Tag Archives: marketing

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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What makes a good coffee shop?

My wonderful husband gave me an Idea this morning when we were chatting online. This Idea is growing and evolving already.

Also, my friend pointed this out to me:

But first, a little research. Please help me out here and answer me this:
What, in your opinion/experience as a customer makes a good coffee shop?


I’ve posted the same question on google+ and twitter, and here are some of the responses so far:

Aside from the obvious, (good coffee) lots of nice sofas, always dissapointed when I can’t get a comfy seat,friendly staff too 🙂

clean, free wi-fi, good food and coffee and open early in the morning

aside from good, straughtforward coffee… Comfy armchairs. Newspapers. Nice cake.

open way freaking late. like 2am or 24 hours. There have been a few coffee shops locally that tried to do this. I liked having somewhere to go and get feen’d up and hack on stuff in the wee hours. Baristas that know a good mix when they taste it, and can reliably reproduce a tasty treat. I like it when baristas have a drink that’s distinctly their own. Obviously, I prefer they not be the type that’d correct someone who asks for a “medium” latte.

Comfortable and clean. Non-wobbly tables and non-scrapey chairs. Not echoey. I hate having to hear scraping chairs and wobbling tables banging about or loud people from the front of the shop as though they were right beside me. NO METAL CHAIRS! They’re not comfortable to sit in, clang, and are bloody cold in winter.

More to come I hope! Please feel free to add your comments below too! all appreciated.


Posted by on July 8, 2012 in Uncategorized


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An “expert panel”.

One thing I do appreciate about being a relative “underling” in academic circles still, is that my supervisors tend to fob things off on to me. I presented at a conference about Fairtrade and upset a lot of people because one supervisor didn’t have time to go. I wrote a magazine article on coffee waste because the other supervisor couldn’t be bothered. And this week, one of the examiners from my viva passed on an invitation to go on an ‘expert panel’ hosted by an “innovation consultancy” for an unnamed “major coffee company.” This was the first time I’ve ever done this sort of thing and it was a truly bizarre experience.

As far as I could tell from the enigmatic and brief email invitatiion, I had to go to London Bridge, all expenses covered, be given “drinks and canapes” and be paid to talk “about coffee vending” for two hours. So I did. I made it down there, got on the right tube line but promptly walked the wrong way out of Borough tube station and got a bit lost, finally presented myself at the reception of this huge, posh looking office/studio building, where I was wordlessly handed a white envelope with £150 in cash in it!! I could get used to this!!

I actually really enjoyed the evening, and not just because of the Free Wine and Free Sushi. (I noted they didn’t even attempt to serve us coffee!). I was definitely the Token Academic, but the rest were all from different backgrounds – advertising and marketing people, restauranters, a nutritionist, a trade journal editor and a coffee historian. Given the location and the words “Future Panel” and “innovation consultancy” on the invite, I was fully prepared for an evening of playing Bullshit Bingo. However, I needn’t have feared! It was all very interesting and most of the other panelists were refreshingly cynical, especially for advertising folks.

I have a feeling I talked too much. I hope I didn’t make a giant tit of myself. I did get very, very involved.This tends to happen when I am Interested in something. I hope they realised this.

The discussion was mainly about the Future of Coffee Vending Machines – specifically the self-service ones, with no barista involved like you get at motorway service stations. The “major coffee company” who commissioned this remains nameless but I’m sure informed readers can make a good guess! Although there were at least three unashamed Nespresso machine fans, the overriding impression we had about vending machines was that they were notoriously shit. Not even just the taste of the low quality, cheap coffee that is usually found in them, but the mistrust that they will just swallow your money or give you chicken soup by accident or something. No one thought anyone in this country would be willing to spend serious money in vending machines.This is true. There are lots of different coffee markets to my mind: there are ‘gourmet’ coffee snobs like me who want the best quality and want to see it handmade. People who are willing to pay for, and wait for, espresso. Then there are people who work out of coffee shops who come in for the free wifi and to get out of the house and don’t really care about what they’re drinking. Then there is the social element – friends meeting somewhere that has fewer negative social connotations than a pub or is more family-orientated for example. There are people who have no choice – those dying for “refreshment” whilst stuck on trains or the motorways and are forced to pay for whatever crap is available in a very restricted environment. Finally there are caffeine addicts who just want a hot, wet fix for minimal cost. At the moment, vending machines only cater for the last two groups. But we were asked to think about how they could be developed to access the other sorts of markets.

By this point I had got talking to the guy next to me, a historian and magazine editor from California with a passion for coffee who has spent years writing a book on the history of coffee. VERY interesting guy. We were asked to pair up and try to design The Coffee Vending Machine of the Future! Perhaps inevitably, we got sidetracked talking about the history of coffee houses…. To this end, my “made up off the top of my head” vending machine was STEAMPUNK! Only one person in the room knew what I meant by steampunk, and I am eternally grateful to him. Syphon-style coffee makers (like french presses, but sucking water up through the coffee rather than squashing it down) lend themselves to the imagined Victoriana style – all steaming glass tubes, hissing noises and brass plates. Big heavy machines. Mine would be a cylindrical tank with several glass syphons arranged around it, allowing several high quality single origin coffees to be served simultaneously but without the faffing about, waiting time or expensive of espresso. Brass robot arms would then add milk, sugar, cream, flavourings etc. The customer would pull a large lever to start the thing, and set a dial to Weak or Strong. The whole contraption would be encased in a glass booth, with a canopy over it and a small ledge all round it for people to lean on to drink their coffee. It could be a centre piece to any service station, or a talking point in an office block, fulfilling the same role as the water dispenser conversation point does now. Better still, the weirdness and clockwork/steam intricacy of the machine itself would provide the spectacle needed so that people part with quite a lot of money for the coffee it made. You would be paying for the thrill of seeing it in action as well as for the convenience of not having to make coffee yourself. However,  to avoid queues and to embrace modern technology, the machine would work via a barcode scanner. A complimentry phone app would allow you to design your favourite coffee – say “Strong, Costa Rican, no milk, two sugars, 12oz cup” which would then be represented as a barcode on your phone. You’d then find the machine, wave your phone at it, pull the lever, and your personalised, favourite coffee would be dispensed from the test-tube syphons by the robot arms and payment would be taken from your phone bill. Personally, I think this is the future.

More sensible ideas included using face recognition software to personalise your coffee (ie: if it measured large bags under your eyes then it would automatically give you extra caffeine!). Others wanted a machine that took payment only after it made the drink so you never lost money if the machine broke down and so on. However, the main thing to come out of the discussion was that if the company wants people to pay good money for vending machine coffee, the vending machine absolutely cannot look like or feel like a conventional vending machine. They just have too many negative connotations!

I really hope the ‘major coffee company’ take in board all our views, even if we/I did get a little sidetracked and carried away! I was thanked profusely for my contributions but I am never any good at telling whether people are just humouring me or not. But, if a major coffee brand introduces a range of huge brass steampunk contraptions into your office, please let me know!!



Someone has already come up with a similar machine!! I mean like this, but with at least 5 syphons and more arms.

Clicky the image for the artist's Deviant Art page

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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Coffee Shops

A little project looking at how coffee shops market themselves. What goes on the shop front? How is coffee marketed actually on the building? More tellingly though, what do coffee customers notice about the shop fronts? How much of an effect does the shop decor have on people’s decision to go there?

This is a work in progress – I would love to get people to send me a picture of their favourite coffee shop and give me a short sentence about why they like it. I will update this page as I receive more pictures. If you’d like to contribute, I’d be eternally grateful. Please email your pics to I won’t publish anyone’s names if you don’t want me to, just say in your email if you want to stay anonymous.

Here’s a few I’ve received so far. Analysis will follow!

Esquires, Durham: "Spiced Apple punch = nom nom. They also have free newspapers!" - Richard, Durham

Gusto Italiano, Sheffield. "There are two reasons why I go here: the coffee and the service. Both very good." - (Ol, Sheffield)

Beckett's, Skinner Street, Whitby. "We looked everywhere for a coffee shop that delivered a proper espresso - bingo! The service was friendly with smiles and faultless." (J.C., Whitby)

Afternoon Tease, Parkgate, Darlington. "I like the tea, hot chocolate, and soup, and the fantastically friendly atmosphere combined with their love of books and writing." (Chelle, Hartlepool) "It frakkin' ROCKS!!" (Dave, Darlington)

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Posted by on January 12, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Nescafe’s “Green Blend”

I regularly scream at the TV every time the Nescafe advert comes on anyway – the campaign about “capturing coffee at it’s brightest” offends the very core of my being, having seen the mouldy, rotten, stinking beans that make their way into instant coffee… However, recently it has got worse. Recently, Nescafe have launched their “Green Blend”
The health benefits of coffee – NESCAFE

My first reaction was of course What the….??? (less politely, obviously)
But you better believe it baby… Nescafe are in fact trying to sell you coffee that is 35% RAW, on health grounds.
This is utter rubbish.
1. It is a fair assessment that the process used to create instant/soluable coffee would remove any nutritional value anyway.
2. I am fairly certain it isn’t possible to make instant coffee with raw coffee beans:
 -> Green coffee beans are inert – the human body cannot digest them. It’s a little like eating raw corn, it just goes straight through you.
Instant coffee is made by grinding roasted coffee, making huge batches of filter coffee from it, the boiling and boiling the filtered coffee until only a dry residue is left, which is then put in to jars. This is the only way you can make coffee completely soluable -and also why instant coffee tastes nothing like the real thing. Some companies (and I don;t know about Nestle, so I can’t prove this) – actually have to recreate the smell and taste of real coffee by adding artificial flavourings back in to it afterwards, since the process of making it soluable removes so much of the flavour. This is perfectly legal, and they can still claim it’s ‘made using 100% arabica coffee beans.”… But anyway – roasting is vital to this process, because without roasting, the coffee cannot release any of its oils, flavours, acids or nutrients into the water when making the filter coffee. If you mix water with ground up green coffee beans, you just get water with green beans in it. Therefore, if Nescafe are actually adding 35% raw beans to their blend, it means they’d just end up with instant coffee with a third less flavour than normal. OR, they could be adding the green beans after they’ve made the roasted ones soluable – in which case when you make a cup of this stuff, you should end up with green grit in the bottom of your cup. I shall have to dare to buy some and test this theory.

3. The health claims are also a)entirely unnecessary, and b) entirely meaningless. More on this later on. Nescafe seem to have borrowed a cupper to test their latest product – which is akin to getting a professional sommelier to taste Lambrini. But point being, you can’t taste green coffee for the reasons given above, and you certainly can’t taste anti-oxidants….
Here are some reactions to Nescafe’s promotional video from other people which I rather liked:

 “I love the expert view at the bottom. A nutritionist?!? The word is dietitian.”

“To claim oneself to be a dietitian, is to say that you have a degree in dietetics and are a registered health care professional with all the responsibility that goes with it. – ANYONE can claim themselves to be a nutritionist or nutritional therapist – the terms are not protected – it’s a bit like claiming yourself to be a spirit medium.”

“It’d be interesting to know how they claim to add the green beens… You could always call them up and ask them to send you information in connection with your doctorate… see if the bumph they sent you held up to scrutiny. Doesn’t half indigestable coffee count as speciality?”

“The whole idea of adding anti-oxidants to food is erroneous. The body produces its own antioxidants and releases them as required at any one time. Eating more doesn’t mean they even go into the blood stream -they are much more likely to be excreted. Ina large scale trial of giving antioxidants to a group of people who were smokers was abandoned after 6 years as unethical because those in the group that got the antioxidants were 46% more likely to die of lung cancer than those who were given placebos! And yet we’re still getting adverts for foods with added antioxidants.Blah!”

Herein lies the rub.
Even if anti-oxidants are good for you – there are more anti-oxidants in roasted coffee than green coffee anyway. AND you can actually digest them!
Here’s the proof:
Coffee Science Information Centre’s study of antioxidant levels in coffee
It’s a long and pretty complex study, and backed up by a lot of different tests. However, this is the crucial bit:

“The roasting of coffee beans dramatically increases their total
antioxidant activity. A roasting time of 10 minutes (medium-dark roast)
was found to produce coffee with optimal oxygen scavenging and chain
breaking activities in vitro (6). A study of robusta and
arabica coffees from six different countries showed that robusta
samples contained significantly more reducing substances than arabica
samples and that protective activity measured ex vivo was
significantly greater in roasted samples than in green coffee (7).
Using the ABTS•+ method (the gold standard), it was confirmed that
light roast or medium roast coffee has a significantly higher
antioxidant activity in vitro than green coffee (8). This
difference was observed despite a 19% and 45% decrease in the
chlorogenic acid content of light and medium roast coffee respectively
implying that other compounds make significant contributions to the
total antioxidant activity of roasted coffee. Melanoidins are brown
polymers formed by the Maillard reaction during the roasting of coffee
beans and account for up to 25% of the dry matter. It has recently been
shown by the ABTS•+ method that coffee melanoidins have significant
antioxidant activity in vitro (9).”

So, where did Nescafe’s idea come from??? GREEN blend sounds eco-friendly. I bet they couldn’t market it as “Nescafe RAW blend”. It also sounds healthy. People think they need anti-oxidants. The most well-known source of anti-oxidants is green tea. Coffee, on the other hand, has always been accused of being unhealthy because of the caffeine content… so, why not make the coffee green too??
And, I suppose, what really swung it for Nestle was that green coffee is cheaper than roasted coffee, and this way, they can sell a new exciting blend for more money, when it may actually be a third cheaper to produce….

God I’m a cynic….


Posted by on February 5, 2010 in Uncategorized


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Old news is still bad news for Starbucks.

The great drain robbery | The Sun |News

Have a looksee at that, dear reader. It may be tabloid sensationalism but it is still pretty shocking all the same. (I haven’t read the Sun in years, and to be honest the simplicity of the language in it surprised me more than the content of the article – but I admit I am turning into an Guardian-reading intellectual snob very quickly!)

So, they leave taps running constantly so that “germs do not breed in the tap”. Riiight. It makes me wonder why the person who came up with that is allowed out in public really. I thought nowadays, there was help for people with that level of germ-phobic OCD.
Flippancy aside, it does defy logic. Does anyone who turns a tap off at home then risk catching … I dunno, typhoid (?) from all these evil bugs in the taps? What about bugs breeding in the constant puddle of water that must collect in the sinks under these taps? Are Starbucks now going to be responsible for a UK outbreak of malaria?

If you extend this train of thought though, what about the other machinery in a coffee shop which use water? Are the dish washers to be in constant use, in case water stagnates in the pipes at the back of them? And what about the coffee machine itself? Those are plumbed directly into the mains, and water is drawn into the tank and heated until it is used in coffee. As the tank empties, more water is drawn into it. Presumably even Starbucks closes for a few hours a day – to stop germs breeding inside the coffee machine, minimum-wage baristas should be employed 24/7 to continually pull water through the tank! Just in case!

Ye Gads, people….

All coffee shops have a lot of waste, mostly organic waste too. Everything from water waste (even without idiotic policies like that, there is still a lot of waste water; at our Durham Caffe Nero, we had to hand wash dishes, and then put them through the glass rinse as well to make sure – we did not have room for an industrial dishwasher!) – to waste coffees when the baristas made mistakes, to branded packaging, to throwing out un-sold sandwiches and pastries that are still perfectly edible, to wasting 10-15 kg of used coffee grounds per shop, per day – which could all be composted but usually ends up in landfill. All these forms of waste are usually an accepted, or at least, unquestioned part of coffee shop life.They only become an issue – they are only labelled as ‘Waste’ with all the word’s negative connotations, when people outside the coffee shop become aware of it. For those working there, it’s just ‘what you do.’

For example, here Starbucks Responds To Water Waste Criticism In China
– it is the same issue, someone found out about Starbucks leaving the taps running all day, criticised the company in the media, and Starbucks then tries to justify it with their imbecilic healthy and safety policy. But more significantly, LOOK AT THE DATE OF THE ARTICLE: October 2007. The Sun’s expose is not actually a new revelation, but more significantly, it means that Starbucks have carried on wasting this water, even though there were public concerns about the issue a full year ago.

For me, the issue is not just the unjustifiable, unethical waste of water, it’s the fact that Starbucks are so big, they think they are beyond criticism. They continue with their wasteful practices because the company is arrogant enough not to take any heed of the views of its customers. I avoid Starbucks anyway, but I am in the minority. If what I’ve written here has affected you – vote with your wallet. Just don’t go there!!



Oo, guess what? They’ve decided there might just be other ways to wash things up other than leaving taps running…

That’s big of them…

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Posted by on October 6, 2008 in Uncategorized


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Genuine Italian Quality?

(NB: This is a follow up for uni – I started a discussion on here a while ago asking why coffee is perceived to be Italian at least in the UK. These are just some thoughts and experiences on that topic)

Walking round Darlington town centre gives you a relatively large selection of places to get cups of coffee. There are numerous ‘traditional tea rooms’ where coffee is an afterthought, and greasy-spoon cafes who will do instant Nescafe in a polystyrene cup. And then there is two Costas, a Caffe Nero and the brand new Starbucks. So far, so uninteresting. Darlington does boast a few independent cafes, however: The Voodoo Cafe which I am still too biased to express an opinion about, Coffee Bamber – an expensive-looking place which, commendably, only sells FairTrade coffee, and “Coffee @ Elliotts.” This company actually has two branches now on either side of town, and I decided to try it out.
Coffee @ Elliotts is done out quite attractively, all art deco with huge chandeliers, ornate mirrors, heavy wooden furniture and the odd bust dotted around on shelves. There are also lots of sepia pictures of old style continental pavement cafes with titles in… French?
This is surprising. I had honestly expected the elusive Elliott to pretend to be Italian. Costa claims to serve Italian-style coffee, Caffe Nero are so Italian they’ve even added the extra ‘f’, Starbucks was apparently inspired by Italian espresso bars… Admittedly, I don’t know enough about Coffee Bamber to know if it claims Italianess or not, and I tried to make the Voodoo Cafe as Latino as possible, but otherwise it is a safe presumption that most coffee shops have some Italian connection. Elliotts does serve espresso, cappuccinos, lattes, and all the rest, but also apparently sell ‘coffee’ as well, without giving it an Italian identity. All drinks come in ‘regular’ or ‘large’ as opposed to ‘grande’ or even ‘venti’. Although the emphasis is on coffees, they also serve panninis and biscottis, but also plain sandwiches, cakes and jacket potatoes. None of which sound particularly continental.

The coffee at Elliott’s wasn’t bad at all, and was actually cheaper than the bigger chains. And then I found out why – they were using a Bean-to-Cup machine, which is about the same size as a Gaggia espresso maker and works on the same principle, but doesn’t require the same human input. This machine will make espresso-based coffee, but only requires that you fill it up with beans, water and fresh milk in different compartments, and press the right button depending on what you want. It presses the coffee and steams the milk all by itself, and the ‘barista’ just has to put a cup underneath.

This makes the coffee cheaper – not because it is cheaper to run, or cheaper on staff costs; the baristas are still there to bring your coffees to you and cash up etc. It is cheaper, I think, because it requires less skill to produce. And also, less showmanship. Making coffee like this, looks easier to anyone watching. Therefore, value cannot be added to it by making it look more skilled. The process does not look sufficiently complex to warrant charging more to compensate for the skilled labour involved. This sort of coffee is less of a luxury.

This does not mean, however, that anyone could do it. It is still highly unlikely for many people to have a bean-to-cup machine at home, and so the luxury of having someone make it for you is still there. Even with a machine like that, there still has to be some product knowledge involved. An example is that the coffee from Interval bar at Sheffield university also comes from a bean-to-cup machine, just like at Elliotts. Elliotts coffee is infinitely better tasting however. Baristas still need to know how to maintain the machine, set it to the right temperatures and pressure, and what coffee to put in it. Elliotts coffee tasted as good, if not better, than Caffe Nero’s equivalent, whereas the coffee at Interval is somewhere between burnt and stale and possibly flavoured with ground up car tyres. This, to me, implies that there is more to making coffee than just which machine you choose.

As shown by the Barista Championships, there is a lot of skill, art and showmanship that goes in to making espresso based coffees, and the fact that these competitions, and this style of coffee-making are still so popular implies that it is still what consumers want – there must be a specific selling point to make the coffee shops invest in Gaggia machines and in training their staff. If the bean-to-cup machines were as good – and they are quicker, more efficient and dare I say it, convenient, then Starbucks and Nero would use them and the art of the barista wouldn’t be so called for. Something has to make the ‘real’ espresso coffees of higher quality.

I would argue that it is the Italianess that is that selling point. Italianess is part of the ‘experience’ which the big brands are so keen to promote. Caffe Nero, for instance, want to offer the experience of a old fashioned Italian espresso bar and continental cafe. It gives the coffee, and this ‘experience’ an identity, which is very important to the brand, Being ‘Italian’ not only makes the place sound sophisticated and if not exotic, then certainly different to the quaint English tea rooms, it also adds an element of performance. Espresso was invented and perfected in Italy, the first espresso machines were designed and patented by Italians. This style also happens to require more skilled human input, more visual techniques and as such, more labour. Increasing the labour involved increases the value of the end-product, the customer perceives it to be of better quality entirely because of the added labour-value, and so espresso coffees become more expensive. This could be the main reason why coffee shops, like Coffee @ Elliotts become Italian, when they are on Darlington high street, run by Americans and get their coffee beans from Brazil.

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Posted by on June 1, 2008 in Uncategorized


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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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