OPINION: It’s time to fight back against ‘speciality coffee’
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Our columnist says UK Coffee Week is the perfect opportunity
For those of us who are not morning people, one of the fuels which keeps us going is caffeine. It’s probably true to say that coffee has displaced tea as the UK’s national drink, and you have to ask where our high streets would be were it not for the proliferation of coffee shops pandering to our caffeine cravings – and providing considerable employment in the process.
I mention the subject because this week is ‘UK Coffee Week’, one of the many awareness campaigns dreamt up by PR people to gain column inches (OK, it’s working…). I’m happy to mention this particular campaign because it’s aim is to raise money to help change lives in parts of the world where coffee is grown, which also tend to be among the poorest places on Earth.
The idea is that for every cup of coffee you buy in participating coffee shops (including the UK’s biggest chain), a donation is made to the project. Given just how many cups we consume each week, that could make a big difference.
Without in any way wishing to distract attention from this very worthy cause, I feel that UK Coffee Week might also be an opportunity to launch another campaign, which will be less popular with the bearded hipster types who like to sneer at anyone who questions their supposed wisdom about ‘speciality’ coffee.
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This stuff is an abomination, so it’s time to launch a Campaign For Real Coffee.
The idea came to me while I was in one of Norwich’s ‘speciality’ coffee shops. Having been made to feel distinctly inferior for even asking for an espresso, what arrived was so acidic that it really needed a dash of Gaviscon rather than milk. Unsurprisingly, I left most of it; when he cleared the almost-full cup, the waiter seemed neither surprised nor concerned that his product had clearly not satisfied his customer.
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In case you don’t know what speciality coffee is, let me explain. Essentially it is a thin, acidic drink which appears to be have been designed to taste nothing like coffee. It is clearly a product created by and for people who are wilfully anti-mainstream, who hate the idea that their favourite drink has become popular, and who want to maintain their sense of superiority.
These are the types who will look down their noses at you if you order a flat white, or even an espresso. For them, it’s not ‘proper’ coffee unless it is made slowly with a filter, or else with their favourite gadget, the Aeropress.
Above all, they don’t want their drink to taste like coffee. So they use a whole range of pretentious flavour descriptors ranging from grapefruit to nectarines, lime to tropical fruit. And what arrives is a cup of sour, acidic bitterness, instead of the rich caramelly, nutty flavours that every Italian assumes is their God-given right to taste whenever they raise an espresso to their lips.
The people who serve you these sour beverages do so with an all-too-serious demeanour, as if drinking a cup of coffee is a reverent, quasi-religious experience, rather than something to bring you joy as well as a welcome jolt of caffeine.
The shame is that it tends to be independent coffee shops who are the worst offenders. This is deeply unfair on those locally-owned cafes which are serving decent, tastes-like-coffee cups of coffee, but their ‘speciality’ and ‘artisan’ colleagues are sadly giving them a bad name.
Which simply drives people to the safe if unexciting consistency of the big chains, which is certainly not what I want to see.
You will have seen the McDonalds TV commercial which lampoons coffee shop idiocy; sadly, it’s too near the truth to be funny.
Perhaps the answer is for those coffee shops who have not been taken in by the Emperor’s new clothes pretentiousness of speciality coffee to display some kind of sign that what they are serving is ‘real’ coffee.
That they will not make you feel small for asking for the type of coffee you actually want, rather than the one which some bearded hipster says you should be drinking.
While we are unable to travel to the continent, and in particular to Italy where I have never had a bad cup of coffee, and where being served a UK-style ‘speciality’ coffee would result in a riot, we are reliant on our domestic coffee shops to deliver the goods. UK Coffee Week seems a good point in time to start demanding that they do.