My round: You gotta work for your coffee

So you think a latte addiction makes you a coffee connoisseur? If you want to taste the beans, go black to basics
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

The espresso gravy train seems to have hit the buffers. Sales are down or flat at many of the country's prominent coffee-bar chains. But the signs are promising in the sector of the coffee biz that really matters: the sourcing, buying and processing of high-quality beans for consumption at home.

The espresso gravy train seems to have hit the buffers. Sales are down or flat at many of the country's prominent coffee-bar chains. But the signs are promising in the sector of the coffee biz that really matters: the sourcing, buying and processing of high-quality beans for consumption at home.

Whatever style gurus say, the truth is that our new coffee culture has more to do with lifestyle accessorising than knowledge and appreciation. The baseline for coffee appreciation is still Nescafé with milk and two sugars. Good espresso? Most consumers wouldn't know one if you dropped it on their heads.

But coffee brewed in a filter or cafetière is more easily recognisable. And small roasters are getting wider distribution. Union Coffee Roasters is the newest creation of Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia, who sold their eponymous roasting company (Torz & Macatonia) to Starbucks in 1999. They've been selling by mail order for a while now, and just recently gained listings in Waitrose and Sainsbury's.

If you want to give them a try – and believe me, you want to – start with Union Blend. Then check out two excellent single-estate coffees, Finca El Retiro de Quisaya (Guatemala) and Fazenda Lambari (Brazil). Both coffees are sold pre-ground for around £2.89 for 250g, though you can buy whole beans by mail order if you ring 020 7474 8990.

A second bright note comes from the Monmouth Coffee Company (tel: 020 7645 3585), which has just opened a second outlet at London's Borough Market. (Though they don't do any roasting there yet as the roaster is awaiting planning approval. Beans come from the original site, near Covent Garden, and you can buy the beans or drink a cup there, with serve-yourself bread, butter, cheese and conserves.

Monmouth's owner, Anita Le Roy, is one of the most eloquent advocates for the noble bean. Her company, like Union, operates in the "speciality" market: coffee of supposedly higher quality, representing less than 0.1 per cent of the total market. But, as Le Roy says, "90 per cent of speciality coffee is bullshit". Low-quality beans are masked by milk and sugar.

Monmouth sells espresso and its derivatives, and "we make the best latte and cappuccino around", but their real interest lies in "weaning people from milk". They get customers to try a free cup of something filter-brewed. They introduce them to different areas and different roasts, and explain seasonal differences on single estates.

After the shortage of educated consumers, the principal obstacle to the growth of true speciality coffee is a shortage of product. "We don't have enough good coffee," says Le Roy. It's partly to solve that problem that a "Cup of Excellence" programme has been gaining steam over the past few years. These are national competitions to find single-estate coffees that can be set aside from the commodity coffee market, where prices have been dropping disastrously due to over-production in south-east Asia. The first CoE competitions were held in Brazil. This spring sees one in Guatemala and another in Nicaragua. And all three of my London beanie-babies are joining the international judging panels.

When the winning beans are chosen, they are auctioned on the Internet for very high prices. Those premiums encourage growers to improve their standards. The results will cost you more than the muck that goes into your tall skinny wotzit. It will be worth it. And when the UK judges return in May, they may succeed in getting some of the winning bags. I'll be there to buy from them. And I'll let you know what's on my shopping list.

Comments