London’s Geography of Coffee

Spend any amount of time amongst London’s flock of trendy coffee shops and you will notice a curious thing: From the woman who greets you over the gleaming espresso machine to the man who takes your money at the till, the upswing of laid back Antipodean accents is everywhere.

Ten years ago London’s coffee landscape was a desert punctuated only by the occasional green mirage (which, as you ran desperately towards it, turned out to be Starbucks) and even more infrequently by a real oasis. For the most part coffee was of the thuggish sort; burned and bitter it required a stiff upper lip and a hefty dose of sugar to stomach. It was fuel, and generally unpalatable fuel at that.

And then the Australians arrived. Of course these folks from down under have been infiltrating the streets of London for decades with their backpacks, sun-baked torpor, and perpetual lust for travel. Yet over the last dozen years or so the Aussies, and to some degree their Kiwi neighbors, have brought something else besides passports and a change of underwear: they have brought an obsession with good coffee.

Perhaps it is Britain’s history as a nation of tea drinkers, but for some reason the Brits were slow to join the great coffee revolution taking place across the globe. Inspired by Northern Italy, it was born in Seattle, spread along the west coast of the US, and then, in a great caffeine charged leap, it crossed the pacific to Australia and New Zealand. And so, when a new generation of Antipodeans spoilt by good coffee landed in London for their habitual walk-about, they were dismayed by the capital’s dearth of decent espresso.

A few of that generation, in the sensible style typical of the folks from down under, opened their own establishments such as the now classic ‘Taylor Street Baristas.’ Thus London has recently become home to a new breed of coffee shop very much nurtured on a philosophy that is equal parts obsessive perfectionism and laid back pleasure. It is utterly refreshing to dodge the frenetic mass of grumbling, iphone toting humanity and take refuge for a while in one of these shops. The vibe is serene, the coffee generally superb, and the service . . . well, as someone susceptible to rugged sun-browned muscles and sexy Aussie accents, I’m a little biased.

Today, while the Antipodeans have certainly set the bar, Britons themselves are increasingly responding to the call of lush crema and sweet espresso. It is clear that London has caught the coffee bug, with new independent shops opening all the time.

One such establishment is the child of the 2009 world barista champion Gwilym Davies (for the record he is from Yorkshire, not the Pacific). This winter Davies opened a spacious  and serene shop in central London’s Clerkenwell neighborhood. Tucked in amongst the market stalls, chippies (fish and chip shops), and Turkish kebabs of Leather Lane, Prufrock Coffee is a study in trendy minimalism. The room is vast, simply furnished, and in the center sits a veritable army of machines—shiny espresso makers, delicate glass balloons and all manner of other coffee gadgetry—so that the whole resembles the laboratory of a 18th century inventor more than a 21st century cafe. And although one might expect a whiff of snobbery from such a place, the baristas are easy going, pleasant and most importantly they craft deep, luxurious espresso using beans from Square Mile, one of London’s top roasters.

As if in confirmation that London is now an official capital for coffee, this year marks the first London Coffee Festival. Taking place in Shoreditch, the oh-so-hip heart of caffeine culture, the event aims to bring together roasters, baristas, cafe owners, and obsessive coffee-holics in a celebratory showcase of sourcing, innovation, technique, and style in the world of arabica. It is a veritable eulogy to the divine bean, to the people who grow, process, prepare, and consume it. It is London’s declaration that she has arrived as a dynamic center of quality coffee.

Rachel Adams

Rachel Adams is a food writer, enthusiastic amateur cook, and student of all things gastronomical. Having grown up eating brown hippy bread, playing in the cow barn, and drinking very raw milk indeed, her passions now revolve around food processes and artisanship. Beyond meeting the people who craft chocolates, cheeses and so on, Rachel enjoys making such oddities as chutneys and sourdough, pickles and pork pies, and delving into the strange and wonderful world of culinary histories. Rachel is also fascinated by food as an expression of culture and politics, tradition and change, memory and identity. She is currently studying for an MA in the anthropology of food at the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. In addition to her graduate work, Rachel’s writes for various London-based publications and blogs at Lunch with Dionysus - a celebration of taste and pleasure, cooking and eating, feasting and friends.

1 Comment
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