LONDON OF 2013 is a coffee lover's delight. Spoiled for choice, the city is brimming with cafés, premium roasters, quality market stalls and espresso carts that pride themselves on serving the finest coffees brewed in every conceivable manner - from classic Marzoccos, to speciality roasts filtered through white porcelain funnels, to single cup vacuum-brews (an excruciatingly interminable process that tests the patience of any caffeine-starved addict), to Turkish kahve foaming from the depths of a beautifully designed ibriq. In Shoreditch, Chelsea, Hackney, Kilburn, Hampstead, Islington and Camden - in every borough of London - coffee cafés have blossomed like jasmine scented flowers on a verdant hill in Yemen. It’s as if we’ve been brought full circle from those early days of the 18th century when you couldn’t walk down a London street without passing a coffeehouse. Nowadays you’re more likely to pass three.
How did this come about? Partly it’s the uniqueness of London itself, which, like the language it speaks, easily absorbed a vast array of cultures without feeling overly threatened. In the early days of coffee it was the Ottoman café that was emulated, later it was the French and the Italians. Then came the Americans with their prototype TV sitcom café. One might deplore Starbucks but, as McDonalds did for hamburgers, they proved there was a market in England for specialty coffee concoctions far beyond the limits imposed by those who labelled the nation as inveterate tea drinkers.
But, curiously, London’s relatively new artisan coffee scene has more to do with Britain’s antipodean connection than that of the former colonies to the west. The love affair with coffee in Australia and New Zealand certainly matched that of the US. And, of course, it was easier for Aussies to get work visas in Britain than it was for most Americans. Along with native Brits who lived for a while in Melbourne, Sidney and Auckland and came back home with a strong taste for java and a hankering to recreate the café scene they so enjoyed there, the reverse migration of young, successful antipodean entrepreneurs had a major impact on the coffee house movement in the 21st century’s early years.
Another element of London’s emergent coffee scene was very home-grown. As far back as the 1980s, a shift began taking place where young people, influenced by ecological issues and notions of fair trade, were entering the coffee business with a global consciousness that enabled them to look at sourcing coffee in a more responsible way. Direct links were made with coffee farmers who, themselves, were involved with issues of sustainability. A process of collaboration took shape where buyer and seller became intimately involved in how coffee was grown, how it was harvested, how it was processed and how it was sold.
One of these new coffee enterprises was the Monmouth coffeeshop in Covent Garden which began in 1978 to roast specialty coffee in the basement of their Monmouth Street café. Having connected with small coffee farmers, fincas and cooperatives, they developed a deeper understanding of the coffee trade and were able to disconnect from the corporate system that dominated most of the business back then. They quickly developed a strong and very loyal customer following and provided a model for how a combined café and roastery could be run.
Today there are a number of coffeehouses that have established their own supply network and roast their own beans. Others have made a connection with the growing band of artisan roasters who actively source their supplies from specialty coffee farms in Central America, Africa and Asia. But good coffee is one thing. The space where it’s consumed is quite another. A great café is not only defined by the quality of the drink and how it’s made but also by its connection with community. For a café to truly succeed, there must be a sense of the communal - in spirit, at least, if not at the till. These places are like little gems when found. In London, 2013, there is no shortage of such cafes on high roads, avenues, side streets, in markets, bookshops, galleries and museums.
However, there is a serious problem for cafés in London and that is the cost of rents. Historically, bohemia was found in downmarket areas where cheap lodging could be acquired. In today's London everywhere is expensive. So the most inventive devices are used to construct affordable accommodation. This often means sharing arrangements with other enterprises as well as making imaginative use of the space at hand. The architectural wonders of some urban cafés are amazing works of inspiration. Creating an intimate space out of nothing - one that appeals to both communities and individuals - is on the par of building a miniature cathedral. When it happens, it’s halfway to the caffeinated gods.
Directory of London's Independent Coffee Cafés>>