English Coffee Culture

June 13th, 2008

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.

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