the intelligent consumer
"THINK of it like a loo. You might as well paint the walls a fun colour because you're going to be there every day." It's not the most obvious way for a proprietor to describe the concept behind a chain of coffee shops. But then Ally Svenson's Seattle Coffee Company isn't - on this side of the Atlantic, at least - an ordinary business. In Seattle coffee is a religion, and that makes Svenson an evangelist.

The peaks of the Seattle skyline, picked out in white, blue and brown on her company's cups, are already familiar to many Londoners. Now she is starting to spread the gospel of the latte (pronounced lah-tay) bar outside London, introducing drinkers to phrases like "double tall skinny" and "no fun vanilla". The British idea of what makes a good cup of coffee may be about to change as radically as when the first Gaggia Espresso machine arrived here from Italy in the 1950s. If that sounds like hyperbole, consider the precedent in America. In 1987, a firm called Starbucks opened its first latte bar in Seattle. By 1995, it had more than 500 outlets and a host of competitors, and Seattle's booming coffee culture had made the tricky leap from the West Coast to the East, taking New York by storm.

When the Seattle phenomenon reached New York, Svenson (at this time living in London and finding her mornings blighted by the lack of decent coffee) phoned Starbucks and other major US firms, suggesting that they open in Britain. There was clearly, she argued, a gap in the market. Cafe society was already going through a mini-renaissance in London. One-off London cafes like the Monmouth Coffee House showed that coffee had as much cachet as ever; and Cafe Nero, Costa Coffee and Aroma had proved that chain- store coffee didn't have to mean dishwater cappuccinos. The Americans wouldn't listen, so Svenson threw in her job and put her money where her mouth was. In April last year, the first of three Seattle Coffee Company shops opened in Covent Garden, London.

So what exactly is Seattle-style coffee? Central is the caffe latte. "Latte is very like the cappuccino," Svenson explains. "Both drinks have shots of espresso as their base. But a latte contains more steamed milk and less froth." Also central to the Seattle approach is the idea of the "coffee cocktail". Customers create their own drinks from the building blocks on the menu, the strangest of which to British tastes are flavoured syrups - caramel, vanilla, hazelnut, even tiramisu.

No one is considered difficult if they ask for skimmed milk ("a skinny"), decaf ("a no fun") or an extra shot of espresso ("a double"). So does this emphasis on customer choice mean that we will have to get to grips with the differences between arabica (high-quality) and robusta (lower- quality) beans? Will we be left out in the cold if we don't know the difference between Javan and Kenyan brews?

"I don't think so," Svenson says. "I compare what we are doing - and what's happening in the coffee market generally - to olive oil. Ten years ago people would just buy a bottle of generic olive oil. Now, you go into a supermarket and there are 20 varieties on the shelves. Some people - the connoisseurs - will buy a particular oil because they can taste the difference; some will buy it because it seems the smart thing to do; and others will just want any old olive oil. But the bottle they get will almost certainly be of better quality than a decade ago."

To some coffee drinkers the idea of added flavourings is hard to swallow. "Speaking personally, I feel these `cocktails' are a completely different drink," says Nigel Passingham of the Real Coffee Association. To others, syrups are just the latest example of a historical trend. "Flavoured coffee goes back to the Turkish, Viennese and French, who flavoured their drinks with, respectively, cardamom, figs and chicory. Under English law those are still the only things that you're allowed to sell mixed in with ground coffee beans," says Will Hobhouse, managing director of Whittard of Chelsea.

In defiance of this archaic legislation, Whittard has sold flavoured ground coffee since 1989, and now boasts 12 varieties. It's made by adding oils to the beans as they roast, or by mixing in substances like dusted cocoa and chopped vanilla to freshly ground coffee. The result is a coffee with a distinctive smell, although compared to coffees flavoured with syrups the taste is muted. Flavours still make up a tiny part of the British real coffee market (and in any case, 88 per cent still prefer instant). But the occasional flavoured brand, such as Boaters, is now starting to sneak on to supermarket shelves, a sign of how much more interested in real coffee and how much more adventurous the British public is becoming. Good news for the Seattle Coffee Company.