Category Archives: coffee

The small matter of integrity

Recently I was approached by a guy I met briefly several years ago when we were setting up Dr. Coffee’s Café – he (or at least, someone on his team) actually designed our logo and signage for us. I remembered him because he was very personable, seemed like the type who ought to be the patron of some amateur theatre troupe. And also because we had a meeting in Robin’s, where the coffee was so bad I threw up in the bathroom (mainly due to pregnancy, I should add). Anyway, that was early 2015. I am amazed he remembered me!

He is no longer making signs. Instead, he wanted to talk to me about an amazing business opportunity. Alarm bells rang. I am wary about that sort of sales pitch. However, he told me it was coffee related, so always worth checking out, I reckon.


Coffee in the very loosest sense, apparently. The poor guy has got himself mixed up with Valentus. It’s one of those MLM schemes and he was trying to recruit me into the bottom of a strangely triangular type of business model, if you get my drift. The product that allows you “an opportunity for an extraordinary life” and a global business that you can run from home, with the chance to make 6-figure monthly incomes, is called Slim-Roast. This magical substance is part energy-drink, part weight-loss supplement and part soluble coffee.

Not one part of that last sentence enamors me to the product.

According to Valentus’ website, this drink powder is

Great for:

  • Controls appetite
  • Regulates sugar absorption
  • Regulates fat absorption
  • Promotes brain health and focus
  • Elevates mood
  • Antioxidant

Aside from the obvious grammar error, black coffee manages all of that on its own with neither the bizarre additives nor the hefty price tag.  Apparently though, this is coffee mixed with green tea extract, l-theanine (also a green tea extract) and cacoa (raw chocolate) AND added caffeine. This all produces a substance with 127mg of caffeine for every 8oz fluid ounces, which is roughly double the strength of a can of Red Bull, but without the sugar.

As I have said before, caffeine itself doesn’t actually give you an energy boost (you get that from the sugar in most energy drinks). Instead, you feel more alert after a caffeine boost because caffeine molecules inhibit adenosine receptors in the brain, which are the bit that makes you feel tired. You’re not actually any less tired if you drink coffee, you just don’t feel it until your body metabolises the caffeine. Caffiene already does all the other stuff to some extent: it’s a minor appetitie supressent, it boosts your mood and helps you focus, keeps your brain healthy and can boost your metabolism. But in excess it leads to anxiety, insomnia and hypertension. There is no good reason to add more caffeine to an already beneficial caffeinated drink.

The green tea, the cacao and then ‘green coffee bean extract’ AND extra chlorogenic acid (again with the overkill) are all supposed to increase your anti-oxident intake. It’s also, somehow, made soluable. I wrote about why this is bollocks here.

There is also ‘Garcinia Cambogia’ (tamarind, in other words) which is touted as another appetite suppressant, and Phaseolamin (derived from cannelli beans) that apparently stops your guts from digesting some starches so they pass through you without you taking in so many calories. The key bit there is ‘passing through you’. What is another thing coffee is well known for? Making you poop. The coffee and the raw coffee extract, the tamarind, the phaseolamin and the other superfluous additives come together to form one big … laxative. I guess that would help you lose weight then.


Inevitably though, the product is NOT the main focus of this enterprise. No, this guy was not looking to sell Slim Roast to me, he wanted to recruit me to sell it to other people. I’d have to agree to buy a certain amount from Valentus, and I’d only start getting commission on it if I sell a specific amount every month. The real money only starts when you recruit four people, as you then get commission off their sales too. Ignoring the way the products play in to the cult of being busy, fetishizing stress and the need for constant energy and alertness, or preying on people’s body insecurities (yeah, I really don’t like this stuff!) – someone, somewhere is going to get ripped off. The whole thing relies on people feeding money upwards, and not everyone is going to succeed.

As this guy correctly points out, coffee, weight loss products and energy drinks are all massive global industries right now. I am sure there is a huge market out there for this stuff, somewhere. But it’s not a market I want to step foot into. I am a coffee geek, that’s my passion. I don’t think I am capable of selling anything I don’t believe in, and putting my name to any sort of psuedoscience-hyped coffee derivitive would be the ultimate sell-out. I’ve accepted the fact that my business passion projects are never going to make me rich, and that is fine. I’d much rather be poor and drink real coffee!!


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Not Spilling the Beans – Barista Championships 2008

When I got my first job in a coffee shop I thought, “I like coffee, that machine looks fun – how hard can it be?”. I was more worried about burning the food in the café or how I was going to amuse the scary looking emo teenagers in the corner than what sort of coffee was going to go into that strange noisy hopper on the worktop. I’d used the coffee machine when I worked in the pub; it involved sticking a cup underneath and pressing a button. I could cope with that. All would be well.
That was 2006, and in the last eighteen months my views on these things have changed a great deal, especially after my experiences over the last few days.

Caffe Nero, according to their website, pride themselves on their coffee, referring to ‘the art of the barista’. All employees – baristas – ‘undergo days of intensive training before being allowed to serve an espresso.’ When I started working there, I can’t say I much noticed the intensity of the training; I had already done some barista training at Pumphreys Coffee House for my previous job, and as such, assumed I knew what I was doing. All I had to learn now was how to make coffees ‘The Nero Way.’ It is fair to say that everything in Caffe Nero is branded somehow, even down to the exact proportions of foam, milk and espresso that go in to the cappuccino. You can’t just serve ‘any’ cappuccino, it has to be a Nero Cappuccino, and as petty as it sounds, there are some glaring differences.

These differences become very apparent when it came to Barista Championship competitions. The Speciality Coffee Association of Europe hold regional and national competitions for baristas to show their skills and compete for a place in the World Barista Championship. Last year’s World Champion barista was James Hoffman from the UK, who luckily for me, happened to turn up at Pumphreys Coffee House when I trained there. I met a coffee celebrity! He was also one of the main judges for the UK regional finals this year. The competitors in these Barista championships took the event very very seriously, and not just because of the cash prize and prestige on offer for the World Champion. This competition is a culmination of a lot of practice, a lot of skill and a lot of hard work perfecting what is essentially an art form.

Meanwhile, Caffe Nero also hold their own Barista of the Year competition. The northern heat was held in Newcastle on 22nd January, and I tagged along to support some friends and former colleagues. Although the area manager described the event as ‘a bit of fun’ and the sheer quantity of free beer, the cheerleading efforts and the ‘Prize for Best Team Song’ seemed to demonstrate this, the specially made t-shirts saying “Barista of the Year 2008 Finalist” on them, and the prizes – a trip to New York and a chance to meet Nero CEO Gerry Ford – suggested that the competition did have a serious side.

In the northern region, there were thirteen competitors, representing the Nero stores in Durham, Darlington, Ripon, Gosforth, Newcastle, South Shields, Berwick and Hexham. Each store manager had put forward one or two baristas judged to be the best in the team. Their efforts were judged by regional managers and Nero ‘Coffee Maestros’ from other parts of the country. The Newcastle Caffe was not exactly a huge venue, and so only two baristas could compete at once, using different sides of the same Gaggia machine. Each side had two double handles, a grinder and a milk wand, and so technically speaking each barista could have potentially made four drinks at once. But as the area manager, Kirsten, announced beer bottle in hand: “Please don’t use the second handle on the left for espresso, its a bit dodgy…” Since espressos are the basis for all the drinks made in the competition, this should have been a bit of a hindrance, but it didn’t seem to make any difference at all!

The first two rounds were timed; the first challenge was to make a cappuccino, a latte and a single espresso shot in three minutes. The second was three medium cappuccinos in four minutes. After judging each, competitors with the least points, or those who ran out of time, were eliminated. Eventually, it was down to four baristas, Michael from Ripon, Frost from Gosforth, Becky from Hexham, and Steve from Durham. These four then had to make another series of drinks, this time without being timed. They just had to make the best drinks they could. From these, the judges picked the final two, Michael and Frost. The final round was to make a hot chocolate, a mocha, a latte and an espresso. After four attempts at his espresso, Frost eventually won the competition, and crowned the Northern region’s Barista of the Year. Celebrations were very noisy, but only Steve from Durham seemed remotely gutted about losing the chance to meet his hero, the enigmatic Gerry.

More significant from the point of view of a trainee barista, was why Frost won. The judges were looking for various aspects of Nero coffee making, but not all of them immediately obvious. The emphasis of the competition was very much on Nero-ness – a bit of fun to get all the teams socialising together, but also more subtly, to reiterate the brand. One of the qualities of a good barista at Caffe Nero is the possession of good customer service skills, and a happy barista who is having fun is generally better at serving customers. More specifically, a happy barista who can make good coffees consistently, repetitively and very quickly is even better for the company. The point of testing competitors’ ability to make three cappuccinos in four minutes was to see if they could actually keep it up – anyone can make one decent cappuccino once, but it takes some skill to do it over and over again during an eight or nine hour shift, while maintaining a sense of humour.

As mentioned before, a Nero Cappuccino is a very specific thing as well. In a 15oz cup, there is supposed to be double shot of espresso (1/3 of the mug) one third hot milk, and one third dry milk foam. And chocolate on the top. In this case, Caffe Nero HQ tends to be fiddling while the cappuccinos burn. What shocked me, even though I know the company pretty well now, was that the judges did not even bother to taste the coffees made. The cappuccinos were poked to test the depth of froth, lattes were stirred to check consistency, and the espressos were timed to see if they poured for the correct 15 seconds (which would be woefully underextracted in any other circumstances). But no one actually tried them, there was no test of flavour. They just had to look right. However, it is very possible to make coffees that look great but taste foul, so I asked why they weren’t tasted and was told there was no need; the judges could see how well it was made anyway. “It’s not the Barista’s fault if the coffee isn’t good.” This worried me a great deal. If the coffee itself ‘isn’t good’ then this doesn’t say much about Nero as a company: area managers do not even believe their own marketing. More to the point, the very people in charge of judging the standards of drinks for the whole company are seemingly unaware that even if the coffee itself is high quality, it can still be ruined by being prepared badly by the barista. Coffee is NOT “just coffee”, cappuccinos should not be made just to look pretty, and it is very disappointing to think that the brand that got voted the UK consumer’s favourite for the past seven years still thinks like this.

To make sure, I went round sneaking mouthfuls of everyone’s attempts whenever I could. Some were very much better than others. However, none had anything like complexity that I was to experience the next day. The very next morning I eventually got myself to Edinburgh to see the Scottish heat of the official UK Barista championship. This was a much more serious affair. Fourteen competitors throughout the day, four ‘coffee’ judges including last year’s World Champion, and two technical judges, testing the way the baristas used the machines. Anyone could put themselves forward for the competition as long as they had two years experience in the industry, and you competed as an individual not as a representative of a particular company. Apart from the fact the whole event was sponsored by La Spaziale who make the espresso machines, it was relatively devoid of commercial propaganda. More interestingly, not one of the entrants in this heat came from a big chain coffee shop – no Nero, Costa or Starbucks baristas here.

Every competitor had the same task – to make four espresso shots, four cappuccinos and four of their own speciality drinks inside 15 minutes. They could use whatever blend of coffee they liked, and most took the time to explain to the judges what they were using and why, showing that they really actually knew the blend. Interestingly, one entrant, Andrew Mundy, used a single estate coffee from Cachoeira Fazenda, or Waterfall Farm in northern Brazil. Cachoeira Fazenda has won a great many awards, and is apparently one of the ingredients in Caffe Nero’s house blend, implying that Caffe Nero coffee really shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.

The four judges probably suffered severe sensory overload by the end of the day, having to taste three drinks from all fourteen competitors. They gave marks out of six for the taste and balance of the espresso, and the ‘tactile balance’ of it, how full bodied it was for instance. The cappuccinos were again graded on balance and consistency, but also temperature so as they were not too hot to drink like at Nero. Finally, the signature drinks were graded on flavour and also quality of the espresso base. Baristas also got points for technique and use of the machine. They were penalised for wastage – grinding too much coffee, or frothing too much milk, or even pouring away spoilt drinks, not that anyone needed to. They also lost points if they went over the fifteen minutes performance time.

Personally, I loved the signature drinks. By far the best part of the day from the audience’s point of view was the fact that after the judges finished their analysis, the drinks were passed round for the rest of us to try. The signature drinks could be anything that involved espresso, that could be made inside the allotted time, and did not involve alcohol. My personal favourites were the truly bizarre ones: ‘Sun, sea and sand’, by Paulo Tanzillo involved risotto rice in the bottom of a glass, with espresso poured on the top, and finished off by topping it with a bright yellow cream made of whipped egg whites and lemon juice. It tasted a bit like bitter lemon meringue pie! Others included Leo Ventisei’s ‘Agua Dulce’ which was espresso with a slice of crushed lemon in the bottom and the glass crusted with sugar, it tasted stupendously good in my humble opinion. Kirsten Olsen made a drink inspired by the coffee’s origins – Brazilian, and mixed her espresso with avocado and lime. David Fraser served his drinks in tiny biscuit barrels, and used blended up ginger biscuits in his coffee.

I admit, I was a little disappointed with some of the winners, not because I thought they shouldn’t win, but because they were not the most interesting! Third place went to Agnes from Kilimanjaro Coffee in Glasgow, who made a signature drink infused with orange blossom and vanilla. First place went to Gillian Campbell with her iced drink with orange and chocolate. These were very, very good, if not the most original! However, it was the espressos and cappuccinos that won it – complete with latte art rosettas. Signature drinks are wonderful, but in most coffee shops, standard coffees are the most important thing, and this is recognised even at national competition level.

In a totally non-biased fashion, I was very pleased when Stuart Archer from Pumphreys Coffee House in Newcastle came second. Whereas I just got mouthfuls of the other competitors’ drinks to test, I’ve been lucky enough to sample Stuart’s coffee properly outside of competition circumstances, and it is very good indeed. Although he claims he spoilt his cappuccinos, the judges obviously didn’t think so. His signature drink sounded not only bizarre, but pretty disgusting too – espresso infused with garlic, and laced with chocolate. Debating whether to hold my nose first, I tried it, and contrary to expectations, it really worked. The garlic didn’t actually kill the coffee, and somehow brought out its natural sweet smoky taste. Not something I think many coffee shops will be offering on the menus very soon, but certainly an interesting treat.

Stuart and the other two winners will go through to the national final, held in London next month, and the winner of that event will represent the UK at the World Barista Championship in Copenhagen in May, and of course, whichever coffee shop this person works for will be able to advertise the fact to their own advantage. The Nero Barista of the Year will get a special t-shirt and the store he represents will be able to use the fact they have the best Barista in the company in their own marketing. But what other purpose is there to the competitions? Barista championships are like
any other industry awards: recognising talent and skill in the particular field, and to reward hard work, or act as an incentive to excel. But essentially, coffee is a beverage, designed for human consumption. The displays of coffee making prowess at the SCAE competitions are artistically and creatively excellent, but these are not the sort of drinks you will get served at an average coffee shop. In short, they are not actually designed for regular consumption – at most, they are a luxury afforded only to those who bother to seek out the independent coffee shops that serve speciality coffees and employ world class baristas (which are few and far between in this country). At worst, they are art for art’s sake, and remain relatively unconnected with the regular coffee shop industry as a whole. As former UK Barista champion, pointed out: “The British are at the ‘Blue Nun’ stage of coffee drinking.” Put more simply, we are not yet coffee gourmets, and in this country there is little place in the market for such luxury, and elitist, drinks.

Caffe Nero, in comparison, may not take the idea of barista awards so seriously, and may not be judged by the same standards, but the coffees made in the competition are exactly what the customer will receive when they visit a Caffe Nero store. This cannot be said of the SCAE competition. The Nero awards are designed to uphold their own standards throughout the company, and to reward talented employees, which it can be argued, is a much more practical reason for holding the competition. There is no doubt that the coffees at the SCAE competition were of much higher quality, but there is also no denying that it is Caffe Nero and similar chain stores that are the most successful and profitable, and not the independent cafés. In the current climate, it is the chain stores that are actually supplying what the average consumer really wants.


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The art of cappuccino and the art of making money.

Today I am pondering this wonderful creation, the cappuccino. In case you didn’t know, (and if you rely on coffees from Nescafe vending machines, you won’t) a cappuccino is traditional quite a small drink, mostly a double espresso shot topped up with foamed milk. Anyone wanting a longer drink should have a latte, the same thing, but with more milk added. A cappuccino will cost you anything between 55p in a sincerely dreadful vending machine at Doncaster train station (these are the lengths I go to under the name of research – or possibly caffeine addiction) to the £2.65 Grande-mug-with-extra-shot at Caffe Nero. (I would quote Starbucks prices but haven’t yet swallowed my pride enough to dare go in there). I will cover why I need an extra shot in Nero’s coffee later.

I spent happy afternoon the other day, being instructed in how to make the perfect coffee at a rather obscure little factory in Blaydon in the outskirts of Newcastle. This would be Pumphreys Coffee company. They have been importing, roasting and selling coffee from there since 1750, and are now running Barista training courses. This is because, as our instructor, Stuart tells us, he hates seeing all the hard work that so many different people put into to producing the coffee, ruined at the last minute by untrained, or often plain lazy baristas. The commodity chains involved in producing a cappuccino are infinitely long, and necessarily global. The coffee growers, graders, buyers, shippers and importers, roasters, packagers, marketers, salesmen, distributors, and coffee shop managers; not to mention the dairy farmers, people who pasturise milk, bottling factory workers, health and safety regulators, supermarket or dairy buyers and even milkmen have all had some involvement in your cappuccino, then there is the designers of the espresso machine, the maintenance man who adjusts it for you, the cardboard cup manufacturers, brand designers and so on, have all contributed something too. And then a bored, underpaid, dispassionate and usually part time barista, screws it up. And still charges you £2 for the privilege.

At Pumphreys, we’re taught how to make an excellent espresso base (and even with a fully functional espresso machine and perfect ingredients and equipment, it can still go wrong very easily.) You then froth milk – and this is equally as important and as skilled as making the espresso. It should be heated to about 55 degrees centigrade, or 131 farenheit, and no more. You need a bit of air in it, but not a lot, no huge bubbles. The end result is velvety smooth throughout, the same consistency all the way through the jug, and is shiny and filled with tiny microbubbles. If you can pour it on top of your espresso, and if you are very artistic, you can make fabulous patterns with it. Here is Stuart creating “Latte Porn” – sure he won’t mind me borrowing it.

For the record, not only do these coffees look great, they taste fantastic. So, if given the opportunity to train, why aren’t all cappuccinos like this? Where I used to work, at the Voodoo Cafe, (an independent and very unique place!) we took the time to learn properly, and although ours were never that pretty to look at, we invested in very high grade luxury coffees and then practiced making them properly. We had a whole range of different coffees to try; different espresso bases in different varieties of coffee. We also tried to keep the prices competitive. Our 12-ounce cappuccinos were £1.50. Even taking into account my bias, compared to the competition we made some of the best coffees in town. However, I am informed that this cafe is sadly facing closure now, mainly because it is not making enough money.

Compare this to life at Caffe Nero. Nero is a big brand. It is the 20th fastest growing company in the whole of Europe, and currently has over 330 stores in Britain. And every single one is identical. This means that whichever store you go into from Brighton to Glasgow, you know that there will be brown leather armchairs, little circular tables, the coffee bar usually in the middle, a fridge full of cakes (the same cakes…) the same rather dated pictures on the walls, and even the same music playing at the same time of day in each store. You will also know the prices are the same throughout the country with the exception of those in central London and at airports, and that your loyalty card will work anywhere. If you pay attention you will notice that the staff will even say more or less the same things to you; the Six Service Steps we are all obliged to follow. You will be very familiar with the Nero logo, which is plastered all over each store, all over your cups, plates and bowls, the take-out cups, the take-out sleeves to stop you burning your fingers on the take-out cups, the take-out bags, the t-shirts of all the staff, the retail bags of coffee, containing the secret Nero Blend, all the cake wrappers and sandwich boxes, and even on the napkins.
(This film, incidently, was made for another coffee-related ESRC sponsored PhD project… I am not alone!)

The other thing that is identical in every Caffe Nero is the coffee – supposedly. Each new employee has to undergo “weeks of intensive training before being allowed to serve an espresso” (from their promotional leaflets). However, this intensive training does not include actually tasting the coffee. We are taught that if the right amount of ground coffee goes into the handles, and it pours for the correct length of time (a full ten seconds less than Pumphreys recommend), and it has a good crema on the top, then it is a good espresso and can be served. This is not a good argument however, because espressos can look very good but still taste awful. In my experience at Nero, I am in the minority because I actually drink the coffee there. Most do not touch the stuff.
With an not-so-great espresso base, the next step is the milk. In Nero, this is heated to 60 degrees centigrade/ 140 farenheit. We pump a lot of hot air into it, until in separates, with thin but very hot milk on the bottom, and a raft of thick, dry foam floating on the top.
From this, the cappuccino is made, to the Nero Way: 1/3 espresso, 1/3 hot milk, 1/3 foam. The foam is occasionally so thick it has to be spooned into the cup. It is then topped up with the hot milk until the foam bulges out of the top of the mug, in the trademark dome shape Nero prides itself on. Think muffin tops. I always ask for an extra espresso shot, because with this level of milk, it is often not possible to taste the coffee at all.
If the cappuccino does not look right, we are not allowed to serve it. I have actually had someone complain that she did not have enough froth on her cappuccino and I had to make her another one, heated even higher and with even drier foam. By this time, even I could smell that the milk was burnt, but this is what she wanted.

Overheating the milk is a cultural phenomenon, it seems. Try as we might, in this country we are still very much tea drinkers. When we drink tea, we make it with boiled water, then sit, chat and stir it until it is cool enough to drink. When we make coffee, we expect it to behave the same way. But it doesn’t. Tea needs the heat to infuse properly. Burning the coffee by brewing espresso at too hot a temperature makes it unplesantly bitter and metallic tasting. Heating the milk until is separates for a Nero cappuccino makes it smell of baby sick (yes, I have been able to test and research this claim as well recently) and lose its natural sweetness as well. Cappuccinos made at 50-55 degrees centigrade – which is the optimum temperature for both espresso and milk – is designed to be drunk as soon as it is made. Of course it goes cold quickly, but better that than burning it?

As I’ve already pointed out, Caffe Nero is a success story, it claimed record profits this year and has made a serious amount of money, very quickly, and all apparently by creating generic stores selling underextracted espresso and burnt milk drinks. But there is no denying that they “look” like good cappuccinos. Large chain and branded coffee have created this image of what an ideal coffee looks like in the UK, and if anything deviates from this, customers will not recognise it, and it will not sell, even if it tastes better. Which is what may have been happening at our independent cafe. For all the authenticity Caffe Nero claims: “The best espresso this side of Milan” for instance, or “A True Italian Coffee” they are still buying in to, and perpetrating this ideal of image and appearance over taste and quality. For as long as we consumers continue to buy these imitations, nothing is going to change. Which I think is quite sad really.

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Posted by on November 14, 2007 in caffe nero, cappuccino, coffee, marketing, milk, pumphreys


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The US are poisoning their own coffee!

This isn’t original, and it’s only tentatively about food/coffee. However, it has made me angry enough to repost it. This may not be ‘news’ as such, as what I am about to quote was written in 2004. However, it is news to me, because although on some level I was aware of what was going on, I had no idea of how bad it actually is.

A bit of background. Columbia is the world’s third largest producer of coffee. The industry employs over half a million people. In amongst the political turmoil, (backed by the US) guerilla warfare, corruption, grinding poverty (again, a result of US influence) and drugs (which are sold to the US most directly), there grows a lot of decent coffee tended by farmers in conditions near to slavery. The coffee is not the most amazing, niether is it dire, but it is very very consistant. As such, it finds its way into a lot of ‘blends’ – as in, it’s mixed with better quality stuff and sold on at a higher price, or it goes into instant coffee, or into cheaper filter coffees where people are after the caffeine not the flavour.

I am currently reading “Coffee – a Dark History” by Antony Wild, and the following disturbing stuff is from that book.

“The civil war [in Columbia] is escalating as the US seeks to defend its oil interests, World Bank strictures have led to a doubling of unemployment in the last ten years, and there has been a 30% drop in real terms in the national average income. …. Coffee farmers in the ‘Zona Cafetera’ are abandoning previously flourishing coffee farms, or taking to coca and poppy planting to supplement their income. In the south, where such plants are more widespread, US planes spray them from the air with Monsanto’s Roundup or Roundup-Ultra (its more virulant form), killing all and any crops, polluting rivers, and causing widespread health problems, as well as laying waste over a million acres in the last five years. When a demonstration of the sprayers accuracy was mounted to impress visiting US senator Paul Wellstone, a democrat opposed to American military aid for Columbia, he and his aides were accidently drenched in the herbicide. Before it could be determined what long term harm may have befallen him as a result, Wellstone was killed in a plane crash in the run up to the 2002 Senate elections. The death of the most vociferous Democratic critic of the then potential war in Iraq, just as sabres were rattling ever louder, was seen by some as an eerie coincidence….

Monsanto were one of the suppliers of chemicals for the Vietnam war including the notorious Agent Orange. Whilst Monsanto acknowledge, in the 130 countries worldwide where they are marketed, that Roundup and Roundup-Ultra should be used with caution to avoid damage to humans, animals and other flora, it has long been suspected there has not been adequate research into the possible effects on humans of enhanced Roundup Ultra Cosmo Flux 411 F, which apparently has been deployed by the US government without the knowledge of the Columbian government. The US ‘War on Drugs’ has frightening implications for the Columbian ecosystem, and if coca and poppy planting continue to move into areas where coffee is grown, the health effects of the spraying could be felt globally.

Within the USA, Monsanto’s reassurances regarding the safety of their operations have been shown to be lamentably wanting: they were recently found guilty by a court in Alabama of conduct ‘so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilised society.’ The case concerned the long-term poisoning and systematic cover-up of the toxic pollution of the poor community of Anniston. The company was heavily fined as a result, but it is clear that, for this corporation at least, the wages of sin substantially exceed the costs of virtue.”

Jesus Cristo en bicicleta!!!!

Not only is this bloody stupid, totally unethical, illegal (it is akin to biological warfare), it is also virtually ineffective. The US spends a great deal of money on this so-called War on Drugs – financing Columbia’s right-wing puppet government, its military and its brutal policeforce, as well as sending in the planes to poison the crops, and then more in the form of World Bank/IMF loans to ensure ‘education and development’ for their embarrassingly poor neighbours.
Surely a far more sensible thing to do was the stop funding the corrupt government and military, and put the money into sustainable development programs to actually support the coffee industry, improving the lot of the plantation workers, and ensuring a guaranteed, fair price for coffee . If Columbians were allowed to elect the government they actually want, there would be no need for the guerilla fighters, (although, admittedly, it might lead to that which the US fears more than anything, a vaguely left-wing administration with unfashionable social conciences). Guaranteeing a price for Columbia’s coffee would not only help the industry and national economy as a whole, it would also prevent coffee farmers actually starving, and negate the need for them to turn towards growing coca for a living. The cocaine industry could effectively be made obsolete as soon as growing coffee becomes more profitable than growing coca.

I maybe naive or oversimplifying things to my own ends somewhat, but if I can figure this much out, surely others in more practical positions to do something about it could do so as well?

There is a nice irony to all of this. That is, nearly two-thirds of Columbia’s 560,000 tonnes a year of coffee goes directly to roasters and retailers in the US. So basically, Jillian, Dan, et al, if you suddenly grow webbed feet or go blind after drinking your coffee, you can be safe in the knowledge that the stuff sprayed on the coffee crops was employed directly by your government, based on assurances from Mon$anto, and no doubt it has helped to rid the world of a small section of the cocaine industry…..


As Carl says, There is no underestimating the stupidity of some sections of humanity.


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Rimbaud, Goethe and even Gaggia, spinning in their graves

This blog is once again fuelled by bitterness, but then coffee is an intensely bitter drink. In fact, if one more customer, when offered sugar, says “No thanks, I’m sweet enough already” I will string them up from the air conditioning unit and pour espresso straight into their nostrils.
Ice Queen (the assistant manager who neither assists, nor manages) criticised my latte the other day. “If I’d trained you, you’d probably be doing better.” she claims. I had to bite my tongue, hard. Without wishing to sound equally as arrogant, I know a lot more about coffee than she does. I was trained very well, by and with people who are really passionate about it. Ice Queen does not even drink the stuff.

I will cling to my bitterness. Espresso is the purest form of coffee, and I love it, but only when it is made correctly. Even with the ‘training’ we minions receive at the Mothership, and all the technical wizardry of the hissing monstrosity, it is still entirely possible to screw it all up. Some people burn the coffee by tamping it too hard, or putting too much in. Others make it too watery and bitter. I am the first to admit mine vary considerably, depending on my mood, concentration level and my judgment of whether the customer wants good coffee or just fast coffee.

We are instructed by the omniscient ‘Gerry’ – Our Glorious Leader, that the coffee machine is a sacred instrument, and that our Patron Saint, Senhor Achille Gaggia, designed it specifically and Saw That It Was Good. Praise be! The fact that our ‘gaggio’ machines bears no resemblance to the hissing brass contraptions he would have used is irrelevant. Gaggia knows all, and thou shalt honour him, O heathen ones!

A grain of historical impartiality – Gaggia was an opportunist. His machine, invented in 1945 was neither efficient nor the best of the time. It did, however, look highly dramatic, produced a lot of steam and involved a complex array of levers and pistons which added to the performance of the barista. In a time when coffee was little understood, this machine was adopted and adored, and sanctified within the coffee shop industry. Modern machines have far more in common with Luigi Bezzera’s creation, patented in Italy in 1902, but sadly this machine did not involve so much showmanship.

There is a lot of doubt also, over the origins of ‘espresso’. According to the Oxford English dictionary, it is derived from ‘express’ – as in, made fresh and promptly in from of the customer. It could also originate from the machine itself, which looked and sounded like an express steam train at the time. Neither form takes in to account the Italian ‘espres’ meaning, pressed. Steam is pressed through the coffee under pressure to produce the drink. This almost implies that the English were unaware of, or simply didn’t use this method when the word first entered the language.

But back to the latte. In our world, Latte is a long drink, in which hot steamed milk is added to an espresso base. In a lot of coffee shops, it is served in a glass, with the milk added first and the coffee poured through so it forms pretty layers. At Nero, we are trained to do it the other way up. This annoys customers who prefer the aesthetics. Nero claims our way is more authentic.

In Italy, however, Latte means ‘milk’. If you walk in to an Italian coffee bar and ask for coffee, you will get espresso. Very few Italians drink it with milk, and when they do it is far more likely to be Macchiato, equal parts milk foam to espresso, not the long drink we prefer.

Pre-Italian coffee obsession, however, lattes would have been even more unheard of. In ancient Yemen, at the Port of Mocha where it all began in the 16th century, they believed that adding milk to coffee would give them leprosy. Back to Caffe Nero, and a ‘mocha’ is a long drink with espresso mixed with chocolate powder, diluted with steamed milk and topped with whipped cream. Authenticity isn’t always the brand’s strong point.

The Turks believed that coffee should be ‘as black as hell, as strong as death, and as sweet as love.’ The Arabs believed it brought wisdom, and that ‘man could not know the truth until he had tasted coffee’s goodness’. Coffee also inspires poetry – creating a manic intensity in artists. Goethe, the poet and artist was also a keen scientist and a coffee drinker. Amongst his infamous writings he can also be credited with helping to discover caffeine. He was aware of the effects coffee has on the body, (he was prone to insomnia) and asked his friend, the German chemist Runge to set about isolating the substance that caused these effects. For their experiments to work, he required coffee in its purest form. Although this would have been long before the invention of the espresso machine, Goethe’s drinks would have been highly infused, very very strong and bitter, the blackest of the black; far more like the Turks chose to drink it than our modern equivalent. It is a safe assumption then, that coffee was a significant influence on both his poetry and his science.

Another manic poet, Arthur Rimbaud, was also heavily influenced by coffee, in more ways that one. Writing in 1870, Rimbaud is famous for his free verse poetry and his surreal way of describing sounds as colours was typical of his supposed synesthesia. He also believed, however, that in order to write poetry, you must have “long, intimidating, immense and rational derangement of all the senses”. This was usually achieved through consuming copious amounts of absinthe, but coffee could have similar effects to those unused to strong doses of caffeine. Ironically, in 1884, Rimbaud gave up writing entirely, and became a coffee merchant based in Harar, Ethiopia. Ethiopian coffee was not fashionable at the time, and his was cheap, and generally regarded as rough and bitter. Rimbaud certainly never made a lot of money from this trade. It is claimed that it was the coffee trade that eventually killed him, he died just seven years later, aged 37 having gotten typhoid fever whilst surveying his plantations.

Rimbaud, given the opportunity, would probably have been quite bitter about this as well. Coffee is a bitter drink to swallow. It is saddening to thing that despite all the romance and intrigue and artistry that has gone on in previous centuries, our most recent, and most popular addictions to the story of coffee have to be the embrace of milk and sugar. We are diluting the stuff, literally and metaphorically, sweetening it to make it more palatable to our lethargic culture. But underneath the whipped cream and chocolate peripheries in Caffe Nero, coffee has a long, dark and bitter history.


Posted by on September 4, 2007 in caffe nero, coffee, espresso, gaggia, goethe, latte, poetry, rimbaud


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All hail Kaldi, discoverer of the black drink of happiness.

Once upon a time, in ancient Ethiopia, Kaldi the goat herder sat, no doubt picking his nose or dreaming of that really beautiful ewe he saw in the market last week, or whatever 16th century goat herders usually did while sitting in a field full of goats.

This was no ordinary day, however. Today, the noise of frantic bleating drove Kaldi to get up from his comfy rock and check on his subjects. The goats were acting strangely; their already-mad yellow eyes were stretched wide and darting about uncomfortably. Some were dancing manically, to music no sober mortal could hear.. others were eating the ancient african equivalent of hot water bottles. The head Ram had just completed a phenomenally complex and ground breaking PhD thesis in a little over three hours, which sadly Kaldi didn’t even notice in all the comotion.

The centre of the bedlam seemed to be coming from a small shrub, with dark waxy leaves and bright red berries. Some of the kids were skipping round it excitedly, then taking large bites, chewing the tasty-looking red cherries.

Instead of rounding up the goats and sending them home for the night, possibly with mugs of horlicks and security blankets, as all good goat herders should, Kaldi decided to find out what all the fuss was about. Grabbing a handful of cherries, he chewed them slowly, wincing at the intensely bitter flavour. The cherries had small green seeds in the centre. These were good. You couldn’t chew on them, they were far too hard. Kaldi didn’t want to swallow them either; even he knew that goats could digest things far better than humans could. But sucking on the hard little green things was very pleasant. Not too bitter, just, nice. Exciting even. Yes, he could take to these. In fact, he was goingtogoandtelleveryoneallaboutitrightnow! Yes! He’druntothevillagerightnow and hemightevendoalittledancejusttocelebrate! Woohoo! Ow. now his head hurt. Butitsstillgood! yusyusyus!

Kaldi abandoned his goats, with no thought to their welfare, and bounced energetically off to the village, where he confidently ran up to the local Imam.
“Hey!” he panted, “Igotthese aaaaaaamazing beans! They’re brilliant! you can chewtheredbits and suckonthegreen bits and they make you wannadanceandsingandstuff!”

The Imam gave the manic fool a whithering look. Having mentally slowed down that sentence, he eventually patted Kaldi patronisingly on the head, and calmly told him he must be possessed by an evil spirit. The red cherries were obviously designed by the devil to tempt gullible souls, and therefore must be disposed of accordingly.

Kaldi ran home, fuming, humiliated and nursing the world’s first caffeine come-down. The goats could not sympathise. The small, seldolm used walnut thing that rattled about behing their yellow eyes seemed to be aching. This was far too much for your average cloven lawnmower to comprehend.

The Imam, however, in an act of incredibly fortunate but righteous stupidity, threw the cherries on to the fire. They cracked and popped, and turned a deep, shiny brown colour. The resulting aroma was intoxicating, almost like luxurious incense. This couldn’t possibly be the work of the devil. The beans must be divine, and the resulting drink a gift from God himself…

Ok, so this is an example of artistic license rather than historical integrety, but you get the general idea! And I much prefer this version of events.

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Posted by on August 5, 2007 in caffeine, coffee, Ethiopia, goats, Kaldi, legend, Yemen


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The Concept of Wastage in the Coffee Industry


The coffee industry is a truly global trade, encompassing everything from bean plantations in parts of the developing world, to brand awareness and huge corporations in the developed world. The process from coffee bean to gourmet espresso is very long and complex, and ‘wastage’ in many forms is apparent throughout.

Waste in this sense can include anything from the fact that in some Single Estate coffee plantations, only around 40% of beans grown are actually used and roasted, to the way Baristas in chain coffee shops are taught to discard any coffee deemed less than perfect, or the way freshly ground coffee is given a shelf life of a mere twenty minutes. This is all without mentioning the inorganic and material waste of brand-embellished packaging that is thrown away every day.

Coffee in Western culture at least, is extremely fashionable; coffee culture is evident and actively encouraged in the UK, shown by the sheer number of both large chains and independent coffee shops which have opened in this country in the last three decades.. It can be argued, however, that the expertise that goes in to producing gourmet coffees – that is, selecting quality beans, roasting them to perfection and then producing the finished espresso, is wasted on the consumer, who may not be aware of the difference to the taste that the varying techniques can make.

Background and Theory:

Growing premium coffee beans is an inefficient process. In many Single Estate, Fairtrade or organic plantations, the beans are cherry-picked, that is, the beans deemed suitable quality are selected and picked by hand. This is inefficient in the sense that the process is very slow, requires significant human labour, is expensive and inevitably means that a large proportion of the beans grown are not used. However, it does ensure that the coffee is of the highest quality and best taste.

A more efficient method is to harvest the coffee plants by machine, ensuring that every single bean is collected. This mechanisation of the process does increase efficiency, decreases waste and lowers the cost of the coffee, but it also decreases employment prospects on coffee plantations, and lowers the quality of the finished product.

Therefore, if the demand for the highest quality and best tasting coffee is to be fulfilled, a certain amount of wastage – both at the growing stage and the brewing stage – is inevitable and unavoidable. In this sense, the waste cannot be seen as a negative aspect to the industry, but as an integral part of the process.

However, this argument is only convincing if it can be demonstrated that there is a strong demand for very high quality coffee. Many large coffee companies, (including those who sell ground coffee for personal use, such as CafeDirect, Nescafe, Kenco and the larger supermarkets, and also chain coffee shops such as Caffe Nero, Starbucks, AMT and Costa Coffee) create a brand image suggesting good quality, and use facts about the origins of their products in their marketing strategies. It is these companies that create the demand for good quality. This does not necessarily mean, however, that their customers and consumers actually appreciate, or are even aware of, the coffee’s quality.

This is not to say coffee consumers in this country are completely blind to the coffee producing industry; but what denotes ‘high quality’ is very subjective and a matter of personal taste and opinion. If the demand for high quality coffee is not actually present among the consumers, the issues of inefficiency and wastage within the industry become far more significant.

Aims and Objectives

– To establish the extent of wastage in the coffee industry, including both the growing and harvesting of coffee, and the brewing of espresso in coffee shops.
– To analyse contributing factors in quality coffee, to find what makes it ‘good’.
– To examine in depth the actual demand for coffee from the point of view of consumers; and to find whether coffee companies are supplying this demand or creating it.
– Overall, to find if ‘wastage’ in the industry is an inevitable part of the process, or whether steps could be taken to make the process more efficient.


In order to fulfil the aims of the project, several different areas of research need to be undertaken. Background research into the coffee production process, both on practical and theoretical level is essential to create understanding of the main concepts of manufacture and waste.

The first phase would be to study the initial coffee harvest. A plantation that supplies one of the main coffee shops and brands in the UK would be the most useful; for example, Intertech, in the Mogiana region of Brazil, which supplies Caffe Nero. ( Intertech also uses both manual (cherry picking) and mechanical methods of harvesting, which would give a good insight into the volume of waste each method produces. Statistics would be collected about the variety of beans, conditions of growth, average volume grown per season, and the percentage used and ‘wasted’. These figures should also be collected from other plantations, perhaps even in different countries, in order to create a model of average wastage per plantation. Observing the harvesting process first hand would provide a valuable insight into the scale of perceived wastage. The plantation managers could also be interviewed to gain their views on wastage within their own business, and to find which harvesting method is preferred and why.

If the plantation supplies more than one company, it would need to be established which company buys what quantity, and what variety of beans, and at what cost. This is essential to analyse the ‘quality’ of coffee that the company sells to its consumers. It would also be useful to find why the company chooses that variety of coffee – if their customers expect or demand it, or whether it is the most cost-effective from their point of view, for instance. Using this information, it would also be possible to infer whether or not the different methods of coffee production have any correlation with the prices of the finished espresso in the coffee shops.

The second phase takes place in those coffee shops. For the purposes of this research, a branch of one of the larger chain stops would be most appropriate. Larger chains would be buying in coffee beans in extremely large quantities on a very regular basis, and so the extent of wastage they create would be easier to ascertain. Data would need to be collected on the average volume of waste the branch produces over a certain period of time; if for example, the coffee is delivered on a monthly basis, it would be logical to measure the amount of waste produced within that month, allowing the researcher to calculate the proportion of coffee wasted at the brewing stage. In order to calculate averages, this information should also be collected from several stores in the same chain so that the results are not skewed by an anomalous store.

Analysis of this data would also show how and why this waste is produced. Caffe Nero is keen to promote the fact that each staff member undergoes intensive Barista training, in order to brew the perfect espresso and maintain the company’s high standard. The equivalent training is also provided in other chain shops. Experiencing and participating in this training would be very beneficial to this project in that it would allow the researcher to appreciate exactly why wastage is produced at this stage of the process.

Thorough analysis of the data collected in the first two phases is required to form an overview of the manufacturing process. This will need to be completed before phase three begins. Phase three would use more qualitative methods, as it deals with the subjective topic of consumer preference. A core sample of ‘average’ coffee consumers would need to be found; (in this sense, who the average consumer actually is would also need to be determined beforehand, although this could be achieved through asking for volunteers from people who already frequent coffee shops regularly) Surveys, focus groups and other forms of social research, even including tasting panels for instance, can then be employed to examine consumer preferences for coffee and create a model of the UK coffee market and demand. This could also involve blind sampling; to see if average coffee consumers can tell the difference – and prefer – high quality coffee in comparison with lower grade espresso.

In terms of time scale, data collection should take around eighteen months, with analysis and writing up the research taking another eighteen months. Due to the three phases of the project however, data collection and analysis would occasionally overlap.

Results and Recommendations

If it is found that coffee consumers in this country cannot tell the difference between high and average quality espresso, or if they actually prefer lower grade coffee, then this would have far reaching implications for the entire coffee industry. Plantations would not have to waste so many substandard beans and could use more efficient harvesting methods. Coffee shops would not have to waste so much badly made espresso, or waste time and resources on training their staff so rigorously. Consumers may not have to waste money on overpriced luxury drinks. Wastage in the industry would become a major concern as it could be demonstrated how inefficient the process is.

However, if the opposite is found, that consumers do actually notice the difference and prefer higher quality coffee, then the wastage of the inferior products becomes necessary. A large proportion of raw coffee beans, and a significant amount of brewed espresso can justifiably be rejected and disposed of as a by-product of high quality, gourmet coffee producing process. This by product is not ‘waste’ as such; it is an inevitable, and unavoidable part of the industry.


Caffe Nero, 2007 The Art Of Espresso
(further information from Caffe Nero Barista training programme, June 2007)
Intertech Coffee Plantations, 2006
Harford, T., 2006 The Undercover Economist Abacus: London
Pumphreys Coffee
(further information from Pumphreys Coffee Barista Training Course, January 2007)

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Posted by on June 29, 2007 in brazil, caffe nero, coffee, PhD, pumphreys, wastage


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Coffee (part 2)

Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death and as sweet as love

That is a Turkish proverb, apparently, but it could also be Latino, or possibly even Geordie! I once had an Amazing Day Out with a good friend, apparently part of my ‘training’, and after that I think I can now safely call myself an espresso gourmet, or at least, a coffee geek.
Off we toddled to The Big Coffee Factory In The Sky (which, ok, isn’t big and is in Blaydon, Newcastle, not the sky) and got officially tutored in the art of making the perfect espresso. It was so much fun!!! Sounds silly, especially given my job, but I had no idea at all of the complexities involved in the perfect brew. The guy teaching us, just called ‘Jim’ is apparently the 7th Best Barista in the World. That’s quite a title – I wasn’t even aware that there were competitions for that sort of thing. He is Master of the Chrome Monstrosity. Yay Jim.
Anyway, The Perfect Espresso not only has to be brewed for the correct amount of time (25 seconds ish), it also has to have the correct water pressure (30 bars?) and the right amount of coffee (14g for the double shots we use at Voodoo cafe), and, even more complicatedly, the correct grind – finer for espresso makers, coarser for cafetieres, and so on. The final product has to be served as fresh as possible, and it should be thick – not watery (too bitter) or syrupy (too burnt-tasting). And it should have a decent, brown crema on the top. If the crema is pale then its under-extracted or something. This is Just the espresso – we also got to hear about correct procedure for frothing milk too which took another hour or so…
I daren’t mention the existence of my own inventions – Ubercoffee (three espressos, made palatable by copious amounts of cocoa) and Love Potion (essentially, pink cappuccino) since the resident gourmets probably would’ve had heart attacks and /or banished the cretinous heathen to the underworld of Starschmucks forever.

I feel all excited about Life and Work, because it’s yet another New Thing I’ve learnt, and Caffe Nero is the only chain of coffee shops that is staffed by enthusiastic people trained by world class baristas. Costa (Fortune) Coffee has nothing on us…..The Nero’s stuff is all fair trade or better than fair trade, mainly from Brazil, but I am battling with them to get them to stock Donna’ coffee from Building New hope in Nicaragua.
Nicaraguan coffee, incidently, is served up very very strong, very black and very sweet – brewed with love, hell and death, I’m sure. Beginning to think extending that simile is a bad idea now….


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