London rides the new wave
Walking the streets of London, seeing people queuing to buy a coffee in a small backstreet café or a coffee cart at a market is now a familiar scene. Londoners are getting behind the new wave of specialty coffee that is making an impact across the city.
The London coffee scene is undergoing a major resurgence. Driven by a band of young specialty coffee professionals, there is already a loyal hardcore following ready to try the next caffeine-based experience. Located predominately in East London and the West End, these crusaders are on a course to convert a whole new generation of Londoners to their religion - specialty coffee. The reference to religion is no accident. These “disciples” of specialty coffee spread their gospel through the new generation’s apostolic interaction with social media – Facebook and Twitter - and with a fervour that needs to be seen to believed. After spending many nights following the blogs and tweets of the new age coffee enthusiasts, it is clear that they not only share ideas and theories on the bean, but also spread the word and promote the cause on a global scale. Through this medium, I have been able to connect with some of the main players and to glean a greater understanding of their new coffee world.
There has been an abundance of coffee houses in London and the UK since the mid-17th century, with over 1000 said to have been established around the time of George I. These establishments provided a forum for discussion and debate among a largely intellectual clientele. They were awash with enlightened and robust conversation among friends, while drinking their dark brews. It led to these coffee houses becoming known as “Penny Universities.”
By the 19th century, the country’s drinking habits had changed. The introduction of Indian tea and the beginning of more efficient communication via post, combined with improved road travel, saw the demise of the once popular coffee houses. The few establishments that survived were isolated and set up mainly by immigrants from Turkey, Greece and the Arab nations.
Post WWII saw London enter a major rebuilding phase. Immigrants from Italy and Spain introduced a new café culture to London, which coincided with the first espresso machines arriving from Italy. A newfound following for espresso was born, and out of it grew London’s own café culture during the 1950s and 1960s. However, subsequent decades saw London and the UK in the grip of economic malaise. As unemployment soared, countless cafés were closed to make way for stores selling the daily staples and necessities.
Until then, England had been drinking a mixture of Italian-based espresso, European filter, American drip and instant coffee for many decades. But, as a predominately tea drinking nation, England did not re-establish a unique coffee culture of its own – until recently.
Being chosen as host for the World Barista Championship (WBC) in 2010 marks a coming of age for coffee in the UK and in particular for a segment of the industry that is referred to as “Specialty Coffee.” In the lead up to this event, two UK nationals were recognised as world champions, with James Hoffmann winning the 2007 World Barista Championship in Tokyo, Japan and Gwilym Davies winning the title in Atlanta, USA in 2009. For this particular industry segment, these times will be looked back on in the annals of coffee history and celebrated as a significant period of development and progress. And, it won’t be because of the WBC trophies, but for the dynamic development that has taken place behind the scenes in the roasteries and cafés in London. The new wave of coffee may have only just begun but its future looks exciting.
Not that the London specialty scene has been totally devoid of progress over those quieter decades. Local pioneers such as Anita Le Roy from Monmouth Coffee have been serving up fresh single origin coffees for over 20 years and this remains one of the popular boutique brands in London.
Former World Barista Champion and co-director of leading London coffee roaster, Square Mile, James Hoffmann, credits Monmouth coffee for helping to build the foundations for specialty coffee.
“Monmouth was certainly the first in London to source exceptional coffees and push traceability. In the last five years there have been some changes. A lot of different people have played a role and the community that has grown has been notably welcoming and friendly,” says James.
“In the last two or three years, there have been a number of places opening that are run by people who are passionate and knowledgeable about coffee, in a way that is new to London. Quite a number are antipodean, but there is a growing homegrown interest in doing coffee better too.”
Tracing the origins of London’s new wave is interesting to say the least, particularly for an antipodean citizen such as myself. Australians and New Zealanders have certainly played a major role in the development of the boutique cafés established in London.
It is widely accepted that the ANZAC presence in London during the mid-1990s and early naughties - and our need for a textured milk-based espresso hit similar to what we were used to back home - was a catalyst for the new style of cafés to emerge around the West End of Soho and Covent Garden.
Flat White Café opening its doors in 2005 was a sign of things to come. This establishment is joined by a long list of frequently visited cafés also run by expats, including Lantana and Dose, Nude, Taylor St Baristas and Kaffeine, just to name a few. These cafés attracted not only Australians and New Zealanders living in the surrounding areas, but also locals who welcomed this new approach to coffee with its focus on freshness, customer service and a connection with growers and origin; and perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to expand their knowledge and understanding of the coffee experience. Baristas and roasters have incorporated the most recent developments and trends from the Scandanavian, Asian and the US specialty coffee markets and have also increased exposure to growers at origin.
The new coffee wave has moved quickly and gained popularity. There is strong camaraderie, with encouragement and information readily shared. While part of this is to educate the consumer, it is also vital in the promotion and growth of the industry. One great example of this has been the introduction of the “Disloyalty Card” by 2009 World Barista Champion, Gwilym Davies, who launched a promotional campaign. You have to complete a tour of East London’s emerging coffee scene to claim a free coffee from him via Gwilym Davies@Prufrock.
Gwilym is the industry’s “hot ticket item” at present . When he isn’t manning his coffee carts on Whitecross Street and Columbia Road or serving coffee for Prufrock Coffee in a clothing store, he travels the world educating coffee companies and baristas in the art of fine coffee. On his recent trip to Australia, Gwilym shared some wonderful insights on where London coffee is headed. “We are currently establishing an exciting coffee culture that is moving into unchartered territory. I believe we will look back at this period we are in now and be proud of the progress we have made and the advancement that has occurred. There is so much happening out there now, it is so exciting.”
It is also common in the London scene for cafés and roasters to share the blend formula and bean composition for a particular coffee with clients. This is unheard of for traditional espresso blends where the composition and variety of beans are shrouded in secrecy.
There is a strong emphasis on tracking the origin of the bean and educating the consumer about the process from plantation to cup and including the source of origin or grower in the interaction or relationship with the end user. Most of these cafés put a strong focus on fresh food sourced from the producer.
Seasonal varietals are very popular. Several of the London roasters believe specialty roasters acknowledge that sourcing the freshest quality green beans is a seasonal challenge and not possible all year round. They choose to change blends seasonally rather than constantly altering the blend to chase the same flavour profiles of a single recognised blend. Interestingly this concept has only just started to take off in Australia, no doubt inspired from London and abroad.
There is a large focus on the role of the barista in the London coffee experience. Whether it is a clean cut coffee geek or the uber cool tattooed and pierced individual, the skill of the barista plays a critical role in the experience. Latte art is almost compulsory and the barista is trained to uphold the strictest standards of technical skill and professionalism. Most of these cafés seem to see themselves as guardians of the new wave and need to uphold the standards to continue to advance the great cause. There is a deliberate effort to ensure that customer service, as well as a friendly disposition, remains paramount in the coffee equation. According to James Hoffmann this is a key element that makes the London specialty coffee scene stand out.
But, what does the future hold for London coffee and in particular what influence will the new wave of specialty coffee have on this city? Only time will tell, but James Hoffmann has some closing thoughts on the matter as a former barista and perhaps the most influential roaster in London at present. “I hope we see a change to the base level of what is considered acceptable. I hope we see the consumer demand better because good coffee is more available and accessible to them. I think this is the right goal as it would drive consumption, increased spending and reward quality-focused businesses. There is a huge amount of growth available in the coffee market, but I think this is the only way we’ll get there.”
A RETURN TO THE “PENNY UNIVERSITY”
In May 2010, Square Mile Coffee Roasters had the opportunity to utilise a retail space for a period of three months. Square Mile Directors, James Hoffmann and Anette Moldvaer, along with Tim Williams, created a unique “brew bar” concept that pushed the boundaries of commercial café coffee. The bar comprised a limited seating arrangement for only six patrons at one time, who were treated to a personal pour over experience from the barista without the addition of condiments. The unique concept allows punters to experience single origin brewed slowly to exacting temperatures, extracting maximum flavour and character from each coffee. And just as the “Penny Universities” of a bygone era created, the atmosphere of the intimate grouping of people sipping on their fine coffee seemed to encourage new thought and conversation. This time though, the coffee was the main topic of discussion.
“I’m very proud of ‘Penny University,’ but it was only possible because of the staff who worked there,” explains James Hoffmann. “Tim Williams did an amazing job in helping create it and then running it. There weren’t really a lot of businesses out there that were similar so it required innovation and a lot of thought. We thought there would be some resistance to the lack of condiments on bar, but no one really batted an eyelid. We thought there might be some resistance to higher priced cups of coffee, or no take out. People totally understood. I think specialty coffee regularly makes the mistake of underestimating the consumer. We knew that success would depend heavily on customer service, though I don’t think we realised quite how intense it would be.”
LONDON’S BEST COFFEE iPHONE APP
Blue Crow Media has developed a free iPhone application called “London’s Best Coffee.” This application features over 50 of the best independent cafés and stalls serving locally roasted coffee in London. It also provides information on the type of beans and machines each café uses, includes maps and allows users to rate the cafés that are listed.
As of 1 Decemeber 2010
25 Most Popular Cafes
1. Browns of Brockley
3. Dose Espresso
4. Espresso Room
5. Federation Coffee
6. Fernandez & Wells – Beak Street
7. Fernandez & Wells –
St Anne’s Court
8. Flat Cap Stall
9. Foxcroft and Ginger
10. Ginger & White
11. Hackney Pearl
13. Lantana Café
14. Look Mum No Hands
15. Merito Coffee Stall
16. Milk Bar
17. Monmouth Coffee – Covent Garden
18. Nude Espresso
19. Pavilion Café
20. Prufrock Coffee
21. Ragged Canteen
22. St David Coffee House
23. Tapped & Packed
24. Tina, We Salute You
25. Notes, Music and Coffee
• Climpson & Sons
• Coffee Plant
• Has Bean
• J. Atkinson & Co.
• Nude Espresso
• Square Mile
A big thank you to James Hoffmann from Square Mile Coffee Roasters for his time and input (www.squaremileblog.com).
All photography has been kindly supplied by Rick Nunn and Kym Ellis from their numerous adventures exploring London’s coffee culture. (www.RickNunn.com and www.kymellis.com)