As turmeric spiced lattes takeover the city, Sally Howard explores London’s relationship with the dark stuff
From frappés to flat whites, cappuccinos to cold brews, the London coffee scene has come of age since the days of the ubiquitous lukewarm instant in a polystyrene cup. The English capital may not have the coffee-loving reputation of Melbourne, the Aussie city where every 30-something is a semi-pro barista, or Seattle (birthplace of the globe-conquering Starbucks), but as a gathering ground where southern European, hipster and Antipodean coffee traditions meet, London holds its own.
Lani Kingston is the author of coffee-table book (what else?) London Coffee. She says few cities can claim a coffee culture as deep-rooted as London’s. “London had coffee houses as early as the 17th century,” she says. “They were nicknamed ‘penny universities’ and were raucous dens of intellect, where great thinkers met over strong, tar-like coffees.” She adds that inventions such as the modern newspaper and ballot box sprang from the early London coffee scene.
Flash forward 300 years, however, and London’s relationship with the world’s favorite pick-me-up had hit a rough patch. The freeze-dried ‘instant coffee’ formulated during the Second World War had become the norm in both cafés and domestic settings, and Londoners were hard-pressed to find a coffee made from grounds anywhere outside the Italian-run cafés of Soho.
The turning point, says Kingston, was the 1970s, when a handful of pioneers realized there was more to life than the two ground coffees on offer: ‘breakfast blend’ and ‘afternoon blend’. Anita Leroy, founder of Monmouth Coffee, and former coffee commodity trader Stephen Hurst realized that each coffee had a unique taste depending on where it was grown. “Before this point, coffee was traded in commodity-sized lots with beans from a large number of farms thrown together to meet the traders’ orders,” Kingston says. Still, this revelation took a while to bear fruit in the single-origin coffees Londoners love today. “It took people like Leroy and Hurst to work tirelessly with farming countries and governments to gain access to single farm or single-region coffees,” she says.
Josh Strauss, 33, is the founder of Local Brew Cooperative, which roasts coffee beans for trade and consumers in an old World War town bunker in the rounds of London museum Tate Britain. He says that single-origin brews are the backbone of the modern London coffee scene, with discriminating Londoners treating coffee consumption with the same care and consideration as they would wine. “You wouldn’t mix African and Australian wines, for example, would you?” Strauss says. “In a similar way the single-origin philosophy sees land and varietal as giving a unique aspect to coffee’s flavor. We call it the ‘terroir’, as you would of wine.” In general, says Strauss, it’s the South American arabicas that we think of as classic coffees – with their typically nutty and caramel flavors – with East African arabicas producing sweeter more berry-based flavors. Canaphoras, a more robust coffee plant, is grown in Central and Western Africa, parts of Southeast Asia and Brazil (and used mostly in blends and instant coffees). Regional simplifications, of course, would make any London coffee buff blanch. “You have to remember that there are more flavor molecules in coffee than wine,” Strauss adds.
These days there’s an independent coffee shop selling a top-notch brew on every London corner. The arrival of young Antipodean baristas in the 2000s brought the blockbuster ‘flat white’ (an espresso and micro-foam-based milky coffee) and recent launches such as Soho’s Bar Termini are reconnecting Londoners with their love of the classic crema, a brown froth-topped Italian espresso, drunk short and sitting at the bar (ideally in glamorous sunglasses). Strauss has seen vogues for fruity Ethiopian coffees, cold brews (which produces a less acidic product) and unique Asian blends come and go. This year it’s all about the plant-based milks, he says; particularly oat, which has an unobtrusive taste that complements single-origin coffees. The next frontier, he says, is filter. “The slower extraction method produces a more complex flavor,” Strauss says. And, like every good hard-boiled PI, we’ll be drinking it black. “Not like those cups of weak black diner coffee in the US,” Strauss adds. “More like it’s enjoyed in Nordic countries: on its own, so the coffee flavors shine through.”
London is at the forefront of research into the prized African shrub. Preferring hilly terrain, plenty of rain and climatically mild conditions, “coffea” is one of the plants most at risk from the disruptions of global warming. Dr Aaron Davies, the head of the Coffee Research Team at London’s Kew Gardens, is leading research to combat these effects, and build resilience into global coffee farming and the coffee supply chain. “While the industry is concentrating on the now, the Kew team are building a safety net for the world to ensure we will always have coffee in the years to come,” Lani Kingston says. I’ll raise a cup to that.
London Coffee by Lani Kingston is published by Hoxton Amino Press, £20.
The London Coffee Festival will take place from 28 – 31 March at Old Truman Brewery, Brick Lane.
Images courtesy of David Post and Bar Termini