Italian coffee culture in the UK

This morning I spoke to a journalist on the phone who is writing about coffee in London, as well as the antipodean influence on our coffee scene.

One of the questions he asked was about the influence of Italian populations on coffee cultures.  In Australia a good chunk of credit for the early rise of coffee culture there stems from the high standards of the Italian communities that quickly spread to a relatively small population and increased expectation.

He asked why this hadn’t happen in London/the UK.  Was it just that we have a larger population so it took time for a higher standard to spread?  My thoughts on this, and I’d welcome yours, is that in London certainly there doesn’t seem to be a dense pocket of Italian culture and whilst there are many Italian bars, cafes, restaurants and delis spread throughout the city, the are relatively dilute.  Coffee served in these places isn’t much better than any other coffee served in London and, while I’ve never been hopelessly in love with the actual coffee served in Italy, it is certainly worse than what one would typically find in an Italian city.

For me this dilution is key – without being surrounded by higher expectations many businesses just met the expectations of the locals (pretty low in this case).  Essentially we dragged them down to our level.  Perhaps places like Bar Italia lasted longer than others but certainly their coffee is nothing to shout about any more.

This got me think about London, and the changes in our coffee cultlure that I would love to see.  Is there a tipping point in all of this?  Could we work on one small area (let’s take East London for example) and build up a pocket of great coffee.  Once this pocket got dense enough would it then be able to spread and have impact on a larger scale?  If we want coffee in London to improve do we hope that all the outposts scattered across the city have an overall effect or is concentrating on one small pocket a better way to go?

16 Comments

  1. I think London should be compared more to New York, and not to Australia. First off, Australia is a fairly young country with a total population of like 21 million people—that’s only 3 times more than the population of London alone.

    Can New York support high coffee art on a mass scale? Not likely—for many many coffee drinkers, it’s just a way to get on with the day, same as in London.

    Having a core location where it’s all about coffee won’t really work, because most people get their coffee wherever is most convenient to where they live/work. So if you’re not in East London, you’re SOL.

  2. Didn’t I hear somewhere that the New Zealanders or Australians took some kind of supervisory control over Trieste during WWII? Forgive me if I’m wrong or if this info is quite common knowledge and has already been taken into the equation, but this level of submersion in such a strong coffee traditionwould have a major influence on these outposts of culture waiting to be conquered. In Kazakhstan where I run a small and primitive coffee roastery, they seem to be prostrate to all things Italian and almost exude a sense of elitism in ordering an espresso – half the time not knowing what it is – over measly drip coffee which they refer to as “regular”. And let’s face it, both North Americans and Brits are historically very frugal and even suspicious towards the “ceremony” of coffee drinking, where its regarded rather as a right than as the luxury that it should be, and that as it is in some other less strident cultures. I’m American, so forgive the criticism.

  3. James
    This is a sector I know well through my work over the past 10 years. The original Italian coffee bar is disapearing for few main reasons. Many Italian coffee bars were set up in the sixties at a time when many Italians flocked to the UK due to poverty especailly from the South of Italy. These Italians down graded their coffee offer to suit the UK market then. Frothy coffee of the sixties and seventies surely had its beginnings here. The milk was blasted onto a wand from a still.
    These Italians got older and to main problems arose. One is their children generally did not want to get into the business and the these operators did not move with times and up their game in the coffee serving stakes. When I started selling coffee beans in London all the Italians used to by from Sergio Costa(now whitbread) or Drury.
    Thinking about it now whole waves of these operators are no longer in the West End of London.
    This is a great talking point. I think the Italian operators had their chance and wasted it.

  4. I get what you’re saying about a hub of good coffee somewhere. Once there is a dense enough area where you can’t get a bad cup of coffee then next closest cafes to there have to start making their’s better to stop people going 50m down the road, then the next closest to those have to do the same and so on.

  5. I think it’s right to say that Italian migrants (and perhaps other Europeans) did have a significant impact on the cafe culture of Australia – especially Sydney and Melbourne.
    But I’m not sure it was the *quality* of the drink was radically superior.
    It was different, and Australians had never seen an espresso much before the late 50’s, and it was relatively fresh coffee, compared to what Australians were drink at the time (no wonder tea was the favoured drink in those days!).

    Certainly today, I would suggest that Italian-style coffee in Australia holds no claim to be a superior quality drink. ‘Italian roast’ usually means over-roasted to serious coffee drinkers.
    They introduced us to the idea of freshly made espresso, but maybe not much else in the coffee dept,. ;-)

  6. How ‘bad’ is the coffee in London? Would you rate 1 in 10 cafes being able to make a good espresso coffee? 1 in 20?

    I’m in Australia and I think the influence Italians had was bringing the espresso machine with them, nearly all coffee you see here is espresso based and from what I’ve read, thats not so much the case compared to say – the USA.

    At a guess, I would rate maybe 1 in 20 AUS cafes being able to make a decent espresso based coffee (probably less). It also comes down to how high your standard is.

    I think the more you get quality roasted coffee out on the streets in the hands of passionate baristas the more the culture of good coffee will grow and the more people will look for it.

  7. I have been a barista in London and Melbourne, and grew up with Italian cafes in the UK.

    Italian migrants in the UK have always catered to a post war Britain, I think any hopes they had of bestowing us with their food and coffee culture were dashed by a lack of good fresh ingredients a truly terrible service/ hospitality culture.
    Italian migrants in Australia had a much bigger investment in their new life, new communities and new businesses, which have thrived in the booming service/ hospitality culture in Melbourne and Sydney. This has led to continually increasing expectations by the customer.

    I would guess there are around 20 cafes in the UK serving really descent espresso, London accounting for nearly half of those, compared to at least 20 in Melbourne alone!

  8. the antipodean influence at least in and around soho is quite strong now, and seems to be spreading, maybe this is the pocket of coffee expertise developing, and I think its only a matter of time until places like bar italia will actually be learning from those around it.
    I’m quite sure the italians that immigrated to the UK and Australia both had to adapt heavily to the local culture, wasn’t the flat white drink originally developed because frothy milk wasn’t really appreciated and people just wanted flat milk.

    However the UK which has always had a massive influence from America was just getting introduced to the american army ration… freeze dried instant coffee

  9. Last year I heard second hand that a green bean broker from a very reputable company lamented the fact that some of the worst coffees he’d drunk came from italian owned roasteries around the world. They were stuck in the past and didn’t know what good coffee was anymore. Conversely he was happy to see the experimentation and innovation that he’d seen in both the Australian and especially NZ market in some of the boutique coffee roasteries that he visited. That was a pretty high compliment for all of us anzacs.

  10. I think there has been phenomenal change in coffee in the UK in the Last five years.. Wandering the streets of London, I must have visited dozens of cafes, searching for anything that resembled what I craved in an espresso based drink.

    Then the brave Flat White appeared, and rumors of Taylor Street began to emerge… To reference your question, I think we are already at that tipping point, where good coffee in the UK is beginning to get recognized and enjoyed. The number of places still serving consistently good espresso in London, you can probably count on one hand, but that goes for many coffee cities world-wide.

    The scattered outposts seem to be raising the general standard of coffee and have done so for the last few years. East London is blooming, and the standard is high, lets hope the expectation of the consumer is raised and met in East London, and this spreads steadily throughout London and the UK.

    As for the Italians, well, they kicked the Aussies out of the world cup, nuff said really.

  11. I’d agree with Bill that there are scattered outposts of good coffee to be found in London. Time Out maintains a useful guide here: http://www.timeout.com/london/restaurants/features/6361.html

    I’m not so sure that East London is the last word in great coffee in London, as Soho has a high density of awesome coffee shops. Sadly, we recently moved office to Victoria Street and suffered with a 20-minute walk to decent coffee in the form of Tomtom. Fortunately, Brazilian master barista Fabio Henrique Ferreira has just opened up shop on Strutton Ground.

  12. Cool! I bumped into Fabio in the street a couple of months back and he told me about it – I didn’t know they were open. I must visit!

  13. Is there a tipping point in all of this? Could we work on one small area (let’s take East London for example) and build up a pocket of great coffee. Once this pocket got dense enough would it then be able to spread and have impact on a larger scale?

  14. What a great topic! It’s one that I have given much thought about, and tried to explain to a number of people. I think there are a few forces at play. I always considered the strong tea drinking culture (particularly afternoon tea) had a strong influence in coffee not being taken as seriously. I think the weather also has something to do about it. In Australia, it’s easy to sit al fresco with a coffee reading some papers. In England, you have to make the insides comfortable and welcoming which, to be honest, isn’t a common thing amongst most cafes.

    There’s also the strong pub culture working as a strong competitor to the coffee one. In Australia, it’s super common to meet a friend for coffee during the day. The equivalent would be a pub in England.

    Either way, it’s hard to ignore the strong impact antipodean run coffee stores have on (at least) London’s coffee scene. And something to be celebrated as well!

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