussy about their green and roasted coffees.

    I love your idea of wanting people to respect coffee as they do wine, and beer, (and more recently chocolate/cocoa) in relation to where and how it was created/brewed/grown and treated before consumption. It is happening but still as I see it and get told that I’m living under a cloud of ‘you are a coffee snob and/or a coffee wanker’. ( A title I wear proudly.)

  4. You’re getting quite good at this blogging thing. Another great thought provoking post.

    Having quite a long company/family history in coffee, I’m quite envious of my Grandfather (who sadly passed away on Sunday). He worked in a time before the instant coffee boom when everyone who came to his shop would buy a qtr of coffee for the week. I remember him telling me that everyone enjoyed fresh coffee and would be interested in where it came from and fascinated by the fact that the beans they were drinking came half way across the world. I know he enjoyed the industry a lot back then and I think we’re only just starting to get back too now . We’ll I’m enjoying it anyway!

    I think instant coffee has had a terrifically negative effect of English coffee culture and it seems that it is only really now that we are coming though the other side of it. Espresso and the snobbery around it (I also hate that connotation) has helped to brake or at least crack the strangle hold that instant coffee has had on the country. We seem to be back to where we were in the 50s again, only with more toys to play with!

  5. Great post Jim lots of interesting and thought provoking stuff.

    On most points I agree and particularly the damage instant coffee has done to the English and UK scene. But I disagree about the super premium lots not helping us to love coffee. I think they do help to highlight quality and foster longer term relationships to bring these coffees to the consumer. but without acclaim and and excitement these lots create its a lot harder to get that quality message across. Think of it as a best of breed for coffee. Also they help people fall in love with coffee as the people behind the coffee become the star, not the roaster or brand.

    Good stuff.

  6. I should probably quantify what I mean by super premium – this would be lots that would cost a consumer over £80/kg. I just think that it is too exclusive, too inaccessible at this stage for any coffee culture if it is to spread wide enough to have significant and sustainable impact.

    That isn’t to say I don’t want to see coffee prices that high – I just think they need a more solid foundation than they have know if they are to spread beyond small numbers of consumers.

  7. As I was reading this post I was thinking about the contradiction of Australian coffee consumption, where on the one hand we have a developed and relatively sophisticated café culture, but on the other, as Emily points out, we go home and drink instant coffee (many people do anyway). Why do we drink coffee, or wine, why do we enjoy eating chocolate? I think the answer is pure sensory pleasure, but not necessarily the pleasure gained from tasting something that is complex, rare, extraordinary or simply tasty, but a pleasure that is experienced in the mind, body and mouth. I think that a lot of people who enjoy a good latte, and in Australia who won’t hesitate to send a poorly textured one back, will still wake up in the morning and have an instant coffee because it gives them what their body is demanding, and they will ignore the taste or disguise it with sugar and milk.

    I’m personally excited to see some seasonality come into coffee in the same way that new flushes of tea are eagerly anticipated. Traceability also, should be a rule, not an option, but I think that preference will always be determined by factors such as time and functionality, ie I need to get to work and need some caffeine, and not always by taste alone. Although taking an extra 5 minutes to brew a decent cup, or spending a little extra at a café shouldn’t be a deterrent, I imagine that it often is.

    Everyone is also probably aware taste is very subjective. In blind tastings with wine the preferred wine on a table has often been one of the cheapest, not the most complex, interesting and expensive. Many people like sweet, fruity, simple flavours that are immediately pleasing rather than thought provoking or challenging. So what a connoisseur or snob considers/knows to be great, a “layman” may find unpalatable/dry/bland etc.

    So where do I think this leaves the future of English coffee? I think there will be more of a move to the lifestyle of coffee- cafes, lattes and a move away from ‘the pub’ as a meeting spot. I also think there will be an increase in awareness about traceability and also a small increase in home coffee consumption methods. But I don’t see how it will be much different to what has already happened in Australia, particularly, but also the US or even Italy 50 years from now. Not to be a defeatist though, this is not to say that we shouldn’t try and push, sell, market and promote all things coffee to create something new and different.

  8. I like this….

    Seasonality.

    I sell beans every day, and I often struggled and felt guilty when a certain bean had finished and a customer couldn’t get it. Until I realized that, hey, this is not a factory product that is always there, it is organic, growing, and depending on seasons, harvest times…sometimes politics in the country. It sounds really silly, but at that moment, when it clicked in my poor brain, that I can NOT feel guilty for not providing the exact name that is asked, I can say a lovely thing like, “oh the xxx bean is coming in yy time, because harvest time in that country is on zzz time – they are just picking cherries off the trees right now/soon…” :)
    How much such a simple thing does!!! The customer doesn’t have the face of “betrayal” on, and actually feels more engaged in the coffee story and more willing to try something other than the usual favourite.

    I love it.

    anyway, as I am a bad blog reader, I just came by to say – good luck James!!! I hope you come back with more “bling bling” :)

  9. Thanks for such a thought provoking post.

    I completely agree with the preferences point made by you. People understanding there are different types of coffee beans and the difference it can make to the taste of their coffee. How different a coffee would taste depending on their choice.For instance a a coffee made from arabica would taste quite different to what a coffee made from benghalensis or canephora would taste.The basic fact that thee are varieties of coffee planbts and each one is unique in the flavour it can provide.
    Coffea arabica, Coffea benghalensis, Coffea canephora, Coffea congensis, Coffea excelsa, Coffea gallienii, Coffea bonnieri, Coffea mogeneti, Coffea liberica, Coffea stenophylla to name some of them.

    Or how choosing different types of roast can make a difference or even the origin of the beans can make a difference to the taste.

  10. I’m a coffee snob, and proud. Lately it’s feeling like a curse -It is so good to read that somewhere in this country good coffee is hiding. Great post, reminds me of what coffee is all about. Cheers :)

  11. Yeah I agree with you – coffee is definitely not just coffee ( that is there are many different tastes).

    I spent a long time in Ethiopia where coffee is actually a ceremony. They spend a long time doing everything right in front of you. They even ground the beans by hand right there. It takes a while but people there just like to chat. Everyone does this so called “coffee ceremony” too. I even saw homeless people living in a shack outside making coffee this way. I never tasted coffee so good though!!!

  12. This is a very interesting and educational post. I really like the area where you mention that coffee is not as accepted as a “love” the same as other food items. I think that the US still has a way to go before those of us who see coffee as more than just a drink will not bee seen as snobs or geeks.

  13. Roadmaps are old hat. Jason has put his finger on it. I had exactly the same thought reading your blog. What coffee needs is a mockney thicko or two, both with endearing vulnerabilities, doing six part 30 minute show on how crap the coffee (and tea) we are served is and what to do about it. All it needs is an original form of transportation, the right blend of regional accents and you have a hit show. And then you’ll get people in Starbuck’s and Costa handing back their offerings saying ‘that is undrinkable’ – as I have the last two times I have bought coffee in motorway service stations. That could catch on.

  14. It’s truly sad how coffee cult (if i may say that) faded away. I’m not from Great Britain but still mostly everywhere in ‘modern’ society pre-ground coffee comes in bags, oxydized. That’s not the worst scenario. 3in1 and similar one-cup-packs synthetic coffee.. What’s that?
    ‘Modern’ people are too busy to roast, grind and brew coffe by themselves. But well… that’s the modern life isn’t it?

  15. The Coffee culture is truly gone. I was in SF last year and did notice some cool coffee shops there, but over here in NY there is dunks and starbucks. A real shame…

  16. Coffee snobbing is everywhere in the US now. The art of “cupping coffee” is not as well known as wine tasting is. People do not understand the taste profiles and instead drink what is hip or trendy. We can thank Starbucks for a ton of this coffee snobery.

    Brian

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