The fine art of drinking coffee

Connoisseurs can buy art with their espresso.

Should your gondola happen to dock at the Venice Biennale this summer, one of the first exhibits to greet you outside this international modern art exhibition will be a neat display of espresso coffee cups on the quayside.

The cups are a classic white porcelain design by Matteo Thun (the man who gave us the Swatch), and they have recently become the canvas for decoration by some of the great names of modern art, including Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist. Much in demand by collectors (one limited, signed Rosenquist edition has reputedly changed hands for three million lire), the cups are a statement by gourmet espresso coffee-makers Illy - major sponsors of the Biennale - about the long romance between coffee and culture.

It's a relationship that dates back to the Arabs of Mecca a thousand years ago. They established the first ever coffee houses that flourished as venues for conversation and chess, music and dance. As coffee spread through the Middle East (unlike alcohol, it was an acceptable drink for Muslims), the Constantinople coffee houses of the 16th century became renowned for their luxurious decor, their political debate - and radical ideas.

It was the Venetians who brought coffee - known as "Arabian wine" - to Europe at the beginning of the 17th century, where it was hailed as "the devil's work" by those nervous of its subversive image. Fortunately, Pope Clement VIII declared it to be a "true Christian drink", and so the tradition of coffee houses as places of culture and conversation continued their spread across Europe.

Then, as now, the coffee house was the ultimate place to hang out, and so ambience was all important. Venice's Cafe Florian (founded 1720) in the Piazza San Marco, still has that intimate but public, relaxed but elegant style of so many good modern cafes. These were places - and still are - for artists and writers to meet, read the newspapers and argue about politics and ideas, their brains buzzing with caffeine.

England's first cafes were in Oxford in the mid-17th century and one of these evolved into the Royal Society. Similarly, the origins of Lloyd's of London lie in the Lloyd's coffee house in Tower Street where the proprietor used to provide lists of the ships insured by his clientele.

And while the English are still principally tea drinkers, fresh ground coffee is still the drink of the cosmopolitan, the cultured and the conversational. Modern coffee houses - from cybercafes to Italian espresso bars - are booming in Britain's current coffee revolution. Meanwhile the coffee cognoscenti grow ever more obsessional about the finer points of a good cup of coffee, its roast and its rituals, their enthusiasm sharpened by the craving for caffeine that is now the most widely used drug in the world.

Coffee tasting, like wine tasting, is considered an art in itself with its own elaborate vocabulary and exotic equipment. The coffee "liquorer" (taster) has a special "goute cafe" (round silver spoon) to dip into the fresh brew - which is strictly without milk or sugar. Flavour, body and aroma are judged and graded as the experts roll the coffee around their tongues before spitting and rinsing with milk. They never taste more than a dozen samples a session however, because coffee has a mildly anaesthetic effect on the taste buds.

Dr Gianfranco Brumen is quality supervisor for Illy and a taster with 25 years' experience. He avoids cigarettes and spicy food all week to keep his taste buds in trim for the task of tracking down any one of a long list of "negative flavours" among the coffee beans. These have very specific and evocative descriptions such as "stinkers" (an over-fermented sulphurous smell), "rancid" (from decayed oils that taste like corks in wine) and "fauna" (the odour of the skin of a wet, wild animal).

Just one bad bean in the 50 needed to make a cup of espresso can ruin the taste of the whole brew. But checking and choosing the beans is only the beginning. Then comes roasting, which has another vocabulary all its own (light roasts are "half city", "cinnamon" or "New England", while dark roasts can be "New Orleans" or "after dinner"), followed by the various grades of grinding ("coarse" to "fine espresso" to "pulverised").

And all this before you actually get round to the crucial and contentious ritual of making a cup of coffee. According to Jon Thorn's Coffee Companion, coffee perfectionists will use only freshly roasted beans not more than a week old, stored in airtight containers and ground immediately before brewing. The water must be fresh, drawn from a cold tap that has been run for several seconds, then boiled - but not overboiled. The water (no longer boiling) must be poured into the coffee maker of your choice (he favours the cafetiere), left to brew and drunk as soon as possible - but only from a warmed cup.

An art indeed. And, as it happens, winner of the Illycaffe award for young talent at this year's Biennale is the British artist Sam Taylor- Wood with her audiovisual installation Bad Trip, which represents a scene from a crowded London restaurant. Maybe her cup of coffee had one bad bean with the odour of the skin of a wet wild animal...

From the beancounter ...

80 per cent of coffee drunk in the UK is instant coffee.

The world's biggest coffee drinkers are the Swedes (11 kilos of coffee per head each year), followed by the Norwegians (9.10), the Danes (8.75) and the Finns (8.65). The Americans are a paltry 13th (4.02), while we in the UK are 15th (2.27).

World coffee prices went up by a quarter in 1995 due to a doubling of the cost of raw coffee beans. The surge in demand on international markets has made instant coffee a target for shoplifters across Britain who trade in jars of coffee to pay off debts.

75 per cent of the world's coffee is made from arabica beans which have a richer taste and lower caffeine content than robusta beans.

One legend has it that coffee was first discovered by an Ethiopian shepherd who noticed that his sheep became extremely lively after eating the berries of the coffee plant. `The Coffee Companion: the connoisseur's guide to the world's best brews,' by Jon Thorn. Apple pounds 15.

Suggested Topics
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
fashionLidl to launch a new affordable fashion range
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Web Analyst – Permanent – West Sussex – Up to £43k

    £35000 - £43000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

    .NET Developer

    £650 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer ASP.Net, C#.net, WCF, WPF, .N...

    Principal Arboricultural Consultant

    £35000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Principal Arboricu...

    Trainee Digital Forensic Analyst

    £17000 - £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Trainee Digital Fo...

    Day In a Page

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment