Couture Beans of London
The first booth I encounter offers a turmeric espresso. Like curry, the steaming beverage is orange-yellow. Like curry, its spicy aroma tickles the nostrils, lights up the senses. Unlike curry, it tastes wretched. So what if turmeric decreases inflammation and increases brain power. It belongs in Tandoori chicken. I toss my sample in a trash bin overflowing with crushed cups.
The second booth offers a latte made with oat milk. Better. In fact, it’s pretty good. I down the mini-cup and the barista is pleased, posing like a body builder with his cardboard — recyclable! — container of Oatly, his hair slicked back from his face, his forearm tattoos straining with the effort.
The next booths offer hardware. Ceramic filters in all shades of pastel — light pink, baby blue, pale yellow. Stainless steel hand grinders. Glass carafes. Metal carafes. Sleek black kettles. Not into filtered? No worries. Walk on and encounter the AeroPress, the French Press, and enough gleaming espresso machines that steam and brew and froth to outfit cafes from Camden to Capistrano.
The funny part is, I have only wandered a few feet of the first floor of the London Coffee Festival in the Truman Brewery just a sneeze away from Spitalfields Market and the windy alleys of the East End. There are two more floors in this giant warehouse filled with beans and to-go cups and glass cups and barista competitions.
What isn’t here is a dark roast, not in any of the booths, poured from any of the pots, lingering in any of the paper cups. I wander the stalls for hours, sipping, sniffing, listening to baristas pontificate on the complexity of their pale brown beans. I wonder if they tire of spewing their gospel to the 23,642 visitors that will wander these floors for three days. After a while, I give up. Despite a serious caffeine buzz and aching teeth from the chocolate and carrot cake samples, I leave the Truman Brewery and London Coffee Festival deprived.
Where in this city, this magnificent metropolis teeming with arts and culture and 11,000 restaurants, can I find oily, shiny, mahogany beans bold enough to jolt a Beefeater?
“Why do you like the taste of burnt beans?”
Thomas Haigh and I sit on a wooden picnic bench behind the Tate Britain, just outside the World War II Nissen hut that serves as a coffee roaster for the Tate and other select wholesalers. Haigh is Head of Coffee, responsible for every aspect of buying and roasting and packaging the coffee served and sold at the Tate’s four galleries. A thin fellow with round glasses and neatly trimmed beard, he is perplexed by my affinity for dark brew. He looks at me intently over a cup of Finca Lagunita that he describes as a flavorful light roast produced by a Columbian woman farmer named Diva. He is eager to educate me on the art of delivering a quality cup, on the thriving London coffee scene, on the error of my taste.
And I am eager to listen, to see if knowledge will foster appreciation. If yes, perhaps then I’ll find a bean that grinds into a satisfying morning mug during my 11-month stay in London. You would think that in London, which has been called the Coffee Capital of Europe, which CNN ranked #1 Coffee City in the World in 2017, which is home to so many cafes and roasters that you are as likely to encounter an Allpress Espresso as a Shetland Arms, that it wouldn’t be so hard.
It wouldn’t be, says Haigh, if I’d open my palate to lighter roasts. At 31, he has toiled in every facet of the industry, working his way in the London coffee houses from barista to apprentice roaster to head roaster to head of coffee. He has travelled to South America and Africa to meet farmers and sample their product. He is a Q-grader, industry lingo for a coffee elite who rates the quality of the beans. He knows good beans. I try to explain.
Dark roast is an essential ingredient of my day, I tell him. Nothing happens before that sip of scalding, rich java from beans as shiny as the polished hull of a boat. Or at least nothing happened when I was at home, in the States, in my kitchen overlooking the garden’s irises. But in London, my morning ritual has been decidedly disappointing. Sure, I say, I could grab some espresso beans from an ever-present Starbucks, but I’m in London teaching international students at a British university and I will not buy American. Haigh nods in approval. Instead, I shop local, purchasing beans from my favorite UK coffee chain, Caffé Nero, from the neighborhood Waitrose market, the Italian café on Baker Street. I learn quickly that any barista can make a tasty latte in a $12,000 La Marzocco, but in the tiny blue kitchen in the tiny flat that my husband and I share near Regent’s Park, brewed in a French Press, these beans pack no zip.
As the spring sun beats down on our picnic table, Haigh rolls up the sleeves of his plaid shirt, and studies his glass mug. A patient teacher, he chooses his words carefully. “Roasting dark means that you’re trying to hide something,” he says. “You’re tasting the roast, not the coffee.” Roasting lighter enhances the proteins, the carbohydrates, the acids. “It brings out the flavor before you burn the coffee.”
He describes the myriad flavors of different beans grown in different climates, Ethiopia vs. Guatemala, Brazil vs. Burundi, how different soils, different altitudes influence a bean’s taste. He talks of the delicate Arabica bean, grown in high altitudes, which means the plant grows slower, and the flavor has more time to develop. He talks of the Robusta bean that flourishes at sea level and is heartier than Arabica, but Haigh says, scrunching up his face, it has more caffeine, less sugar, and is bitter. Harsh. Robusta and low-grade Arabica are over-roasted to disguise their inferior flavor.
His passion, London’s passion, is specialty coffee, defined as a single origin bean, one traced to a single producer, either farm or region, and graded an 80 or above out of 100. Specialty coffee is Arabica. He points to my cup of Diva’s Columbian. Clearly Arabica. “This doesn’t taste like the roast,” Haigh says, both hands cupping the mug. “It tastes like a delicate tea. Complex. Floral.”
Today is Tuesday, which means that Press Coffee Roasters has the run of the Nissen hut and its equipment. The doors to the brick and corrugated iron structure that once housed hospital supplies are flung open and we watch the three Press Coffee guys scooping, stirring, pouring, ducking under and stepping over each other in the tight space. They do not pause. Roasting is an art, and to do justice to the chemical composition of the coffee, the careful roaster must be ever-moving, ever-aware. “Just taste the hard work,” says Haigh, pointing to his cup. “Do you taste the difference?”
Yes, I admit, I do. Diva’s Finca Lagunita harbors a hint of caramel. He nods, sensing that I’m coming around. What I don’t add is that it still strikes my tongue as bland, like vanilla ice cream when you expect Chunky Monkey. I take another sip. And this time, despite what I know will elicit disappointment, I ask, “Why the tepid temp?” Haigh sighs, explaining that an elevated water temperature will draw too much flavor from the grounds, creating a bitter taste. He pauses, tilts his head, and looks at me quizzically, like a therapist seeking a pivotal memory.
“Why?” he says, his brows knit together. “Why do you like your coffee so hot?”
If Thomas Haigh were a coffee therapist, he would trace my high-octane roots to Oma, my big bosomed, white-haired German grandmother. Every morning of my childhood, wearing a pearl necklace and a housecoat, her mane swept into a bun at the nape of her neck, she prepared a poached egg on toast and coffee so hot and thick that my Maxwell House mother swore a spoon could stand erect. Or melt. I was too young for a slurp, but the imprint was there. When I drove into Seattle five years after Oma’s death, fresh out of college, broke, and ready to launch my writing career, I found the blend that would have raised Oma from her urn. Starbucks was just a few storefronts then, selling only beans, and I was a regular, purchasing pound after pound, week after week. Every morning I ground and brewed and drank two cups of piping hot dark roast. No sugar. No milk.
Seattle, like London, is grey and drizzly for much of the year, and often we sought warmth at the B&O Espresso on Capitol Hill, one of the few places in those days that served espresso drinks. Sipping cappuccinos after the movies, we would joke that these drinks were too good, that soon the whoosh of frothed milk would echo all over the city. When our prediction came to pass, we didn’t think beyond the ease with which we could score skinny Macchiatos — at gas stations, at REI, at cafes on every block.
As I stirred the foam, I didn’t consider that other cities might embrace coffee with equal fervor, that tea-swilling London would one day morph into the Land of Lattes. I didn’t consider that as the whir of espresso machines roared from Cockfosters to Chelsea, that a dark roast bean wouldn’t star, that the definition of delicious was as wide as the 4,781 miles between the two damp cities.
Let’s be clear that coffee is not a new obsession. London’s love affair with it dates back to a time when the water supply was so vile, so filled with excrement, that the drink of choice was beer. Beer for breakfast. Beer for lunch. Beer for dinner. The city was, by some accounts, drunk for much of the day. So when an Armenian immigrant named Pasqua Rosee set up a coffee cart outside of the parish of St. Michael Cornhill in 1652, the caffeine jolt and sudden sobriety earned him a steady following. Soon coffee houses sprouted up all over the city — 550 at the peak — becoming bastions of political discourse, a favorite haunt of politicians and intellectuals. The brew was as thick as it was tart, or as historians claim one coffee house regular described it, a “syrup of soot” with “the essence of old shoes.”
The city may have continued chugging coffee had tea from Ceylon and India not arrived on English shores in the mid-18th century and become the national beverage. It wasn’t until World War II when US soldiers introduced Britain to Instant Nescafé that coffee reclaimed fans. This first coffee wave of the modern era, however, didn’t rock tea off the podium. Coffee Wave #2 did. That’s when the espresso chains — Costa, Starbucks, Caffé Nero — proliferated, cementing the grab a latte and go habit. Then came Coffee Wave #3: The Rise of the Independents. Transplanted Australians introduced their native café culture — sip and linger, work and talk — creating cozy spaces with comfy chairs and cushy sofas. They promoted their specialty beans gleaned from small farms, roasted in small batches, far superior to the mass-produced product of uncertain origin sold by the chains. The independents were everywhere. There was Flat White in Soho. Sacred on Ganton Street. Department of Coffee and Social Affairs on Leather Lane. Books and apps shared café locations and logistics. Coffee was on its way to being one of the UK’s healthiest markets.
London, my London, is in Coffee Wave #4: The Science of Coffee. Measuring. Weighing. Water temperature. Brewing is not just an art, but a carefully calculated discipline. Jeffrey Young of Allegra Strategies, the founder of the London Coffee Festival and London Coffee Week, equates coffee with wine. “We’re crafts people. We can create the perfect cup of coffee,” he says. Like wine, the professionals play with the science, and then expand their brand. Coffee professionals, he adds, “are very serious entrepreneurs that see a new opportunity, but that they need to do it very well.”
Am I a coffee lumpenprole? These experts have devoted careers to selecting the right beans, the right equipment, the right temperature. If travel is about embracing the alien, I need to better understand their world, their coffee.
And so I make the rounds. I visit The Attendant, a former public lavatory dating back to Queen Victoria, a narrow underground chamber accessible by steep steps descending from the street. The ceramic tops of 150-year-old urinals line one wall. The barista, a chatty fellow in a knit cap, pours me a filtered cup of Kenyan light roast. It is lukewarm. I smile, sip, and discard. I wouldn’t cross the street for this brew. I do, however, cross the street for a bag of Starbucks espresso beans. I am desperate. After a few mornings of the familiar buzz, I am fortified to relaunch the quest, feeling only mildly chagrined at my transgression.
I try Workshop, Monocle, Monmouth, Farm Girl. I try Origin, Fernandez &
Wells, A Wanted Man on King’s Road. The Coffee Jar in Camden. The lattes are grand, but the beans I bring home? Blah. I try beans from Square Mile Roaster, beans from the from The Roasting Shed. Flavorful, but who needs a hint of citrus when seeking a jolt?
On a brisk afternoon with sunbeams poking through the clouds, I march to Kaffeine on Great Titchfield Street. It’s small, an L-shaped café of brick and wood offering brioche and salads and seven-seeded sandwiches but no wifi. Customers are expected to talk, mingle. Only espresso drinks are served; there isn’t room behind the cramped counter for filtered.
Peter Dore-Smith, the owner, stands behind the glass shelves of pastries., a tall lanky guy with a few day’s beard and black t-shirt. Like Thomas Haigh, Dore-Smith is intent on tutoring me. “This,” he says, holding up a bag of Square Mile La Estrella Del Ostro, “is delicious.” A Columbian bean with hints of gooseberry and cherry. “How do you brew?”
“French press,” I say.
He nods, approving. Leaning over the counter, his face not far from mine, he offers a primer on French press perfection. First, one must have a quality grinder that will crush the beans into uniform size. Too large a chunk and the water won’t absorb. Too fine and the coffee turns into sludge, the particles clogging the press. The water must be pure — not from the faucet London water, famous for its limestone, which leaves a white coating everywhere.
“I use a Brita!” I say brightly.
A Brita filter is fine, he says, although I sense that it really isn’t.
The water must be hot, but not boiling. Set the timer for 4 minutes.
“Is that enough for the flavor to emerge?” I ask, feigning authority.
He doesn’t bother to answer. Pour the coffee into your heated mug — phew, I think. I do heat my mug — and then empty the remainder from the French Press into another vessel.
His brow furrows at my puzzlement. “Never let coffee sit in its grounds,” he says.
I buy a copy of “The London Coffee Guide,” 296-pages of café listings and descriptions, plus a map. I also buy the beans. “Come back and let me know how you like them,” he says, handing me his card. He turns towards a female barista and we are done.
I don’t buy a $145 burr grinder with coarseness settings, as he recommends, and I pour boiling water over the grounds. I do set a timer, but let the grounds and water sit for five minutes, not four. After I pour the first cup, I do not transfer the remainder into another vessel. Why wash one more thing?
Is this why Dore-Smith’s medium roast Columbian is kick-less?
When did coffee become so precious? Brewing so exact? I seek a voice of reason and arrange to meet Jonathan Morris, a research professor of consumption and trends at the University of Hertfordshire who has written hundreds of thousands of words in books and articles on coffee. We are seated by a window at Origins, an artisan café near Euston Station, and Morris orders “batch brew filter.” What is that? I ask. “Old coffee,” he says. “Coffee that’s already made.”
Why, I ask, in London is mild roast revered and dark roast vilified?
In his latest book, Coffee: A Global History, Morris explains how the world acquired a taste for coffee, and why coffee tastes so different in different countries. For one, people drink the coffee that’s available to them. Lots of people in lots of countries — Spain, Italy, Portugal, Turkey — roast dark, says Morris, “to deal with the beans they have.” As in Robusta. Alfred Peet, founder of Peet’s Coffee, was “the Godfather of American specialty coffee,” says Morris. “He was a guy of Dutch origin and roasted pretty dark. He inspired the three guys who founded Starbucks.”
The café culture in Britain represents a new lifestyle, reflecting the way we work and socialize, he says. Consultants, freelancers, entrepreneurs often use cafes as their workspace to avoid isolation. New parents wheel their prams into cafes to meet other new parents. “For the British to embrace coffee shops, they needed to revolutionize the coffee,” Morris says. “Everyone is an expert on how to make tea. I can make it at home with a tea bag and kettle. Coffee, however, requires a lot of ability.”
Britain, he adds, has embraced light roast because it has adopted the argument that you want to taste the bean, not the roast. A trend? I ask. Could it go the other way?
Jonathan Morris shrugs. He has no crystal ball. His recommendation for me is to find the darkest blend I can and focus on grinding to the right size. And if that doesn’t work, trot to the nearest café.
In the center of Cambridge is a square, and in that square is an open-air market that dates back to the Saxons. For decades, Michael Matthew has sold coffee and loose-leaf tea from his market stall, and for decades he has served as this university town’s expert on both products.
He’s a pale man, with thinning brown hair and glasses, so soft-spoken that one has to lean over the rows of Uganda Robusta, Brazil Santos, and Gunpowder Green to catch a word. He nods approvingly when customers decline his offer to grind beans. Beans, he knows, should always be ground just minutes before brewing. Once air hits the grounds, good-bye flavor. He’s an encyclopedia, describing the floral, citrus, nutty aromas, flavors. He sweeps his hand over Dark Continental when asked for the strongest blend.
He’s bemused by what I call Britain’s infatuation with coffee, since as far as he is concerned, Britain has always drunk coffee, or at least his coffee. On a drizzly Friday morning, he pours the Dark Continental beans on to the scale, then a few more, eyeing the ounces. “People buy what they like,” he says. Dark beans are favorites in the winter, and lighter roasts sell in the summer. That I prefer dark roast, doesn’t generate a twitch.
And why should it? I realize as I watch him fasten the bag. If my grandmother refused to compromise her taste for the fashion of her adopted country, why must I? I have embraced much of my temporary home’s habits, from pub life to apologies. I queue patiently in the check-out. Isn’t it okay to savor Michael Matthew’s dark brew guilt-free?
Handing me my bag of Dark Continental, the oil already soaking through the paper, Michael Matthew says, smiling shyly, “Drink what you like.”