There is quite a strange relationship with coffee in Britain. On one hand, there is an overwhelming love of hot beverages. I remember helping out a mate with his garden on a 30º+ muggy summer afternoon, only to be offered a cuppa during a break. Setting aside bleach or glyphosate, I couldn’t think of anything less appropriate to drink on such an occasion. This love of hot drinks extends to family visits, dinner parties, breaks and any time when it is not virtually impossible to hold a mug. All in all, I think this is fantastic, and happily gather round the kettle whenever it’s possible (and less than torrid outside).
The other side of coffee is the British Imported Coffee Culture (BICC, henceforth). BICC exhibits itself in high-street chain-shops which all have a ever-so-slightly different angle on Seattle/Italian café chic. Strangely, most of the actual beverages from these shops seem to come from the same bean and machine combination. The atmosphere is identical, with a dominant shade of maroon, brown, blue or green making the atmospheric colour-branding the only discernable characteristic. To the consternation of conservative Brits the country over, each also has its own opaque size-referencing system designed to confuse and belittle the shop patron who inevitably ends up asking: “But, which is the Small one?”
It’s as if the BICC cartel (Bi3C, maybe?), gathered at some point in the early 2000′s and set down some industry guidelines. Firstly, because the British palette has been evolved around the flavours of milky tea and biscuits, the BICC beverages must avoid shocking customers by being essentially flavourless. Any foreign smart-arses asking for espresso will be greeted with a small glass of burnt tea leaves suspended in hot dishwater. Secondly, all baked goods (which are mandatory at a proper café) shall be supplied from a limited BICC-approved list of bakeries, and shall consist of huge, greasy muffins and strangely-contrived cake combinations like apricot and prune biscotti brownies—the more creative and unlikely combinations to be considered for annual prizes. Third: wherever possible, a smattering of faux-italiano shall be displayed and worked into the patois of serving staff (e.g. baristas), to cover any coffee blunders with an embarrassing cultural ambiguity. And, finally, because this is all imported and frightfully expensive-sounding, we shall be setting the prices for beverages, baked goods, and sandwiches at just below the cost of the weekly shopping. The business logic for this last point, as you can see from the PowerPoint presentation, is that people aspiring to the middle and upper classes will gladly pay extortionate cultural tariffs to appear coffee-literate.
Thus it was that the executive classes of Britain were won over to incredibly expensive milk, with a small addition of highly-addictive coffee made with impressive-looking but fully-automatic espresso machine monsters served by smiling, aproned baristas. (Incidentally, the term went down a storm at the cafe I worked at during University, since it was very near the Royal Courts of Justice, and many of the customers were barristers.)
Not happy with their strangle-hold on Britain’s purchasers of pin-stripes, however, BICC soon began infiltrating more reputable establishments. I know that the transformation of Imported Coffee Culture is more or less complete, now, since I was recently offered a “mochacino-latte” at a seaside chip shop. (After seeing the BICC-branded instant beverage machine behind the counter littered with polystyrene cups and a suspicious powder, I declined). These shops and places of amusement have opted for a lighter touch, however, and have begun simply calling it “froffy coffee”. The Froffee Coffee is a uniquely British indulgence consisting mainly of powdered milk sprayed through a plastic nozzle into a brown concentrate. The resulting chemical reactions produce a strangely petroleum-flavoured foam atop an instant-coffee. If you’d like to make it a “somethingcino”, the logic goes, you simply add a few tablespoons of drinking chocolate powder to the foam, cup, napkin and surrounding customers.
As far as I have been able to work out, most Brits are still impressed by a cafetiere, or anything which can be labelled “Proper Coffee”. Proper Coffee, like the Froffee Coffee, is a British sobriquet which applies to any coffee not made by adding boiling water to brown granules. I suspect that in some households, the granules placed in a coffee pot rather than directly into a mug might actually qualify.
I have decided, as a public service, to challenge the BICC, the Froffee Coffee and the Proper Coffee by outlining a few simple ways to experience the bliss of proper coffee (note lack of capitalisation).
- Cafetiere/coffee press
It’s dead simple, really. Buy some beans, and don’t cry when you pay for them. A bag of Union Hand Roasted beans will set you back for about the same cost as a single higher-priced drink at your local BICC establishment. I’ve heard that they can be found in Sainsbury or in Waitrose, though I order mine from their site.
Buy a coffee grinder. I’ve encountered the myth that grinders are incredibly expensive. I think the only power behind this is that no one seems to own one, making them seem rare and exclusive: here’s one for just over a tenner. You don’t need anything fancy, though if you want one that matches your Chi, you’re probably reading the wrong blog anyway.
Finally, a cafetiere, or coffee-press. As my family in the US calls them: French Press – possibly now the “Freedom Press, but I can’t be sure because I don’t watch Fox News.
Now, grind the fresh beans (don’t keep them more than about a fortnight) until they’re “coursly ground”. It should look like sand, but not flour. I find in my grinder that between 6 and 10 seconds seems to work nicely. Boil the kettle, and pour a bit into the cafetiere in order to warm it up… pour this out and add the grounds. You’ll want 4-6 good-sized tablespoonfulls of grounds for a four-cup press. Add the slightly off-boil water and stir it so all the beans are nicely wet. Put the lid on, and wait about 4 minutes, then plunge and serve immediately.
That’s it. Proper coffee that tastes wonderful. A few additional things: clean your cafetiere thoroughly, and don’t fall for the myth that washing-up liquid is bad for them. You need to clean the oils off the mesh, or it’ll go rancid. Dont keep beans for more than a fortnigh: but for that short period, keep them in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place.
I’m hoping that’s helpful, and that you try it. If you want any more advice on roast, tastes, or what to look for in a nice bean, just drop me a line. If this post sounds slightly bitter, it’s because I just ran out of my Brazilian Bourbon from Union Hand Roast, and I’m less than happy about it.