An Opinion Piece by Jeremy Rogers
English catering does not have a great reputation with Americans, and you might expect a
nation of tea drinkers to be unable to distinguish between a freshly extracted shot of
pure espresso and a two-day-old stew of filthy coffee. By and large, you would be right,
but gourmet coffee can be found in pockets around the country, and in one big pocket
covering most of central London. But, whilst the expertise and resultant quality on offer
can be every bit as good as the West Coast's finest, the presentation and nomenclature owe
more to Sienna than Seattle.
In fact, great coffee has been available in England since 1650 when the first coffeehouse
opened in Oxford, perhaps in order to stimulate the brains of local students. These great
coffeehouses were such sociable places and the new beverage so popular, particularly among
those with a liking for philosophical and political debate, that the king became unnerved
by their popularity. He moved to ban them for fear that he might follow the same fate as
Charles I and become unheaded.
Luckily, such a drastic move was made unnecessary by the introduction of alcoholic
beverages. These diverted the average patron's concern away from the means of production
to what flavour potato chips go best with a pint of lager beer and whether Arsenal would
beat Manchester United at soccer the following Saturday. Tea then became the drink of the
royal court, greatly encouraged by the British East India Company who desperately needed
to boost tea consumption because the Americans kept trying to brew it with cold seawater
by tipping it into their harbours thus ruining a good potential market for their product.
Consequently, until recently, great coffee could only really be found in the UK by
visiting Italian coffee bars. Although big in the post-war era, these lost popularity in
the '60s and by 1990, the best place to head for real coffee was Heathrow Airports
terminal two (flights to the continent).
The coffee revival in the UK only started in 1995 and resulted from 15 million Brits
holidaying overseas and tasting good coffee annually, and half a dozen of them noticing
that it wasnt available when they got back home. London was the obvious starting point,
and a few coffee chains, including Aroma, Costa Coffee, The Seattle Coffee Company and
Matthew Algie grew from one to dozens of outlets in just two years. The big chain, Pret A
Manger, was primarily a city-based sandwich operation with coffee tagged on. Some have now
sold out for big money to big corporations, throwing a question mark on such marketing
slogans as "Passionate About Coffee." Perhaps "passionate about profit" would be more
accurate. The biggest UK chain, the three-year-old Seattle Coffee Company, has sold out to
Starbucks for a cool $1.5 million per outlet, including some that are mere kiosks.
However, this relative ease of entry has allowed other entrepreneurs to do it their way.
1996 was also the year of opening for the first curiously named Boston Tea Party
"The relevance of the name is pretty obvious if you bother to think about it," enthuses
founder, Nicky Saunter. "As for the marketplace, it was impossible to get a decent brew
anywhere. I learned how easy it was whilst traveling in Australia, New Zealand and the
U.S., but didn't want to mimic what I saw there. Food is as important as coffee for us and
accounts for more than 50 percent of our sales." Indeed, many of the owner-operated houses
in other parts of England do not follow the same formula seen in London operations.
Instead, they offer something far more in tune with their immediate marketplace and avoid
the ubiquitous stainless-steel counters, stainless and characterless staff, and
pretentious scripts inventing non-existent qualities for their coffee and other products.
"British people do not respond well to having their drinks described as having wings, or
being philosophical or even skinny. It reminds them of menus written in French to keep the
working class out of restaurants. And do try to sell them dolphin tears or rainforest
essence," explains the manager of Bristol's Metro Espresso, Alistair Hantler. "Good
quality products will sell here, but a mediocre product in good packaging will struggle."
What is the future for gourmet coffee in the United Kingdom?
The industry is set to grow with venture entrepreneurs building local chains to be bought
out by industry giants, and individual entrepreneurs who will continue to do it because
they care about gourmet coffee.
There's also a bonus for any Americans with coffee experience planning to travel to and
work in Europe this year. Head to London, Oxford, Brighton and Bristol, where coffee shop
owners will fight to employ a good barista. But, as food is such an important proportion
of sales there, please learn the correct way to pronounce tomato and potato before you
pack your toothbrush.
Jeremy Rogers is with Espresso Essentials, a full-service company distributing Ghirardelli
Chocolate, DaVinci Gourmet syrups and Rancilio espresso machines, in Bristol, England.