The great coffee debate - in a nutshell

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The Independent Online

Today we are going to tackle one of the big problems of our time: which is better, real or instant coffee?

Today we are going to tackle one of the big problems of our time: which is better, real or instant coffee?

First of all, let us define what "real" coffee actually means. And what better way than to call in a philosopher to help us!

A philosopher writes: "Hello! Nice to be consulted! Sometimes you think that A C Grayling and Alain de Botton are the only philosophers that the media have ever heard of! But there are lots of us waiting at the end of a phone, desperate to be asked for our opinion! And some of us are real philosophers, as opposed to instant philosophers, so to speak! Anyway, thanks for giving me my big break ! ... Sorry, what was the question?

"Ah yes, real coffee. Now, does that mean real, as opposed to fictional, coffee? I don't think so! For instance, the Campaign For Real Ale is not campaigning against imaginary ale! Similarly, real coffee is coffee made by traditional methods. Roasting, grinding and all that. Instant coffee is simply a short cut industrial method of getting the approximate taste of coffee. It does not appeal to the coffee connoisseur. But it does appeal to everyone who has ever wanted a short cut. Instant coffee is the equivalent of the tea bag, or the face wipe.

"But here we meet a problem. Most people in Britain take the short cut. Did you know that 90 per cent of coffee consumed in Britain is of the instant variety? I bet A C Grayling and Alain de Botton didn't know that! I didn't know that until two minutes ago. And the problem is this: If, for 90 per cent of the population, instant coffee is the normal way of drinking coffee, then surely that is the 'real' coffee, while 'real coffee' is a rather posh, toffee-nosed way of consuming it? So, wherein lies reality?"

Thank you, philosopher. We should have known better. But is Britain really such a hard and fast instant coffee culture? Thanks to Mr Starbuck, the continental cafe culture is taking over here. But isn't it odd that we should acquire continental habits via Seattle?

Who better to ask than Mr Starbuck himself?

Mr Starbuck: "Hey, who cares as long as you buy my coffee? You like a cup? You want a latte? I bet you do! Everyone wants a latte! You know that 'latte' is Italian for 'milk'? Every day, 3,000,000 people come into my places and ask for 'milk' in Italian, and I give them coffee instead? Boy, would they be mad one day if I gave these 3,000,000 people a glass of milk each and said: 'Baby, that's what you asked for!' One day, when I am rich enough not to care, I will try it!"

Thank you, Mr Starbuck. As he says, what has made it possible to sell more real coffee is the introduction of the cafetière. This little glass jug with plunger not only looks good but breaks easily, so you often have to get a replacement, and that is why the makers of cafetières are rubbing their hands with glee.

And yet instant coffee itself is a latecomer. In 1937, it did not even exist. It was invented in 1938 by Nestlé to help Brazil get rid of some of its enormous coffee surplus. Let's hear what a Brazilian has to say about that.

"Hey, I'm sorry!" a Brazilian writes. "We were responsible for this instant coffee rubbish? What can I say? I'm so sorry. But did you know that in 1932, the Brazilian team for the Los Angeles Olympics couldn't afford to get there? So the Brazilian government donated hundreds of sacks of coffee beans to them, and they got on a ship and made the money by selling coffee at every port they came to! If they had had to sell instant coffee, how far would they have got?"

So there we have it. Real coffee you can buy and sell, but instant is good for nothing except drinking, and not even that, really.

This article has had all the caffeine content completely removed, but may contain small traces of nuts.

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