International Coffee Day: how Britain went crazy for coffee

It’s International Coffee Day on Monday, and our relationship with the
beautiful bean is on the up

International Coffee Day

 Hang on, back in a minute… That’s better. I can’t really get going until I have had my coffee. It seems that next week International Coffee Day. This rather depends on what you mean by “international”, though: in Brazil, where you would think they know a thing or two about the subject, International Coffee Day takes place on May 24 (in Angola, it’s April 14).

But in any case, for thousands of us every day is International Coffee Day. Our relationship with the beautiful bean is on the up: the UK coffee-shop market was estimated to have turned over £6.2 billion in 2013. (“One in five coffee shop visitors visit every day, compared with one in nine in 2009,” trilled Hospitality and Catering News.)

With healthy, recession-busting levels of growth has come at least a measure of diversity. The big corporate behemoths increasingly have to share the high street with small independents: quirky spaces staffed by real enthusiasts, where you’ll get to taste different blends and techniques (including this summer’s hit beverage, cold brew). At home, more and more of us are rustling up our own espressos and (only before 11AM, one hopes) cappuccinos, partly because of the rampaging success of Nespresso-type capsule systems. There are even occasional news stories saying coffee is good for us, to file alongside the fistfuls of jeremiads warning of heart disease or Type 2 diabetes.

Traditional Italian espresso was a blend of coffee from different countries, which might vary from year to year – this enabled importers to hedge against fluctuations in price, while expert blenders sought to maintain consistency of taste by altering roasting times. It’s still not uncommon for espresso blends to contain a percentage of nutty “robusta” beans alongside the sharper-tasting and more prestigious “arabica” variety. But nowadays there’s a trend towards something more akin to the exploration of “terroir” in wine: 100 per cent arabica, dark-chocolatey Brazilian, fruity Columbian, and so on.

 Olfactory Coffee in Cornwall is typical of a new wave of fiercely committed independents: a small coffee shop and roastery where they buy direct from growers or trusted “green” – unroasted – bean importers, and make their own blends (their flagship espresso at the moment is called “Knockout”: it’s 40 per cent beans from Nicaragua, 40 from Mexico and 20 from India – all single estate). Olfactory’s Angel Panushev told me: “My first tip for people who’d like to make the best coffee at home is to buy freshly roasted coffee beans from independent roasteries and coffee shops. Coffees from the supermarkets do not normally have a ‘roast date’ on them – coffee is at its best within a month of this date – and also in the majority of cases they don’t say where their beans come from.”

Often places like Olfactory will serve a pretty localised clientele ( the best coffee shop I’ve come across in London, Volcano Coffee Works, is on an industrial estate between a recycling plant and a cemetery), so you’ve just got to look for signs of a fanatical perfectionism – blackboards inscribed with phrases like “pink grapefruit acidity”, large sacks strewn around, that sort of thing. The golden rule is that if it smells good, it’ll probably taste good.

Coffee traditions around the world

On the home front, capsule systems have gone crazy over different regions, roast times and suchlike. Illy’s “iperEspresso” capsules come in various formulations including the “monoarabica” range, each sourced from a single country (I like the “IDILLYUM”, a smooth after-dinner number from El Salvador, which they claim to be naturally low in caffeine); the little Nespresso pots come in more colours than a nail bar, and have names like strippers (“Capriccio”, Arpeggio”) – they also do “Limited Editions” once a year.

If you’re interested in exploring single regions, or even single estates, it may anyway be better to go with filtered or “drip-brewed” coffee than the resinous intensity of espresso, which can be more of a blunt instrument. Though filter, cafetière or percolator coffee is more caffeinated than espresso, even if tastes milder.

Over the summer, French competition authorities handed down a ruling which paves the way for anybody to produce generic Nespresso-compatible capsules. These already exist, but have been fairly aggressively resisted by Nestle thus far. How much of a game-changer the ruling turns out to be remains to be seen (though generic capsules could save you £130 a year if you regularly use brand ones).

But really, if you want “proper” espresso at home, you need a proper espresso machine; and you need to grind your beans yourself. It’s more laborious and messier than a capsule system, of course; but any true addict will tell you that the paraphernalia is half the fun. It also means you can experiment with your own blends.

This brings us to cold brew, which is made either by slowly steeping coffee in water or drip-filtering through a complex assortment of pipes and retorts like Gale Boetticher’s “warm brew” setup – “It’s all about the quinic acid” – in Breaking Bad. All I would personally say about cold brew is that if you want to drink a glass of chilled dishwater, £4 seems an awful lot to pay to do it. It’s time-consuming and potentially labour-intensive, and it has a short shelf life. But it’s regarded by some (not me) as a way to make the best of the best beans – so maybe the price tag is not grounds for outrage after all.

 Wherever your tastes lead you, it’s good to be aware of sustainability and welfare issues. Coffee farming takes place at altitude, so it’s not massively implicated in the problem of deforestation; but you could look out for “shade-grown” coffee, which is cultivated in existing forests and has minimal environmental impact – this is also more likely to be organic. There’s a nice certification scheme called the Rainforest Alliance (its logo is one of those cute frogs which would kill you in two seconds if you touched it): this guarantees that a proportion (but only a proportion) of any certified product is produced in accordance with a range of welfare and environmental criteria and, at very least, that the growers get a fair price for it.

Fairtrade is pretty much standard among supermarkets, and the big coffee-bar chains: it guarantees a certain return to growers, and funnels money into development initiatives. The chains also do this – though you could say in the case of one or two of them that if they paid more tax, they wouldn’t need to. Anyway, happy International Coffee Day, and may the crema rise up to meet you. Just don’t overdo it and get all jittery.

Groovy coffee gadgets

If you go for a “true” espresso machine , you’ll want a “burr” rather than a “blade” grinder to pulverise your beans. This will yield an even grain size that’ll resist the high pressure of the machine. I have a Krups GVX2 Expert that’s pretty good, though its safety cutout kicks in a little too readily – if the machine isn’t completely vertical, or if someone comes in to the kitchen and talks loudly.

One thing they don’t teach you at the Coffee Academy, or rather one thing they don’t teach you if you don’t go to the Coffee Academy, is the paramount importance of tamping – squidging the ground coffee tightly into the bowl before you slam it into place with a satisfying wrench. Grooviest of these by a long chalk is Rapha’s preposterously expensive Chris King Espresso Tamper; though, in truth, the plastic one you’ll probably find supplied with your coffee machine will do the job as well.

Another piece of kit that’s quite handy is a “knock box”, into which you can discharge a little cake of used coffee grounds (these are good for compost). They are not widely available but this one from Bella Barista works fine.

The “Moka” or bicamerale, the classic stove-top coffee maker, hugely popular in Europe, is little seen here: it makes a strong but sometimes bitter brew, properly glossy and emulsified – it’s really the closest you can get to espresso at home wihout a machine. La Cupola by Alessi is a postmodernist classic, designed by Aldo Rossi to look a little like a domed Renaissance cathedral. It also works: the seal is silicone, both squidgier (thus more perfectly airtight) and more durable than rubber.



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