THE SCEPTICAL SHOPPER: THE BEST COFFEE

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Coffee shops are ubiquitous in Europe and America. But where is the really good coffee? Our undercover expert spills the beans ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Summer 2011

Some Australian friends recently came back from a trip to Italy. Nice place, great buildings, lovely people, they said. Shame about the coffee.

Navigating the world of coffee shops has become a confusing business. Just when we’d mastered one set of terminology—“skinny latte with wings”—along came another: flat white, short black, microfoam. For coffee geeks, it is no longer enough for a cappuccino to be frothy. The milk must be dense and creamy rather than airy and fluffy. The beans should be burr-ground. The top of the drink must be embellished not with chocolate but with “latte art”—patterns formed by the pouring skill of the barista. Very few cafés live up to this ideal. Italy has the baristas but not the beans: cheap, pre-ground bricks of Lavazza are still the norm. The big chain cafés of Europe and America have fresh beans but often clueless baristas. For the sceptical shopper, it can be a case of coffee, coffee everywhere and not a decent drop to drink.

How do you choose the best cup of coffee? In this market, the usual rule of thumb—pick the most expensive option—doesn’t apply. In any given country, the price point of a large milky coffee is remarkably static. Italian consumers, for example, don’t pay much more than €1.30 a cup. Australians happily pay A$3.50 (€2.56). Meanwhile, in Britain and America, the price of a latte sticks at around £2.40 (€2.70) and $3 (€2.10) respectively. But this same price might buy you a truly sublime “flat white” (like a stronger, denser cappuccino) from the likes of Prufrock in east London or Café Grumpy in New York, or it might buy you an over-milky, vaguely metallic beverage from a big chain.

To the sceptical mind, however, one is not necessarily worse value than the other. It all depends what you want from a coffee shop: artisanal pleasure, or rocket fuel for the working brain. At the big chains, little of your money pays for coffee, or the bucket of milk it comes with—most of it goes on rent. I sometimes go to Starbucks, even though I don’t rate its espresso. Why? Because the £2.40 it charges for a flat white is a modest outlay for hiring office space for a couple of hours. By contrast, you don’t go to branches of the British mini-chain Monmouth Coffee Company to work: they’re too crowded and uncomfortable. You go to relish the incredible flavours.

If it’s flavour you are after, there are now whole clusters of geeky coffee shops in big cities, proponents of what’s been christened coffee’s third wave. (The first wave in coffee drinking was the post-war, post-austerity coffee-shop boom, the second the 1990s Starbucks explosion of voluminous drinks with quirky names: doppio decaf, grande mocha). For third-wave purists a great cup of coffee is largely a question of physics, with minimal room for variation. First, pull a perfect espresso (a “godshot”). You will, apparently, only achieve this on a machine that is kicking out 85-95°C water at nine bars of pressure. The coffee itself should be ground super-fine and be tamped twice, using 20-30lbs of pressure, to make a pellet through which water will penetrate evenly and without “twirling”. After 30 seconds of extraction, you should have a syrupy shot with a golden orange crema (white crema is bad—it signifies bitterness). Onto the milk: the steam tip needs to be immersed deep in the jug to produce a finely textured “wet foam”. After this microfoam is swirled into the espresso, the final texture should be like velvet.

Almost every cup of coffee sold through the big chains falls short of this exacting ideal. The norm is a vat of milk flavoured with burnt espresso; and both the milk and the espresso are usually too hot, which makes the coffee bitter and the milk sulphurous. The only countries where perfect lattes are the norm rather than the exception—and therefore no big deal—are Australia and New Zealand

No one can agree why Antipodean coffee is so good. I’d suggest it’s something to do with a mass influx of Italians after the war colliding with the laid-back café culture of Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland. Whatever the reason, coffee geeks now rate Melbourne as the best city in the world to live, where you can count on your “short black” being a godshot and your “flattie” a nerve-jangling glass of heaven (the Aussie style is to serve it in glasses not cups).

Third-wave coffee shops have now reached Berlin, New York, San Francisco—but strangely, not Paris, which has wonderful cafés serving mediocre coffee. As for London, over the past couple of years it has become possible to do a flat-white tour of the capital. It’s like being in Seattle in the 1990s, only better. You can stroll from Fernandez & Wells on Beak Street (where they also make a “stumpy”, like an intenser flat white), via Lantana and Kaffeine (two groovy places off Oxford Street) and on to Store Street Espresso in Bloomsbury (unlike most third-wave cafés, actually a comfy place to sit, with free Wi-Fi). Finish up in the mother of them all, the tiny Monmouth Coffee Company in Covent Garden, where the milk is from Jersey cows and the espressos so sweet that the pots of unrefined sugar are an irrelevance.

Some of this coffee is so complex and fragrant—cherries! raisins! molasses!—you find yourself inhaling deeply like a wine connoisseur, ignoring the loud pounding from your caffeine-pumped heart. Yet for a sceptic, the perfectionism can get a bit earnest. Most consumers just want a latte in a hurry; yet third-wave baristas can spend so long obsessing over every detail that you queue for an eternity and end up with a lukewarm drink. If all you are looking for is a hot drink to go with a quick panini, this can be a bit much. So here’s to the fourth wave: the same focus on good coffee, but with less fuss. Coffee needs to calm down.

CUP WINNERS

Founded in 1978, the minuscule Monmouth has been serving third-wave coffee since before the second wave existed. Its flat white lingers in the mouth like old brandy—but be prepared for weekend queues of up to half an hour. 
27 Monmouth Street, London WC2, plus branches; £2.35 
 
Not somewhere you come to work: the music is pounding and the tables small. But the coffee—made with extraordinary precision with beans from the uber-geeky firm Square Mile Coffee Roasters—leaves you woozy with pleasure.
Berwick Street, London W1; £2.50
 
La Colombe shops aren’t cluttered with extraneous panini or juices, just pastries—buttery and superb—and coffee, which comes dark-roasted in patterned Italian mugs, made by baristas who are just the right side of surly.
Branches in Philadelphia and New York; $2.75
 
Even in the world capital of flat whites, this tiny shop stands out. Funky baristas, single-origin beans, chairs hanging from the ceiling (seriously) and an exceptionally smooth flat white are all reasons to squeeze in here.
Little Bourke Street, Melbourne; A$3.50
 
Aficionados rate this grey-fronted outlet as Berlin’s best, offering creamy-thick microfoam and syrupy espressos, though no decaf. Good on sunny days, when you can loll on the outdoor benches.
Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin; €2.50
 
All prices are for a regular latte

 

This is the latest in the Sceptical Shopper series, in which undercover experts give impartial advice on how and where to find the best buys. The last article was on range cookers. Picture credit: Ben Monk