Gourmet Coffee Goes its Own Way in England

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.

Great Britain's Flag 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 coffeehouse.

Shakespear "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.

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