Ever since the age of the enlightenment, the literary canon is steeped in references to the seductive power of coffee to refresh the senses and stimulate mind. From Beethoven to Voltaire, the creative output of musicians and writers has been fuelled by its invigorating properties. But there is one particular writer who stands out in his legendary lust for a drop of the good stuff.
The prolific French writer and playwright, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), had a reputation for taking his coffee addiction very seriously, and often to extreme lengths. So serious was his desire to summon his mighty literary muse from a steaming cup of Joe that he would regularly undertake marathon coffee-fuelled writing sessions. Rumour has it that he would drink immeasurable cups over sleepless days and nights of creative output. Balzac describes how he regularly experimented with grind size and would even consider eating the freshly ground coffee if his extractions of increasing intensity did not adequately satisfy his unquenchable thirst.
But although the Parisian dandy was widely acknowledged as one of the founding fathers’ of literary realism – inspiring Wilde, Engels, Proust, Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Kerouac amongst others, he was not known for working at lightening speed. Instead, his stamina for long hours of focus and dedication were unsurpassed. In his lifetime, he toiled away to produce more than 40 published texts before he bought the proverbial farm at the tender age of 51 years-old. His magnum opus, Las Comédie Humaine, was a collection of short stories and novels that presented a kaleidoscope of colourful characters in a panoramic depiction of French life after the fall of Bonaparte Napoléon – another self-confessed coffee addict. Balzac’s preferred method of writing was to eat a light meal and then sleep until midnight before rising to write for many restless, nocturnal hours. Here, he talks about the creative impact of coffee on his caffeine-starved brain:
“Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink – for the nightly labour begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder”.
Balzac’s pleasures and pains of drinking coffee are well documented. His words resonate with such literary force that the words jump off the page like a shot of espresso which arrest the senses with a Herculean vice-like grip; loosening only after its volcanic effects have finally left the system. In his own words, coffee had found its victim – and it would appear that Balzac surrendered to its sublime physiological and psycho-active effects gladly. To a lesser or greater extent, maybe we do share common ground with Balzac in his thumping literary salute to the bewitching brew that has the power to awaken and stir the creative forces in all of us?
Of all the insights that I have gained into coffee culture on the trail to Ethiopia before returning back to the whirlpool of London life, there is one softly spoken truth that endures. It is a universal truth that runs through the coffee trade and culture like a golden thread, connecting every stage of its complex supply chain from field to cup. It is a philosophy that cannot be fully expressed in books, research papers or from the good intentions of policy-makers.
Its application cannot be taught out of a school textbook. Neither can it be bottled, packaged or commoditised in the interest of profit. It transcends all these things; yet it continues to be a unifying force that touches the hearts of everyone who has a respect for our fellow human being. It is the spirit of Ubuntu. Or to put it another way, it is the celebration of our shared humanity grounded in the common space that is community. By very definition, it means different things to different people but Ubuntu represents a maxim for life that is authentically African: “I relate, therefore I am”.
It is this deep, genuine, sense of human connection that binds the many linkages in the coffee value chain together. Just as the raw green beans are the farmer’s gift to the roaster, the roaster’s gift to the barista is, at the most fundamental level, an alchemy of a kind that completes the circle from soil to sip. Rooted both in a sense of place and time spent in the sharing of company with others, coffee creates long-term connections that live long after the annual harvest or momentary enjoyment of a cup of black gold. The spirit of Ubuntu is expressed in practical terms through the model of direct trade that allows mutually beneficial and respectful trading relationships to form. In essence, coffee communities along the supply chain are brought closer together to ensure better traceability, working and environmental conditions, a fairer price for the producer, and ultimately better quality coffee for the consumer.
The annual London Coffee Festival based in the beating heart of London’s East End is testament to a renaissance of fruitful connections that are flourishing in the enjoyment of coffee and coffee-based culture. Home to the UK Barista Championship (UKBC), it is a forum for coffee-lovers and those in the industry to come together to appreciate new single origins and blends, trends in brewing techniques and technologies, and to learn more about the provenance behind the wonderful drop of black gold in your cup at home, work or in the local coffee house. It is the brainchild of Jeffrey Young and his team at the Allegra Foundation, who have been researching the coffee market in the UK for fifteen years and helped to predict the ‘third-wave’ boom in small independent coffee shops and roasters trading on artisan-based values in the past decade. He says that the industry has a collective responsibility to promote sustainability at the production-level and for consumers to give something back at the counter. When asked about what coffee means to him, he adds, “I fundamentally believe that café culture and coffee houses are not just there for the product; coffee is a great connector of the human spirit.”
The profound effect of Ubuntu in coffee culture and how it has the potential to change lives as a real force for social and economic change is central to the story behind the flourishing of the Manchester-based Oromo Coffee Company (OCC). Based on social enterprise principles that ploughs its profits back into creating employment and training opportunities for the Oromo community in the UK, the OCC works to support coffee growers by sourcing beans directly from the smallholder farmer through the Oromia Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative Union in Ethiopia. Aspiring human rights lawyer and director of the social enterprise, Abiyot Shiferaw, explains: “Coffee in our society brings people together; it is important socially, culturally and economically. In Oromo culture, people come together under the Odaa tree to make the coffee ceremony and share stories so that we can teach other and manage our lives better. We are trading and working together so that we can increase the capacity of smallholder farmer. This means he can get a fair price so that he can send his children to school and get an education. That’s why coffee and trade has the power to change lives for the better”.
The challenges, of course, are many. Increasing unpredictability in extreme weather patterns caused by climate change threatens the sustainability of global coffee production at a time when demand is outstripping supply. But new innovative approaches to diversifying income streams through bee-keeping and inter-cropping, micro finance, less reliance on pesticides and fertilisers, better water management and improved training in agronomic practices are already providing answers to long-term, sustainable solutions that are locally owned. To compound matters, coffee farmers are still unjustly exposed to the volatility of financial markets. In an increasingly interconnected globalised world, however, we can all play our part in raising levels of social capital along the coffee value chain by demanding a fair price for the producer. This is the essence of relationship coffee. If coffee is a connector of the human spirit then it is also a leveller of human the condition; no matter who you are are or where you come from, the enjoyment of coffee transcends geography, cultures or creed. Ever since the reputed discovery of coffee by the Abyssinian goat herder, Kaldi, and his legendary herd of goats, coffee has been coveted by the communities it has touched through the centuries.
Revered for its potential to seduce the senses and invigorate the mind, the transformative power of coffee is a potential change-maker in a cup by aiding the exchange of ideas in a social setting. Throughout history, the consumption of coffee promotes the strengthening of humans bonds that sustain communities. Economically, it is a catalyst for commerce and fuels an industry that is worth more than $100bn a year on which millions depend for their livelihoods globally. Culturally, we only have to look to the rise of the coffee house in 17th century England and the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment to see that it has the potential to change the course of history. It will be interesting to see how the ‘third wave’ boom in coffee culture today will give rise to new sparks of creativity and innovation that will shape the world of tomorrow.
Inside the cavernous London Newcastle Project Space at 28 Redchurch Street, Shoreditch, entrepreneurial duo Rob Dunne and Victor Frankowski demonstrated their charismatic charm for doing things differently. The proprietors of the Protein coffee shop on Hewett Street – HQ of their creative coffee consultancy DunneFrankowski – had set the stage for two-days of captivating competition. Their trademark collaborative approach resulted in a purpose-built gallery space that was just as much a salute to the explosive growth of speciality café culture in the capital as it was about the event’s main attraction; the professional Barista.
Articulating their vision for the space, they said: ‘By building partitions within the gallery we wanted to create a unique environment for the competition and wider audiences to give them an insight into the speciality coffee industry and the craft which barista’s try to master. Collaborating with Monorex to design unique pieces for the partitions, our aim was to link different sub-genres in the art world which otherwise would no be seen together’.
I arrived early on a cold January morning to meet Vic and Rob carefully arranging a series of panels that detailed the rise of the London coffeehouse ever since the first establishment opened its doors to the public on St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, in 1652.
Meanwhile, the good folk at Union Hand Roasted Coffee were setting up their brew bar. As they arranged their siphons, aeropresses, Hario V60 pour-over’s and adventurous single-origin coffee menu, a huddle of competition judges deliberated in hushed, well-intentioned tones.
One wall featured the playful but perceptive work of artist and cross-county runner, Sarah Peterson, who had been commissioned to create a stylised set of illustrations satirically entitled – Top Ten Tips for Overcoming Coffee Addiction. Brilliant.
Two San Remo Veronas occupied opposing tables in the competition area and a third flagship Roma TCS model was being lovingly set up in pride-of-place to greet visitors at the entrance to the gallery. A cosy café space to accommodate the coffee-loving public partitioned with coffee sacks sewn together provided the final understated flourish to the welcoming atmosphere.
The stage was set. Over two days, twelve Barista’s were to put their craft to the test under the watchful eyes of six UKBC (United Kingdom Barista Championship) judges and a packed out room for a coveted place in the semi-finals due to take place at the London Coffee Festival at the OId Truman Brewery on 28th April, 2012. The following day is the climax of the UK championship and an opportunity to compete in the World Barista Championships in Vienna later this year. Take it through to its most logical conclusion and you have the equivalent of a Saturn V rocket strapped to your reputation in the coffee stratosphere. In short, it’s high stakes stuff.
Organised by the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe, the UKBC rules stipulate that each Barista gets 15 minutes to prep their work area and then 15 minutes to make four of their best espresso’s, cappuccino’s and espresso-based ‘signature’ offerings. It’s a chance for the Barista to showcase their knowledge of coffee, creative flair and split second judgement. Aside from the critical aspects of taste and technicality, the competition is just as much about presentation as it is for the business of pulling a great shot. Their performance is judged under the close scrutiny of two technical and four sensory judges.
Okay, I am no expert but I thought all the competitors set the bar extremely high. The competition is a true testament to the Barista’s creativeness when it comes to approaching hand-crafted signature drinks.
The award for theatricality had to go to Dennis Tutbury, Head Barista at the Canary Wharf branch of Taylor St Baristas, who invited the judges to an Alice in Wonderland-inspired tea party: `Because of the tea notes in the coffee, we thought it would be cool to serve them in vintage tea cups. I wanted do something really interesting – something that I would like to watch as part of the audience. You create the experience, and the environment you set up makes all the difference’, he said.
Prepared in quintessential Mad Hatter attire, Dennis’ signature drink was an ice cube infused with Earl Grey tea added to a single shot espresso. He added: ‘As the coffee is so light and delicate, I thought it would be nice to strip it all back to enhance the flavour with the ice cube cooling down the espresso – I really liked the taste. Serving it in small tea pots just added a really nice touch to it.’
Another stroke of genius was at the experienced hands of Rummy Keshet, who selected an award-winning coffee grown at 900m in Araku Valley, Southern India; a London début? He chose the bean for its savoury flavours, full body, delicate acidity and spicy notes. Shortly before the news of winning third place in the competition, he said this of his signature drink:
‘A Scottish food scientist called Harold McGee wrote twenty years ago that coffee is the most similar flavour profile to corn. I thought that sounds like fun. So I made popcorn, cooked it with milk, filtered it out and there you have it – popcorn-flavoured milk! When I poured it over the coffee, to my surprise, they integrated amazingly well.’
The 24 year-old Barista trainer for Darlington’s went on to describe how the combination of caramel and salted popcorn took him back to his childhood: ‘I added French sea salt to the bottom of the espresso, used a syringe to add the right amount of caramel followed by the steamed popcorn milk, served as a piccolo. The salt is really important because it creates a glue between the coffee and popcorn – it brings out the savoury flavours and mutes the coffee’s acidity. The caramel binds the milk and the coffee together. I like to make mainstream, quirky.’
But it was Sang Ho Park, from South Korea, who swept the board with a polished performance and superlative signature offering that would not be out-of-place in Heston Blumenthal’s kitchen. Despite being the last word in modesty regarding his own performance on the day, his efforts scooped him the number one spot.
The 22 year-old Tapped and Packed Barista commented: `My espresso predominantly has a lot of mango flavour, tropical fruits and honey sweetness – I wanted to accentuate those flavours. The fresh mango and acacia honey went really well together and the pomegranate gave it tropical notes. I experimented with salt to make the sweetness come out which complimented the brightness of my coffee. A small amount of diluted vinegar gave it that ting on the tongue and so I added natural fructose to mellow it out’. His skills clearly won the judges appreciation because Sang Ho went on to score a hat-trick by taking the prize for the best espresso, cappuccino and signature drink.
In spite of the enormous pressure, what struck me was the behind-the-scenes camaraderie amongst the competitors, crew and caffeine-heads who rocked up to support their star Barista. It summed up the friendly, collaborative spirit of the vibrant speciality coffee community perfectly. Over the course of two days, funds were also raised for international NGO Coffee Kids to improve the lives of farmers and their families through community-led initiatives. A worthy cause fit for a worthwhile competition.
If there’s one thing that braces you more than the culture shock of visiting an awe-inspiring country like Ethiopia, it’s the reverse culture shock of returning to the United Kingdom. In the winter. So, after arriving in Southampton dock by ferry from Normandy under the cloak of a moody blighty morning, I proceeded to do what seemed to be the most natural thing by now, and make a brew. A short ride to the pebble beach overlooking the straits separating the mainland from the Isle of White was all that was needed to find the perfect spot in which to prime the stove-top Bialetti. As the dim light of daybreak grew to bursting point over the horizon, I toasted my first British sunrise in ten months with a strong shot of Ethiopian Arabica Harar coffee. The familiar spicy aroma emanating from my camping mug was like the warm embrace of a long-lost friend. I felt at home once again.
Now, the only possible way to reverse the onset of early January culture shock blues is to start as I mean to go on and begin the next phase of this coffee-inspired adventure. Determined to engineer as best a soft landing as I could devise, my entry point into the stratosphere of the London coffee scene had to be no other than a visit to the London School of Coffee.
Under the expert guidance of one of the UK’s leading barista’s, coffee consultant and filmmaker, Daisy Rollo, six of us gathered in the comfortable surroundings of the well-equipped training room for a day of espresso-based discovery. Following a short introduction about the origin of coffee and methods of processing, Daisy moved on to one of the many crucial aspects in pulling the perfect shot for the trained – and uninitiated – barista: The grinder. ‘It’s all about the grind’, Daisy said as she took the Italian-made Mazzer Lugi apart to make sure the ceramic burrs were squeaky clean. Soon, fellow coffee enthusiast and Podiatrist student, Tanya Tunpraset, and I were experimenting with varying degrees of coarse-to-fine grind from a sample of Hove-based Small Batch Coffee’s own delectable espresso House Blend (Brazil/El Salvador/Guatemala) with warm orange and citrus notes. It quickly became apparent how much of an impact the slightest of adjustment to the dial made to the extraction time. `You’re never more than a nudge away from achieving the right grind`, Daisy added encouragingly as I tamped my ground coffee (approximately 9g for a single and 18g for a double) to achieve an even, smooth surface before getting to grips with the brushed stainless steel Rancilio Sylvia espresso machine – a work of art in its own right – to pull some test shots of my very own.
When you consider the extraordinary journey that coffee has gone through from its early days as a cherry on the mother tree just to reach the basket in a group head of an espresso machine, you really don’t want to mess things up in the final moment. An extraction time of less than fifteen seconds means that the coffee is effectively being ‘washed’ and results in a stringent, acidic taste at the front of the mouth. More than thirty seconds of extraction and there’s a serious danger of ‘burning’ the coffee as the machine forces hot water through the coffee at a temperature of between 87-91 degrees centigrade under nine bar pressure, Daisy warned. Over extract and the result is an espresso with a strong ‘bitter’ taste that lingers at the back of the mouth long afterwards. Sound familiar?
I was surprised to learn that even the humidity in the room can have a significant impact on the extraction time and thus the required level of grind. The more moisture in the air, the more resistance. All that remains is a small but critical window of opportunity where the practicalities of good agronomics, scientific endeavour, and the skilled roaster’s gift to the experienced barista conjoin to make the perfect shot of espresso. It is both an art and a science in equal measure. But what exactly does constitute the ‘God Shot’ where the pursuit of perfection becomes the Holy Grail for the dedicated barista? Well, apart from being a subjective question, the answer lies in achieving a good balance of acidity, body and sweetness; the product of the complex array of compound oils that give an espresso its distinctive crèma. `We’re looking for an espresso that is neither acidic, nor bitter; one where a balance of taste sensations should dance all over the tongue`, Daisy hinted yet still leaving much to the imagination. But before we could reach for our stopwatches, she went on to advise that time is only a guide and we should really be looking for visual clues in the changes to the colour and consistency of the coffee during extraction.
By early afternoon, my heart was racing. The copious amount of caffeine ingested throughout the morning’s experimentation was coursing through my veins like a raging bull and it was high time to take a break. A discussion over lunch revealed that some of the coffee disciples in the group were, unsurprisingly, looking to move into the coffee business; others wanted to hone their barista skills; another wanted to make better coffee in the kitchen. And why not? Good coffee surely begins at home.
After lunch, we turned our attention to the practice of mastering the art of making microfoam; minute pockets of air that give the milk its silky texture, shiny surface, deliciously smooth consistency and ever-so-sweet taste. Again, time becomes a key differentiating factor. A mere 3-4 second change to the initial texturising stage can mean the difference between pouring the perfect latte or cappuccino. Interestingly too, it is the protein content of the milk that helps to make the micro-foam, and not the fat. This means that – in theory at least – you should be able to get just as good foam from semi-skimmed or skimmed milk than you can with the full, calorific equivalent.
After Daisy gave us a skillful demonstration of her own latte art with ridiculous ease that I am sure belies years of training, the senses took the driving seat again and we all set out to have a go ourselves by experimenting with a small dairy’s worth of milk over the course of the afternoon. We were encouraged to listen to the subtle changes in sound as the milk was first texturised and heated up in the jug. Finishing up with a display of our own best attempts at producing a presentable (and drinkable) latte and cappuccino, my ticker was back in the outside lane again.
My admiration for the humble barista has taken a quantum leap. Within a matter of split-second timing, their approach can potentially make – or break – a good coffee. That’s a huge responsibility for one person to carry on their shoulders when you consider that it is estimated more than 400 hours of labour can go into the production of one pound of the good stuff before it even reaches the grinder. Daisy tells us that the secret of success is all about achieving consistency. A fitting mantra for the day. Pulling that illusive God Shot – or well-balanced espresso – might not be obtainable on every occasion, but it’s worth spending the time and effort trying. Judgement, I suspect, follows shortly afterwards…