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365 Days of Coffee

This is an essay I was asked to write to accompany Monique Martin’s art exhibition entitled ‘365 Days of Coffee’, which will tour Saskatchewan art galleries later this year with the OSAC. For more details, see Monique’s site: http://moniqueart.com/365daysofcoffee/365daysofcoffee.html

Monique Martin’s exhibition explores our daily rituals of coffee drinking and how coffee travels with us as an otherwise unremarked on part of everyday life. We clutch our travel mugs and make sure we have enough caffeine to face the day, but few of us truly consider the process involved in getting us our daily fix. Also unnoticed is the epic journey the little beans take before we even see it. Coffee beans travel from remote mountainous regions and tropical cloudforest along the equator, during which it is stripped of its fruit, dried in the sun for days, hand-sorted by meticulous plantation workers, measured, weighed, graded, bagged and transported around the globe, roasted in giant fiery ovens by expert artisans then moving off again to meet their fate in coffee shops before finally making it into our mugs. The coffee production process employs over 125 million people across the world, and this often brutal journey means that over 2.25 billion cups of coffee can be enjoyed each day.

Tasting gourmet coffee can transport you from your daily routine and familiar surroundings into a whole other world of exotic flavours and aromas. The old but favoured mug you grab from the kitchen each morning looks and feels familiar, but its contents can be evocative of strange and faraway places well beyond the daily grind. Every cup tells a story; fragrant coffee in souvenir mugs from tropical holidays may allow you to relive past adventures (such as in Martin’s piece “Mexico”) or you might find that coffee tastes so much sweeter in a cup that was a gift from a loved one (“Sweetheart”).

Presenting coffee to gourmet standards has become an art form in its own right. There are baristas who swear you can only get ‘a perfect pour’ in ceramic mugs (much like Martin’s piece entitled “Froth”), The skills required by the barista to pour milk onto espresso just so, to create intricate patterns as ‘latte art’ has become a global phenomenon. Latte art is visually beautiful, but so too is what it represents: the culmination of so many artisans – farmers, quality graders, roasters, baristas – all connected by the little beans that are so well-travelled already. It’s no wonder that taking a few moments out of a busy day to enjoy this little luxury in a cup is so welcomed by so many people.

But we don’t just drink it for the taste. Coffee also connects people. The Fair Trade movement and trends towards ethical consumerism have made coffee drinkers more aware of coffee farmers. The turn towards quality over convenience coupled with people’s increasing knowledge and appreciation for coffee has meant that coffee lovers are now more likely to know of the local small business who roasts their beans. Early morning conversations with your friendly barista can start the day in a positive and sociable way. And then there’s the discussions to be had on ‘coffee row’, or in the line-up as you wait, or
between office colleagues taking as much time away from their desks as possible while on the morning coffee run. Coffee is as much a small break from routine as it is a routine in itself.

The caffeine in your drink is not physically addictive, but its effects can be psychologically so, and the daily coffee ritual is certainly habit-forming. Monique Martin’s work on the ‘365 Days of Coffee’ explores just how deeply entrenched our coffee rituals are in our everyday lives. We go out for coffee as a break from work. We arrange dates with friends around it, or we feel compelled to make it in the mornings as preparation before leaving the house. We carry it around with us constantly– and as the exhibition shows, the receptacles that we do this in are very significant. Our mugs are a little piece of personal identity in a corporate work environment, they can evoke the familiar comfort of home, or act as the catalyst for daydreaming and escapism. They are decorated, well-worn and well-loved, almost fetishized objects, always comfortingly by our side as our precious coffee accompanies us through life, every day, the whole world over.

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Posted by on August 23, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Plans for 2011

First of all, I hope my dear reader(s) had a good Christmas and happy new year to all!
Second, apologies for the state of this post. I am trying to type it on my phone, that is, my brand new nokia E90. I know that this phone is at least 3 years old now, but it is still the best phone Nokia have ever made and I love it, and darling hubby has bought me a new one for christmas to replace the one that died a nasty death last summer. We are currently driving back from Shrewsbury to Darlington, Miranda is wailing, i am bored but it is dark and I can barely see the keyboard to type, and WordPress Mobile in all its infinite wisdom has rendered the New Post screen a whole 4cm wide for no fathomable reason.
But i digress.

I had a nice message from Simon at Pollards coffee roasters, saying “2011 will be the year of Afternoon Tease”. It kinda has to be really, but also it should be the year I really become an actual doctor of coffee. This means finishing the thesis, which in turn, means a helluva lot of work over the next few months. Intense planning is required.

One possible plan for the thesis is to build up a reputation in Afternoon Tease for good coffee to the extent the Coffee Geeks or glitterati or whatever they should be named; the barista champions, and gourmets and so on start visiting from afar. I could run off a few copies of the thesis with a vanity publisher and try and flog them in the cafe – I’d just need some major geeks and/or academics to come in because I’m sure no one else would be remotely interested!

In this spirit of all good research, I have adapted Gwilym Davies’  (Flat-cap-wearing 2009 World Barista champion, part of the aforementioned coffee glitteratti) idea of the ‘Disloyalty card’ – encouraging people to try out other *good* coffee venues in London on his list, just to get people experiencing excellent coffee. Darlington, in my opinion, does not have enough good coffee venues for this to work here, so instead I am introducing a Coffee Adventurer card – to get people to try drinks they wouldn’t normally have. I am going to do a Tea one too. After the customer tries all the different drinks, they get their favourite free. A bit like Bingo!

I feel pretty strongly that the thesis should not be the be-all and end-all of this PhD. I have absorbed so much, often trivial, information about coffee that it seems a waste (geddit?) not to use this knowledge. Some is being employed in the day to day running of the cafe (embodied knowledge) but I want to expand on that. I think, with a bit more practice, I could do barista training in the cafe. (knowledge sharing?) I know a few people (who I’ve met through my research) who do very well out of teaching people how to make coffee… May need to improve my latte art though.

A long term project is also to roast my own in there. Despite all my efforts, roasting is still the area of coffee I know least about. Off the top of my head, I’ve met and interviewed at least ten roasters, and I’ve seen it done all over the world. However, it is the sort of thing that can go wrong very easily and expensively, and no amount of sweet-talking “helpless-student” begging has resulted in me being let loose to play on the machines. This I see as a distinct deficiency; I need to learn. I was offered a very, very small shiny coffee roasting machine to borrow when we opened the cafe, just enough to fill the place with that fantastic aroma in the mornings. I had to turn it down at the time because we had no air vents to let smoke out of the back! But with a bit of forethought and the potential use of the empty rooms above the cafe, and some ducting, I reckon I could set it all up there eventually and roast my own Miranda blend!

Speaking of Miranda, the final plan, which is both long time and on-going is to set up her own little Penny University within Afternoon Tease. If all this goes well, Miri will effectively grow up in the place, and we were planning on home-schooling her for at least a year. In the cafe, she has Aunty Jo to teach her singing and writing, Aunty Tattoo.Jo to teach her to dance, me to teach her barista skills (needing a basic level of physics and chemistry to understand how the espresso machine works), cooking and baking, we can do coffee origin trips for geography and learning Spanish, she can learn IT through updating our website, her Daddy can teach her enough maths to do my accounts(!) and maybe even some physics and technology if we get the roasting machine up and running! Sorted. she’ll be fine. obviously.

Now all I’ve got to is get going with it all! Oh, and make some money in the process.

Happy 2011 peoples!

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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World Barista Championships

Woo… it all happened. This year, in Atlanta.

INTRODUCING THE WORLD BARISTA CHAMPION OF 2009…

And he’s the British guy! Gwilym Davies. Yay!! Finally, we win something.
Actually, we seem to do very well at the competitive art form that is making coffee. 2008’s winner was Irish, and 2007’s was British as well.  Strange that a source of national pride (at least, in certain circles) comes from coffee? Maybe we no longer cling to our teapots as much as everyone thought.

Gwilym Davies was apparently using a 50% Costa Rican blend of coffee anyway. I am debating whether to look up to see how the Costa Rican entrant did. I saw the national finals in San Jose while I was there, and it was won by a girl called Auren Hortensia Chacon Leiva. I remember thinking at the time it was pretty obvious she was going to win from the start – she was very, very good. But unfortunately not world class.

I am still finding it very hard to associate events like the Barista championships with the conditions on the coffee farms. This is not one joined up industry, by a long way.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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The beginnings of the conclusions of the consumer focus groups…

I have been asking lots of people what they think “high quality” coffee is. The following quotes are from professional Baristas, coffee shop owners and other industry specialists from Barista Exchange.

“coffee made from a barista, so he can have the best blend but if he dont know how to grind and dose or he or she are overheating milk, whats the point of ‘best beans’?”

“For me everything start in the coffee bean. At least for my country coffee is an art. We want the best quality all the time, not every once or sometimes. For instance Bell I can have a SHB, and everything has been taking care as planned but if I do the handpicking a day after or a day before , the taste will be different. Or even when we roast the coffee, you can have a SHB or a specialty superb coffee, but if we mess up in the roasting, that’s it. An entire year of harvest to the garbage indeed.”

“1M: select green beans

2M: roast

3M: blend

4M: grind

5M: brewing

Nothing esprecial, but none of them can be missed.”

“Quality coffee goes along with quality buyers, and quality roasters, and quality shops with (more than likely) quality management and baristas. It’s almost safe to say it’s in good hands. But as with anything in coffee, it can EASILY be mishandled and ruined along annnny of those steps.”

“The greatness is in the bean already, I want only to present as much as possible of the bean’s potential in my customer’s cup. Not to understate the role of the barista – coaxing out this potential is not easy, and doing it well seems to be the exception, not the rule. I think if everybody in the chain, from the plant to the cup, shares the same philosophy, you’ll have true quality.”

“Making something drinkable from lousy ingredients does not strike me as “creating quality”. It is a useful skill to posses, but I don’t think you can create quality by artfully masking defects.”

That said, I have also been asking customers in both chain coffee shops (Caffe Nero, Esquires and Coffee Revolution) and independent shops (The Voodoo Cafe, Coffee@Elliots and Gusto Italiano) what their views on coffee quality are – and the differences are quite apparent!

“erm, it doesn’t taste like crap?”

“and Elliots – I like it but its not really what I’d call quality coffee. It’s just put cup under, push button, there you go, there’s your coffee, no skill!”

“good service – so, politness, the coffee not overdone or whatever, not taking too long to be served. All that stuff. And, yeah to be in clean stuff and everything. That’s always nice. And, like, essential really.”

“Freshly roasted beans (of a good quality), properly brewed.”

“Low quality coffee is very acidic, it’s got things other than coffee in it. I’ve no idea of quality comparisons cos I don’t take much notice. I don’t know where this stuff comes from, but I like the way it’s made here.”

“Tasty. A certain thickness. It kinda warms me, warms the innermost caverns of your soul. It’s very beautiful. You must realise, I’m not the coffee aficionado, I’m very much the layman. Neophyte as it were. it’s just shy of £2 and yeah I enjoy it, it’s the coffee, it’s the environment, it’s happy associations.”

“You’ve gotta say Fair Trade haven’t you. I feel really guilty coming in here if it’s not fair trade. Organic would be good too.”

“It should have the consistency of mud. The best coffee I’ve ever tasted was Turkish coffee and you could practically turn it upside down without it pouring out. It’s really thick and you know you’re probably going to feel like a lie down afterwards. Until you’re actually lying down and you can feel your heart pounding.”

“A bit fluffy, but: it depends who makes it. You know it does make a difference.”

“I mean the thing with like, having this kind of a market where there are a lot of big chains, they are trying to advertise having the same thing at every one of their stores – there’s probably too much in who makes it to be able to say that. I mean, I don’t generally like African coffees, I much prefer Latin American ones and so I’ll notice the difference, and how well it’s been tamped and how strong it is and things like that, so you can’t really say, one shop over another.”

Since I am also posting this on Barista Exchange, I’m including some customer views on other aspects of coffee-shop life that the cafe owners and baristas may find interesting….

On Latte Art:

“It’s nice but it takes way longer for them to do it so I’m just ‘give me a drink, I want to sit down’ you know…”

“I don’t think much about presentation – it’s completely off the loop for me. If they put a pretty pattern on, then you’re only going to stir it up anyway before you start drinking it.”

“Yeah, the whole thing about foam – it belongs there but like, I only just feel like I’m messing something up. I like Ugly food, ugly drinks, you know,”

“it’s much more the taste I think.”

I don’t particularly care what it looks like – I don’t drink lattes so I don’t know about latte art. I’d rather they didn’t bother with the little chocolates on the side though! You can have it!”

“(Having just Googled it) I think it’s pretty mint. If it’s done right that is. I once went to get a coffee, and the guy who served me (who seems to think he’s the coffee king…) says “I’ve left you something on top.” So i looked at my fresh coffee, then back at him saying “You spat in my foam?!” I think it was meant to be modern art of some description, but it did look more like something from the recesses of his lungs.”

“I LOVE THEM. Haha, I went to Costa in Darlo once and they did this lovely star pattern in my mates Latte which was so nice. She didn’t even ask, he just did,it was niceeeee. I took a pic of it, they’re so cool. But erm, yeah I like them, it makes you feel like you’ve spent money on something good but once the pattern goes away you feel a bit sad.

“I’m not too bothered about that.”

It’s good, but I don’t really care if they don’t.”

On why they go to coffee shops:

“Mostly with coffee shops…it depends where I’m going. I go to Esquires for the coffee, I probably come here because other people wanted to come here, a lot of the time when I go to a coffee shop is determined by other people suggesting it more than my personal preference.”

“As a rule I don’t go to chain coffee shops for the coffee. Like in here, it’s not the coffee, I guess the atmosphere, but I mainly get pulled in by other people, and it’s in a convenient location.”

“Decent tea, nice food, nice people. I want somewhere I can sit, and enjoy myself even if I don’t know anyone there. It’s always nice.”

“I like the place to have a buzz about it – i hate silent coffee shops because i think they’re places for talking, and you can’t do that if the place is silent – it just feels oppressive.”

“I tend to go to Coffee @ Elliots cos they don’t pretend to be Italian and you can go in there and say “I’ll have a large black coffee please and you’ll get a Large Black Coffee. No bloody Frenchy americano or whatever it is.”

“It’s like a habit – it’s the going in and sitting down, not the coffee itself. I think I’m just lazy. By the time I’ve walked all the way in to town, I just want to sit down somewhere. Coffee just comes with it!”

“I go out to cafés fairly regularly, for good coffee. I come in here probably once a week at least, cos the coffee is very good. I avoid Starbucks and Costa, Starbucks cos it’s shit, Costa cos it’s too expensive.”

“I do go to coffee shops, for lunches generally, um, for Cake. Definitely Cake. I’m not sure beverages come in to it too much! I tend to go for more accessible places. Where in particular? Where my friends happen to be. Again, places located around where I live in Broomhill, or in the Union area. If I happen to be in town shopping then it might be that I’ll pop in somewhere and get a piece of cake. And a drink to go with that.”

And finally, on value for money:

“Total rip off.”

“It’s why I don’t usually go to chains, cos I find they generally charge more than like, more independent ones.”

“They don’t pay their staff that well either, as far as I know.”

“I assume you are buying the ceramic as well, so I usually take that with me!”

“The prices have gone up and the cups have got smaller!! This is now £1.95 and the cup is smaller than the ones you used to get for £1.60! It is smaller! I swear it!”

“They are just trying to sell you the brand though aren’t they? The atmosphere! You are paying for coffee but you’re also paying for a pleasant environment to sit in.”

“I think, in here you can expect it to be reasonably expensive, just by the appearance of the place, If you like that setting then you’d pay for it, I mean for me, I just like the sofas.”

“It’s probably about 10p isn’t it? The fact that they’re giving it away… I mean, you can’t buy ten cakes and get a free cake, can you? Or juice or anything, so it must be the cheapest thing.Well I’ve seen people in here give them away to their friends and so on so they can’t be that expensive.”

“You know, they say that, like, people don’t like things if they are cheap, like they think they’re not good. We’ve all had the wool pulled over on us, in that this is better than filter coffee or something.”

“It’s just marketing though, isn’t it?”

“i think that espressos are a rip-off, but i wouldn’t have it any other way. A coffee shop once tried to give me my money’s worth of a espresso – a cappuccino mug filled to the top with double espresso; but it just felt wrong.”

“I actually think they are [good value for money], cause they give you a variety of things and are very professional about it all – plus the service is nice and fast. It’s groovy.”

That will do for now – but there is plenty more. And I have another group scheduled for tomorrow. I will add my thoughts in soon when I’ve had a chance to digest it all. Until then, please feel free to add your comments and suggestions! All feedback very welcome!

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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“Reconceptualising” coffee?

I am not in a writing mood today, having just finished four pages of ‘Bureaucratese’ or “well-written bollocks” for this damn upgrade… so. A few pics for your entertainment:

A Cappucino from Nero - the liquid was found about 2 inches down!

A Cappucino from Nero - the liquid was found about 2 inches down!

Cappuccino from Gusto Italiano - shiny, pretty and perfect!

Cappuccino from Gusto Italiano - shiny, pretty and perfect!

A few differences there, non?

Visual fieldwork maybe… a lot simpler than trying to describe these differences! And then of course, there is the far darker side the the little brown beans:

Black Gold is a very powerful film, I recommend it to anyone who has even a passing interest in coffee and world well-being! If that doesn’t affect you, this might:

Work out not only how much of the price of your branded coffee goes to the farmer, but also how much you personally spend on coffee a year. Quite frightening in my case!

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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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.
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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.
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(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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