STORM IN A COFFEE CUP

The second American revolution began in Seattle; now it's spreading here. Will US-style coffee shops convert us to peach- flavoured cappuccino, asks Michael Bateman
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GOUR-MAY coffee shops may be blowing our way, from the United States. And when it blows from America, it blows a gale, as we all know. Think of beef - Wimpy bars, McDonald's; chicken - Colonel Saunders, Kentucky Fried Chicken; pizza - Pizza Hut, Pizza Express; ice- cream - Baskin Robbins, Haagen-Dazs.

But coffee shops, really? Dr Johnson will be turning in his grave. Some of us would claim we've been drinking gourmet coffee for three centuries, and we don't need any help from a country notorious for the ditchwater that has passed for coffee for most of this century.

Harsh words, coming from a Briton, considering our national drink was tea until a few years ago, when instant coffee overtook it (at any rate, as far as amount spent on it is concerned: we spend about pounds 500m a year on tea but pounds 600m on coffee, most of which is instant).

But there's surely never been a time, over these last 300 years, when we haven't had at least a core of connoisseurs who knew their coffee. But have you ever met an American who knows his arabica from his robusta? (The arabica bean, grown in the world's tropical highlands, has the more delicate, complex flavour, lightly acid; the robusta bean, which usually comes from equatorial lowlands, has a simpler, blander taste. But you knew that.)

However, there has been a change in the US. It occurred with dramatic suddenness and these last few years the cause of gour-may coffee has been promoted with evangelical zeal.

One company, Starbucks, has opened some 600 gourmet coffee shops across the country. "It's an epidemic," says the Independent on Sunday's man in Washington, John Carlin. "Real coffee has become an obsession. At one stage last year Starbucks was opening new coffee shops at the rate of one a day."

It could never happen here, you say. But it already has. The first in this idiom, The Seattle Coffee Company, has opened shops in Covent Garden and Canary Wharf in London and in Cambridge, with many more in the pipeline.

Seattle, on the north-west coast of the USA, is the birthplace of the American Coffee Revolution. Now, says John Carlin, the city is overrun with coffee bars, and not only are there cafes everywhere, in malls and bookshops, but you'll find mobile espresso-cappuccino carts, like luxury ice-cream vans, touring the streets.

It was mostly espressos and cappuccinos at first. But now Americans are developing a passion for what they call fancy coffees, real bean coffees or gourmet coffees. The most sought-after are the single-estate coffees. Single-estate? It's no accident that it echoes the vocabulary of the upmarket world of fine wines, not to mention their fine prices.

We have single-estate coffees in the UK, too, you can be sure. At Harvey Nichols you will pay pounds 5.50 a lb for their regular blends, but you'll have to pay a lot more for their Yauco Selects Puerto Rica - pounds 13 a lb - or for their Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee - pounds 26 a lb. "Many people don't seem to mind paying more for the best," says the coffee buyer, Mark Lewis. "As with a fine wine, they probably drink less of it."

Back to America. When they take something up, they can do it with maniacal fervour. So when the local Seattle Starbucks chain opened up across the States, they set in train an extraordinary phenomenon. Claudia Roden, a historian of coffee as well as an expert on Middle Eastern food, says that everywhere you go you will encounter coffee festivals and seminars, coffee courses and tours, even specialist coffee magazines. Health issues, such as alternative methods of decaffeinating coffee, are fiercely debated. As are the comparative merits of flavoured coffee. Flavoured what? Isn't coffee itself a flavour?

This is one of the less appealing aspects of the American Coffee Revolution, says Jon Thorn, author of The Coffee Companion (Apple, pounds 15). Along with an interest in the most expensive coffees (the Specialty Association of America records that 64 per cent of the new coffee drinkers earn more than pounds 30,000 a year), there is also a bizarre fascination with coffees that taste of anything but coffee.

Well, there's a precedent in the Middle East, whence coffee comes, for cardamom-flavoured coffee and even cinnamon, vanilla, mint. But this is something else, says Jon Thorn with dismay. "Chocolate, raspberry, almonds, hazelnuts, even strawberry and cream-flavoured coffees. It's usually a way of disguising inferior coffee beans. The roast beans are sprayed with flavoured oil essences. Or else a flavoured syrup can be added to the coffees."

It could never happen here. Oh, no? It already does. The Algerian Coffee Stores (of 52 Old Compton Street, W1) in Soho, which is one of the oldest (1887) and most respected coffee shops in the country, selling coffees from 15 different countries, also sells flavoured coffees in response to customer demand. "I don't drink them," insists the manager, Paul Crocetta, "but we are open-minded." He ran through his list, which includes chocolate, amaretto, orange liqueur, southern pecan, banana, peaches and cream and - Belgian lace.

It remains one of Jon Thorn's two favourite coffee stores (selling many single-estate coffees) though you won't find flavoured coffees in his five-star favourite, HR Higgins (of 79 Duke Street, Mayfair, London W1).

Will American-style coffee shops catch on here, then? "We've had one coffee-shop boom, with skiffle, in the Fifties. But I don't see why not. There is a British chain of coffee shops selling good coffee at main railway stations, the Costa Coffee Boutiques." And a mobile coffee van, American- style, has already been spotted on the streets of Islington.

But the roast coffee you buy to use at home isn't fresh enough, in my experience (it's too much trouble to take it back and complain and what could the shop do except give you more of the same?).

"This is the problem with coffee shops," Jon Thorn says. "Display is the enemy of good coffee. It needs to be kept away from air and light. The only firm rule for buying coffee is to go somewhere where there's a quick turnover."

Very fresh coffee is one of the unique selling points of the Seattle Coffee Company, says the managing director, Ally Svenson, who really is from Seattle. "We have twice a week deliveries from our roasters." Another is what she calls Customer Service. "Giving the customer anything they want, however unlikely, mix-and-match. They might ask for three shots of coffee, perhaps three different kinds and one of them decaff, extra foam (milk), twice as much sprinkle (chocolate or cinnamon powders). Or they might want funky fruity flavours, or nut flavours or chocolate. Fun flavours, like Viennese, which is chocolate and vanilla."

Along with coffee-drinking there's a Seattle vocab to match. Caffe latte (pronounced la-tay) is milky cappuccino, with a light foam of steamed milk. But what's a double-skinny-no-fun-with-wings? The barista (that's the guy who works in the bar) will translate. Skinny is skimmed milk. No fun is decaffeinated. Wings is to take away. And, hey, I've changed my mind, gimme a Nescafe.

Back (with relief) to coffee-tasting coffee. HR Higgins stocks some 50 blends in all, coffees from 20 countries, including the excellent single- estate coffees Tanzanian Kibo Chagga and Kenya Gethumbwini Estates (both at pounds 14 per kg which is pounds 6.35 per lb). For mail order, ring 0171 629 3913. The Algerian Coffee Stores stocks 14 original coffees, 19 blends and eight single-estate coffees in all, including Colombian Supremo Popayan, Colombia St Augustin, Guatemala antigua (meaning old, not the island), Mandheling Sumatra (all at pounds 3.95 per 12lb); Papua New Guinea and Monsoon Malabat (at pounds 3.80 per 12lb) and the prized Hawaii Kona Lei (at pounds 9.60 per 12lb.) For mail and credit-card orders, ring 0171 437 5470.

If you're going to buy gourmet coffees, it makes sense to look after them, advises Jon Thorn, and that means storing them in the deep-freeze (not the fridge). The best way is to buy coffee in the bean, if you have a grinder. Deep-freeze it and grind in small quantities.

Here is his general advice on choice of beans. If you're buying coffee for its delicate flavour and aroma, he says, you'll want light roasts, which are usually more expensive. The dark roasts (after-dinner coffees) are usually made from cheaper beans. (Making a good espresso at home is something else, a cult activity requiring much expensive equipment, he says.)

So, here, for the record, is Jon Thorn's rundown of the world's coffees. Everyone should experiment until they find their own favourites, he says. His own preferences change frequently (but never to banana and raspberry flavours).

BRAZIL: Dominant force in the market. Mild, soft coffees grown close to sea level. Best is Santos, from the Sao Paulo region, smooth with no bitterness.

COLOMBIA: Beans grown at high altitude. Full-bodied, mellow, with gentle acidity and a slightly nutty flavour.

COSTA RICA: Mild, fragrant, delicate acidity. Outstanding coffee is from Tarrazu, with its richer, more harmonious flavours.

GUATEMALA: Versatile coffee. Lightly roasted is mild and full. Dark-roasted, it is smoky and powerful.

PUERTO RICA: Up-and-coming coffee due to US investment. Rich flavour.

JAMAICA: Blue Mountain coffee, grown at 5,000ft, is produced in tiny quantities. At its best, great finesse, very subtle.

KENYA: Lively character, whether drunk black or with milk. Noted aroma and pleasant sharpness. The king of East African coffees.

TANZANIA: Less acid than Kenya, rich, delicate. Look for the fragrant full-bodied Chagga.

ETHIOPIA: Gamey flavour. The best is Harrar Longberry, winey, with notes of blackcurrant.

CAMEROON and IVORY COAST: Robusta coffees, strong and quite bitter, often used in espresso blends.

MYSORE: Soft, rich coffee with low acidity and a light, winey taste.

MALABAR: Monsoon Malabar is one of the world's famous coffees; the green beans are exposed to humidity and mature in the sack for months to develop rich, musty flavours you either love or hate. Close in style to the coffee drunk in London in the 17th century.

JAVA: The coffee is matured before roasting, giving it a heavy, mellow flavour.

SUMATRA: Similar to Java, but less intense, with a touch of delicate acidity.

HAWAII: Coffee grown on the slopes of a volcano. The Kona estates produce coffee that is smooth, nutty, with an intense aroma. !

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