I listened to a fascinating edition of Radio 4’s The Food Programme today which looked at the coffee industry in the UK and the “third wave” of coffee retailing. The first being dominated by the giant producers and based on instant, the second being the specialist chains based on push-button espresso machines and fuelled by the depiction of community in shows such as Friends.  The  third – now arriving in London (says the BBC) by way of Seattle and Sydney – is defined by independent, barrista -owned places which are based on high quality, differentiated coffees where provenance and varietal are important and the sell is based on the taste of coffee, not on the volume of frothy milk. The re-emergence of small-scale craft roasters (hello Hasbean!) is helping this.

The big players will always aim for rigorous consistency. A good friend of mine works very closely with Nestle in Switzerland and everything they do – whether for the bog-standard instant Nescafe  or the premium pod brand of Nespresso –  is premised on achieving a reliable, repeatable consumer experience. It would be great if people were being guided toward better coffee and I’m sure it’s helped them become the multinational giant they are  but it’s premised on a depressing view of life. By getting rid of the risk of disappointment, you miss out on the possibility of greatness. Coffee geeks talk in hushed terms about the “god shot” –  when the stars align and the combinition of bean, grind, tamp, water and whatever else gives you a heart-stopping expression of flavour.  

It would be lovely to think someone out there is planning to open a  cafe in Leicester where you could sit down and spend a moment discussing whether to go for the Yirgacheffe or the Harrar, the Sumatran or the Celebes, and where the barrista would tip you the wink about a great microlot of  Huehuetenago that’s just arrived.  Risking the possibility of having something you might not like may not be everyone’s, erm, cup of tea, but  I’d certainly welcome a place that aimed for something more than mere consistency. 

(The Food Programme will repeated on Monday at 4pm or is avaialble on iPlayer)

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