Starbucks, flat whites and proper cups!

For all sorts of reasons, none relevant here, I don’t get to visit as many coffee shops as I would like. In fact, I make it to very few. Consequently, the big chains are not high on my list when drinking coffee out.

This past week, I found myself a bit early for a medical appointment and just like the childrens’ cartoon character,  Mr Benn, I suddenly found myself appearing somewhere unexpected. In this case Starbucks.

I have always loved the ambience in Starbucks and indeed it fuelled part of my early coffee journey. The problem for me is that the roast is just too dark for my taste and the milk often far too copious. So imagine my surprise to see a board under the usual menu offering the flat white as an option with a rather niftily drawn image of the ideal sized demitasse, complete with a latte art fern. Despite concern that it might follow the Starbucks trend of the bucket sized macchiato, and buoyed by the image on offer, I immediately abandoned my plan to drink tea and ordered one.

The middle-aged lady on the till asked if I had ever had a flat white and if I knew what it was. That impressed and filled me with hope at the same time. Clearly, I was about to be served something that Starbucks considered very different to the beverage proportions generally expected by their customer base.

After reassuring the lady that all was well, and still having the beverage explained to me in minute proportions anyway, I watched as a Chinese whisper passed amongst the counter staff with an air of electricity until finally the young girl on the espresso machine froze like a rabbit in a headlight.

A call was placed for one particular member of staff who arrived soon after from the back of the shop. After several minutes of giggles and some discussion about not placing the cup on the saucer until after the coffee was made, a perfectly proportioned flat white in a classic 5oz demitasse was presented before me by the rather flustered looking, but clearly very proud, barista. She explained that it had taken her two attempts and that the latte art was not as she had hoped, but clearly she was enthused, and rightly so.

Although the roast remained too dark for my liking, so dark in fact that it dominated the cup as is the way with Starbucks, the quality of the pour was commendable. The milk was nicely textured throughout the cup with very respectable microfoam that although not of the standard of the best indie shops, was surprisingly very close and bettered the masses by some way. A nice free-poured latte art heart adourned the top of the correctly proportioned foam and the milk structure held.

This is all very exciting and it highlights something very important. It has been reported that Starbucks’ baristas taught themselves how to make flat whites. I don’t know if that is correct or not, though it does demonstrate that by empowering staff to try something new, taught or not, and giving them a free hand to show-off  their newly honed skills, chains can encapsulate a level of passion behind the counter that is usually only found in independant coffee houses. It was lovely to see the baristas so clearly enjoying themselves and taking pride in their creations.

The barista quite clearly had a great deal of potential and perhaps the opportunity to do something different and more creative will encourage her toward a career in coffee.

Well done Starbucks. Well done that barista.

Best coffee known to man?

Rick Stein’s Christmas Odyssey is currently airing on BBC2. This minute. Right now. I very much enjoy Rick’s programmes, though somehow I managed to miss the entire Eastern Odyssey series earlier this year. The Radio Times write-up suggests that tonight’s offering is largely a recap of the best moments in the series with some Christmas voice-over by the man himself. That may well be so, but Rick is always entertaining, and besides, it’s all new to me.

My point? No, I haven’t gone all Ronnie Corbett, though I do admit to a little digression thus far. My point is that anyone reading this may well consider what I am about to say as old news. I’m not even sure if the part of the show to which I refer even appeared in the original series.

To the point: Civet coffee – or Kopi Luwak to you and me. There, I finally cut to the chase.

For anyone not aware, civet coffee basically consists of coffee beans, often type and quality unknown, that have been ingested and passed by the cat-like, and rather beautiful, civet – a native of numerous exotic Asian locations, most specifically Bali in the case of Rick Stein’s piece. The gastric juices of the civet are said to alter the features of the coffee in some way. That may or may not be true. What is certain is that the coffee costs a lot and depending on the origin may even be Robusta in some cases.

The point of my waffle is not however the origin and merit of civet coffee, it is what Rick said.

A blind cupping involving cafetiere brewed coffee was held on the programme by what appeared to be a gaggle of chefs including Rick’s two sons – both of whom failed to identify the Kopi Luwak amongst a Kenyan AA, a Brazilian and a Costa Rican. They all managed to spot the fruity Kenyan which was first up, then there was some speculation over which coffee was the Brazilian. All except the two already mentioned spotted the civet coffee, which was impressive for Rick given his previous somewhat hilariously failed record in blind tastings involving turkey and other meats.

In the end Rick stated that civet coffee is the finest known to mankind and certainly the most expensive. Really? I wonder where the researchers of tv cookery programmes obtain their facts. They could be forgiven for the assertion over cost as prices change and unless they were aware of the Cup of Excellence and Panama Geisha Esmeralda beans, the Kopi Luwak could still be considered the most expensive coffee ever. Perhaps it still is when sold in small packets, but pound for pound as a commodity it is not the most expensive.

The best? Was it ever? Did anyone ever claim that to be the case? Rare – yes. Mysterious – certainly, but never the best. I am not sure that any coffee could be declared the best. Coffee is such a varied flavour provider with the myriad of varietals available and regional subtleties derived from soil and weather conditions amongst other things.

It is difficult enough not to change one’s favourite coffee season on season – that is the fun and excitement of it all, eagerly awaiting what is coming next and comparing it with previous crops – nevermind finding even two people who would agree on a single coffee. Individual taste varies so much, and fortunately the wonderful world of coffee caters for us all.

It would be nice if one of these days a tv chef would take a guided journey around the wonderful world of truely great coffees where they could rejoice in the fantastic spectrum of flavours that we enthusiasts all know and enjoy.

Rick was still great though.

Where has this year gone?

This year has been a bit of a blur for me in many ways. A lot has been going on and as a result it seems as though a blink of an eye in Springtime has turned into cold late November nights.

We are still enjoying our coffee, though we have found ourselves unable to get past one in particular, and there is a very real possibility that it is going to reduce the number of different coffees we get to taste this year as our craving – no it is an addiction – continues. Not since La Manuela up to and including the 2006-07 crop have we consumed so much of one coffee.

The coffee that I am waxing lyrical about is my current favourite by some distance, Finca Los Amates Bourbon (available at £4.50 a bag from http://www.hasbean.co.uk), which came eleventh in the 2009 El Salvadorian Cup of Excellence competition.

This is the typical thick, gloopy type espresso that I so love, except the sweetness typical of the style presents slightly differently to the usual milk chocolate and caramel tones. Steve describes a “dark chocolate sweetness” in Los Amates, and there certainly are clear tones of dark chocolate present, though it is not sharp dark chocolate as might be expected. Somehow it conveys great sweetness whilst very clearly remaining dark chocolate in flavour. There are even tones of caramel which are quite creamy and are highlighted by the fantastic mouthfeel. The best bit for me though is the undertone of blackcurrant (Steve gets blackberry) and a stunning spiciness that suits Winter evenings. With a lovely balanced finish and long lasting aftertaste, it is hard to move on from this coffee.

We may not always go for the latest trend in coffees in a big way, and there is always a tendancy for us to lean toward the chocolate caramel tones that I seem to witter on about endlessly, but with the huge selection of beans available in the UK these days it is easy for a real gem to be underrated. If a coffee doesn’t have a particularly unusual facet it has to stand alongside many other world class beans with similar attributes and it becomes easy to merely group them as types. Well Los Amates really stands out as a classic of its style. My advice is don’t miss out on this one.

Note for all TMC’ers www.toomuchcoffee.com

Just a short note for those looking for Too Much Coffee. There is a slight issue with the TMC server this morning which is being addressed. Normal service will be resumed shortly, meanwhile please keep an eye here for any updates.

Our apologies for the inconvenience.

Update:  It is all sorted out now. The site is back up and running. Once again, apologies for the temporary outage.

UK Barista Championships 2009

For the past three days a remarkably large number of geeky coffee types have been staring at their computer screens whilst Lawrence Brown and his camera pals streamed live coverage of the UKBC finals to the internet for all to enjoy. And enjoy it we did!

Daft shenanigans prevailed on the accompanying web chat with some well known coffee names from around the globe dropping in and out as time zones, work commitments, alcohol consumption and just plain nodding off allowed. It was, in short, a good time with a great bunch of people who I am sure could not have had more fun if the same group had all spectated at the finals themselves …… and in all honesty, we could not have been so silly without being thoroughly told off!

The big news to come  from the web chat, and Steve Penk said it was no secret so I’m going to mention it here, is that the World Barista Championship is coming to London in 2010. Very exciting times.

There is much commentary and discussion about the UKBC competition itself on TMC (www.toomuchcoffee.co.uk). The standard was very good this year with solid presentations all round.

Thanks to Lawrence, individual performance videos can be viewed on demand at http://www.viddler.com/explore/ukbc/videos/

Huge congratulations to a very worthy and extremely popular champion, Gwilym Davies, who runs two coffee carts in London and is one of the nicest people in coffee. Gwilym, wearing his trademark flat cap and Gwilym Davies, UKBC Champion 2009waistcoat (see photo on the right, shamelessly stolen from the official UKBC flikr stream) looked assured at all times, also taking the honours for best espresso and best signature drink.

Gwilym is the latest in a line of champions to be coached by the venerable Square Mile Coffee Roasters of London (www.squaremilecoffee.com), following the successes of two time UKBC and WBC 2007 winner James Hoffmann, former Irish Champion and current WBC holder Stephen Morrissey, and former World Cup Tasting Champion Anette Moldvaer.

TMC member Gwilym will go on to represent the UK later this year in the WBC being held in Atlanta, along with fellow TMC regular Colin Harmon, who was recently crowned Irish national champion.

Maxine Beardsmore of The Bottle Kiln in Derbyshire was UKBC runner-up and also won the coveted best cappuccino award. In third was another popular TMC member, and these days an independant entry in the competition, Tristan Stephenson.

Well done to everyone who took part and thank you to all concerned behind the scenes for three excellent days of coffee fun. Good luck to both Gwilym and Colin in Atlanta –  both are real contenders for the title.

Is it really February already ………..

In my usual slack style, February has managed to roll round before I finally completed the ‘Favourite 5’ list from 2008. Actually, it wasn’t easy and I kept changing my mind. That is a good thing though, if not for the timeline of the list, it certainly says much for the healthy state of the speciality coffee scene in the UK. Anyway, the list is now complete and appears in the ‘Favourite 5’ menu at the top of the page.

Also woefully late, thank you for the prod with a rather pointy stick Beany, is the result of the roaster naming competition. Thank you for the suggestions. They were all very good and it was not easy to decide on a winner. The entries from both Marcy and Technojock were excellent, however, in deference to Matt’s roasting prowess and fond memories of a chaff filled Whirley Pop session in our kitchen some years back now – that yielded both smoke and an excellent roast – plus and not least because his suggestion was a really good choice of name, the winner is:

Espressomattic, a.k.a. BreakoBoy, the king of the Whirley Pop with the name ‘Bernie’.

Congratulations mate and again thank you to everyone who took part. Matt wins the bag of homeroast that I said could not be sent overseas, though we will try to find a way if it’s at all possible.

Well that’s it for now. A massively belated wish to everyone for a very peaceful 2009.

Merry Christmas Everybody!

At the risk of the title sounding like a Slade classic of yesteryear, I would like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas!bell01

It looks as though 2009 will be a tough year for many with the current economical crisis and the disappearance of much loved high street giants like Woolies and MFI. Let’s hope things improve as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, best wishes for a healthy, peaceful and prosperous new year.