Christmas is coming. It must be, because the gingerbread lattes are back in the coffee shops.
Yet this year there is something stirring down among the UK’s coffee cups. Amid the cappuccinos, lattes and syrupy flavoured drinks, an import from New Zealand is starting to elbow out Santa’s favourite as the latest milky fashion. Meanwhile, even the hardline, heartstarter espresso is becoming more commonplace. Italy’s bankers may be in peril, but they are teaching the City of London to eschew milk for a stiff double-shot.
These polarised ways of enjoying coffee inevitably make big differences to the actual coffees we choose, the beans, the roast, the grind. If we had wine in mind, we might refer to what the French call terroir - with wine lovers picking their tipple not just for its grape variety but also for where it comes from, what the weather is like in the region, even the altitude of the vineyards.
Increasingly, chocolate lovers are beginning to do the same, talking of the terroir of single origin chocolate as a winemaker would talk of particular estates - chocolatier Pierre Hermé is selling a limited edition macaron in his London shop, proudly made with chocolate from specific beans grown in the Sur del Lago district of Venezuela.
Now, increasingly, the appreciation for coffee is becoming every bit as refined. Indeed, in the world of fine coffee, there is a similar demand for single origin beans. Jamaica Blue Mountain, mild and elegant, was once the traditional favourite.
Half a century ago it was the perfect bean for consumers who were discovering the coffee habit, and did not favour the bold, wild character of beans such as those from the Yemen. “Today,” says Steven Macatonia of independent coffee roasters Union Roasted, “the joy is that there is no single most popular origin coffee. So many small farmers have learnt the best techniques, and know the importance of high altitudes. It’s up to us now to seek them out and roast them properly.”
In others words, there is an increasing diversity of coffees - and hence flavours to explore. Macatonia expects there will be still more diversity in sourcing, which may bring benefits to underdeveloped economies too: “I’m excited by the prospects for Southern Sudan, for instance. The environment is perfect, and they already have trees, even if they have been abandoned.”
All the committed coffee drinker needs to do is find the right roaster, with the right proprietary blends, to suit their palate
The interest in single origin coffee as a connoisseur product has certainly grown with the arrival of such coffee roasters, who have sold directly to the public, rather than selling through brand manufacturers. They have found the words to explain to coffee drinkers just why their coffees tasted different one from another. It’s still something of a novelty to be talking about production issues; only now is it creeping on to the websites and the backs of the packs.
Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia of Union Coffee, for example, learned how to communicate successfully with their customers early on. Here’s how they describe the differences in processing Ethiopian coffees to the final product, where some have been sun-dried, and others washed: “The difference between the cup profiles of the natural, sun-dried compared to the washed is striking.
The dry-natural preparation has wild tastes in the cup, with distinct flavours embedded in complex layers of fruit notes.” They also write alluringly precise tasting notes. Savour this, for one of their South American coffees: “Fresh nectar of dried apricot opening into a tart sweetness that melds into peach and almond with a perfumed fragrance in this intensely sweet cup.”
It reads, of course, just like a wine tasting note - there’s no actual sugar or stone fruit, but there’s a transfer of ideas. The market, however, is not entirely heading the high-brow way. While the tuned-in host is becoming a single origin expert at home, the outside world is seeing other shifts in coffee appreciaiton. The determined rise of that New Zealand import, the flat white, is shifting the focus - and is a case in point for the increasingly fine distinctions coffee fans are making.
Like a cappuccino the flat white comes as a shot of espresso with milk; but while the cappuccino is made with the dry bubbles from the foamed jug, the flat white is ‘wet’ using microfoamed milk drawn from the bottom of the jug, where, heated at 60-70C, it retains a sweetness. The dominance of the milk changes the requirements of the coffee bean and roast. Gingerbread latte drinkers are not coffee drinkers. Flat whiters, like espresso drinkers, are. Both need to start with a good coffee bean, but of a very different character.
This is where blends come back into their own. Coffee is, like whisky, one of those cases where blends can be far superior in enjoyment to the single origin. Just as in a fine red Bordeaux, the blend irons out harsh notes, and fills out hollowness. London’s independent chain Monmouth Coffee, for instance, aims for an espresso blend with the character of “toasted almonds with smooth body and balanced fruity acidity”, which it achieves with “Fazenda Santa Inês (Brazil) as the base of the espresso, adding Tunja Grande (Colombia) for high notes and complexity and Finca Las Nubes (Guatemala) for cocoa notes”.
All the committed coffee consumer needs to do is to find the right roaster, with the right proprietary blends, to suit their palate and their method of making coffee. That is easier said than done, of course, though a good place to taste roasters’ products are food markets with pop-up coffee carts, and events such as London’s recent Tea and Coffee Festival.
Small wonder that, with growing appreciation for the variations in taste and form in coffee, there is also a growing band of baristas who know how to manage their machines in order to tease out the qualities of each different variety. Yet in the UK this is still something of a metropolitan experience.
In complete contrast, New Zealand - home of the flat white, remember - has baristas galore and is also blessed with a flowering of artisan roasteries, ensuring no one is too far from a fresh bean. One roaster, Allpress, has now even set up in London’s Shoreditch, seeing the UK as an undeveloped market which needs to discover the joys of locally roasted beans.
The thousands who visited the land of the Long White Cloud for the Rugby World Cup in October and drank a flat white will have discovered what a cup of freshly roasted coffee can taste like. In fact, this may prove to be the compelling commercial legacy for New Zealand from the rugby: that it becomes known not just for lamb or the All Blacks, but for roasting and brewing the finest cups of coffee, and exporting that skill and enthusiasm worldwide.