Two coffee discoveries (and a plea for you to drink good coffee)

Clerkenwell Road, from the top deck of the 55
Clerkenwell Road, from the top deck of the 55

One: the not-so-secret coffee conglomerate

I was on the bus to work the other morning, enjoying the unparalleled top deck views, when I noticed something intriguing on a building. It was a sign that read “Coffeesmiths collective”, but the place did not look like a coffee shop, neither like a coffee craftworkshop or school. It looked more like… a co-working space! Very intriguing!

But given that I was being transported by the bus, I could only resign myself to remaining in this intrigued state, and remind myself to look for the thing on the internet, when and if I remembered to do so.

Of course I forgot for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t until I took the bus again and happened to glance at the same place, and remembered: “oh, I wanted to search about that thing I saw from the bus the other week”.

And so I searched… and it turned out to be the headquarters of some sort of coffee shop chains “conglomerate”. They own a number of cafés you might have heard about, as you can see in their portfolio: the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs, Taylor St. Baristas, Baker & Spice, Timberyard, Urban Tea Rooms and even the Nordic Bakery!

It is always a bit disconcerting to discover that the coffee shop in front of you is actually owned by a big(gish) company. I mean, it is not entirely surprising, given the small operational margins versus the high costs of leases and business tax in the UK (and more so in London), so it makes sense that they’re aiming to operate the whole structure at scale within the limits of the scale you can reach in the specialty coffee shop realm.

Still, it is always a bit like waking up from a nice dream just when it is getting most interesting. They also have tended up to swallow shops I frequented, and I have realised I don’t seem to tolerate change in coffee shops well. Some examples:

  • I used to love New Row Coffee – it was all really bananas going there; the baristas were super quirky, the conversations between them and the customers were bizarre, and the queues in the morning were amazing, but yet it all ran like clockwork and the queue moved fast, fast, fast. I’d say going there in the morning to have my flat white and do my day planning with the eccentric humdrum in the background played a big part on my success at work. And then! then they were acquired by the Espresso Room, rebranded, redecorated with a fancy floral walldrop of green leaves and lost their soul, along with all of their lively baristas. Bah!
  • the former Speakeasy in Soho, which rebranded to a Department of Coffee and Social Affairs… and lost its beautiful double entendre, as the “speakeasy” on the name was dropped, and said basement area became “more seating in the basement”, and not the beautiful notion that there’s actually a somewhat secret place to gather downstairs, past the books. I mean, if you’re not seduced by the idea of being able to hide in a secret basement in Soho with books and coffee, I don’t know what kind of savage are you.
  • the former TAP coffee shops, which have also been engulfed and lost a bit of their souls to The Department… When they were acquired they stopped running their loyalty cards program, which were truly lovely: since the symbol of the chain was a bike (many still have one in the shop front), the loyalty card featured a drawing of an empty eight seater tandem. You’d get a stamp of a cyclist each time you consumed a coffee, and it would become a really populated tandem by the time the card was full! It was quirky and fun, and it is gone.

As an aside, I really don’t understand what kind of mean business you are if you don’t offer me a free coffee when I buy a whole bag of coffee from you ?

Then I was also thinking about the fact that many of the locations for these Coffeecollective-owned franchises seem to have closed. E.g. Nordic Bakery only runs their Golden Square outlet now, Coffeeworks closed their Great Titchfield Street shop (which they had taken over from Fratelli), the Department has closed the former TAP shop in Rathbone Street, etc… and I wondered if it’s because we’ve reached “peak specialty coffee” or because they are cutting costs, and finally, whether there’s such thing as “peak specialty coffee” at all, which I quickly answered myself with a most resounding NO.

Lazy ass marketers such as the ones working for McDonald’s love to poke fun at the barista that is irritatingly taking their time perfecting a flat white or explaining to you why the drink that you have in your hands doesn’t need any syrup to be drunk and is excellent as-is, and that’s their attempt to convince the general public that it’s OK to drink dubious coffee which is produced on even more dubious moral grounds.

In contrast, the whole premise of specialty coffee is to elevate the whole process, from producer to consumer. For farmers to produce coffee in a sustainable and respectful way (for them, their society and the environment they grow it in), they need to be paid reasonable wages. And this is what makes “fancy coffee” expensive, and chain coffee so cheap.

There are lots of bad things to be said about coffee produced on massive scales, from deforestation to monoculture, to being at the whim of speculation on the trade market. This article and this other article explain things better than I do.

The short version is: ‘expensive’ coffee is not expensive—it is fairly priced.

I’d like to see more of this coffee being sold and consumed. It would be nice to be able to go to any coffee shop, chain or not, and get a good cup of coffee, and know that this is sustainable. Right now, the options are very extreme: either you go to a specialty coffee shop for great to good coffee, or you go anywhere else for predictably subpar to terribad coffee (and then feel even worse when you learn that you’re contributing to deforestation, drug dealing and etc with your crap cup of coffee).

So: no, we have not reached peak specialty coffee yet. MORE, PLEASE!

Two: the coffee beach

Damp coffee grounds
Damp coffee grounds

And in a bit of a lighter note, someone at work told me how he was trying to perfect his v60 skills and he said you could measure how well you have poured the water by how the grounds look like when the water has been filtered down ?

They must look like sand after the wave has ebbed away. I think I got that one almost nailed down in the picture above. I don’t know if this is true or he was pulling my leg. I must investigate!

Happy week-end everyone and might the spirits of good coffee come your way! ☕️

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