Raising the bar - the independent cafes and Antipodean attitudes regenerating our coffee culture
In compiling our most recent update on the best places to drink coffee in London, it was hard not to notice a few things: that (a) there has been an overwhelming number of exceptionally good places opening over the past 18 months, (b) many of these places are owned by, or staffed by Aussies and Kiwis, and (c) the path of good coffee seems to lie in either central London (more explicitly, Soho and surrounding areas) or the East End (with a bias towards Hackney, Shoreditch and Clerkenwell/Farringdon).
SOMETHING IS A-BREWING
The first point - an ever growing number of independently owned coffee shops - is excellent news for coffee lovers. Cast your minds back to London five years ago, and try to name five great places for coffee. Easy? Okay, try ten - and it's a bit of a struggle. But as you can see from our list, there are literally dozens of brew holes to choose from these days.
Pioneers such as Monmouth Coffee Company have long brought decent brews to the people in a time where burnt, watery, overheated coffees were the norm. Then, in a city wrought with American and Italian-style brews, came Flat White in 2005, bringing an altogether different cup. What was this newfangled flehtt whaait? Like a latte but with less milk? It was a daring move to bring the Antipodean style of coffee to a city where coffee-focused cafés consisted of Costa, Caffè Nero and Starbucks.
Then came the café branch of the Fernandez & Wells deli in 2007. A year later, in 2008, Flat White then spawned a sister coffee haven, Milk Bar. Then, this year Fernandez & Wells expanded even further, with a dedicated 'espresso bar' in St Anne's Court, Soho.
But what is the Antipodean connection? Antipodean-style cafés and coffee bars have blossomed over the past 18 months - Lantana, Taylor Street Baristas, Nude Espresso et al - and there seems to be no stopping the parade of new coffee shops opening in the capital. Why is this? It's strikingly obvious in some ways - the Aussies and Kiwis have one of the strongest coffee-appreciating cultures back home, where independently-owned joints are the norm rather than the exception. 'The typical Aussie consumer is used to well-prepared coffee and interesting cafés,' says James Hoffman of the Square Mile Coffee Roasters. 'They all have their favourite cafés. They have lots of neighbourhood cafés and lots of personal businesses. It's what London has lacked for a long time.'
Indeed, the common manifesto among this new wave of coffee shop owners is that they wanted to bring a slice of Sydney or Auckland to London. But recently, it's not only Antipodeans that are doing this - Brits who have experienced first-hand the amazing coffee culture in Australia and New Zealand have come back determined to recreate the experience for their fellow citizens. Steve Hawkes, from Tina We Salute You, is one such bloke – he admits that he had 'actually never drunk proper coffee before living [in Melbourne]'. Another Brit inspired by Aussie coffee culture who worked in one of Melbourne's best cafés, Maltitude, has just set up his own modest coffee bar, The Espresso Room (and a room, in its most basic sense, it is) near Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Having just opened on Monday, a steady stream of coffee enthusiasts have already come through Ben Townsend's doors - the news of a new caffeine hotspot travels quick, these days. The Englishman is a qualified barista trainer, coffee consultant and all-round coffee guy. While the Espresso Room is barely the size of an average walk-in closet, like places such as Taste of Bitter Love and Dose Espresso, its petite size seems to be in inverse proportion to how big its ambitions are. And, unusually, Ben chose to break out of the East End/Soho norm and pitch up in this part of town (though it's just minutes from Bea's of Bloomsbury). 'I've always been looking [for a place], but if you look at London as a whole, there aren't many areas that will suit this kind of [coffee shop],' he says.
This is loosely connected to the third point - a large part of the reason why these small but good coffee places have clustered around places such as Hackney and Shoreditch is simply a matter of cost. The relatively low rent in areas of East London have helped facilitate the growth of these individual operations. It could also be that the 'creative' environment of areas such as Clerkenwell and Farringdon, Shoreditch and Hackney has already provided a healthy environment (and gaggles of potential customers) for any ambitious new coffee opening. As James suggests, 'out in [the East End], the rent is less so people can do what they want to do. Places such as Tina We Salute You and Taste of Bitter Love are great examples of characterful cafés. It's easier, in this part of town, to open 'quirky' and very personal businesses,' he says. 'Whereas you wander into a shop in west London and wonder, "who owns this?"'.
The growth of good coffee, of course, is also largely due to the rising quality of locally-roasted beans. James's company, the Square Mile Coffee Roasters, which he runs with Norwegian Anette Moldvaer (World Coffee Cup Tasting Champion 2007), is the common thread connecting all these purveyors of excellent coffee. In our list of over two dozen coffee shops, at least ten of them use Square Mile beans - the others are largely in favour of Monmouth. You'd expect a bit of competition between the two, but for James and Anette, it's all about working together to raise the profile of decent coffee in the capital. It's not only about selling coffee, or having a monopoly on the coffee scene, he stresses: 'We're the good guys, we hope. We're working against the flow of bad coffee. I don't want to take [customers] away from Monmouth - I want to take business away from the bad coffee places.
'We want at least 35 good places to drink coffee in London, eventually' he says. We're already at least halfway there - and there's already a spate of new openings to look forward to. Along with The Espresso Room, look out for Ginger & White in Hampstead (an Aussie-Brit collaboration where their motto is 'We don't do grande') and Kaffeine, soon to open in Great Titchfield Street (owned by an Aussie). The trend, it seems, continues.
A RETURN TO ENGLISH COFFEE CULTURE
But there's a flip side as well, as Ben points out - the danger of coffee shops across London becoming homogenous. The Antipodean style of coffee bar is in danger of becoming ubiquitous, and so more and more baristas are struggling to carve out a niche for themselves. There may be more choices out there, but when will it hit a plateau? 'I'm interested to see how the coffee scene will evolve,' says Ben. 'Will the new cafés be interesting in their own right? Or are we just forming an Australian 'template'? That's why I'm trying to do British flavours here.' With James, it's a similar sentiment. 'I know exactly what [Ben] means. It would be a shame to have nothing but great Melbourne-style cafés, but if it gives London a kickstart, then great.'
James predicts that the coffee scene in London will soon move away from the quirky Antipodean-style to a more localised British version. After all, London was once one of the great capitals of coffee culture between the 17th and 18th centuries. The first coffee house was opened in St Michael's Alley in Cornhill in 1652 by a Mr. Pasqua Rosee. By 1663, there were 83 coffee houses in the Square Mile alone (now, it's easy to see how James and Anette found inspiration for their company name). Competition was also fierce, with proprietors fighting hard to keep a loyal customer base by offering high quality beverages. They were popular among all classes of society (not unlike the Kaffee Hausen of Vienna, then), though venues in and around Broad Street, Farringdon and Cornhill were mainly patronised by tradesmen in the City. In fact, Lloyds (the insurance firm, not the bank) began as a buzzing coffee shop in Tower Street in the City where insurance deals were planned and discussed - it eventually evolved into the pillar of the financial sector it is today. Look at the Square Mile today and the days when coffee shops were in such high demand that even private dwellings were converted to serve the brew (along with other treats, such as perfumed sherbets, chocolate, mineral water and, of course, tea) seems like a distant dream.
But it looks as though London is starting to remember its has-bean days. While the coffee culture in the capital is still hung up on American, Italian and - now - Antipodean styles, we may well see a resurgence in an English coffee culture in the next few years. Not one to preach and not practice, Square Mile would eventually like to open its own café in a year or so - but it will be a far cry from the Down Under style of operation. 'If we opened a café we'd want it to be very English,' stresses James. 'We'd be a little bit like Monmouth. We'd like to see brewed coffee [rather than espresso] come back.'
In the meantime, there's plenty of good stuff to go around - and with the World Barista Championships coming to London in 2010, the future looks bright. You can be sure that the cream of the city's crop will be working hard towards improving the state of our coffees in preparation for this event. After all, if a Yorkshire lad can triumph above baristas from around the world at the 2009 Championships (check out Gwilym Davies's coffee cart at Columbia Road on Sundays), what's stopping the rest of these bright young things?