A very coffee New Year: are we a nation of caffeine junkies?

Happy New Year! *small phut of a damp party popper going off*

Yes, it’s the first blog of 2015. And, as is traditional, it’s the time of year for writing lists of resolutions, looking back at the past 12 months or looking forward to the trends for the new year… so, in the spirit of obtuseness, I’m not going to do any of those things. Ha! Instead, here’s a blog all about coffee.

A nation of caffeine junkies

Coffee shops. They’re everywhere, on practically every high street. A quick glance around any UK town centre will reveal branches of the big corporate coffee chains, alongside aspiring, hipster coffee boutiques and bog-standard British cafes full of foggy spectacled pensioners having a warming brew.

Us Brits love a coffee these days. But it hasn’t always been so. As someone with enough mileage on the clock to remember the ‘scalding hot brown liquid with grit in it’ that used to pass for filter coffee in the UK, I wonder if we’ve taken our caffeinated world of cappuccinos, lattes and skinny macchiatos for granted. We’ve become rather spoilt by the variety and the (generally speaking) improved quality of our coffee-based beverages. The average British coffee has come a long way since the era of steaming polystyrene cups and catering-size tins of economy Nescafe. So here’s a few thoughts on the variety of places you can now go to get your caffeine fix.

The coffee chains

Ever since Starbucks brought its US coffee model to the UK, us Brits have been able to replicate the coffee lifestyle of our American cousins and pretend we’re a character in a US crime drama who simply can’t solve the murder case without a skinny, double-shot, caramel latte.

The big chains emphasis is less on quality and more on variety alongside a consistent product. You may not *love* a Costa flat white, but you know it’s gonna be fairly similar whether you buy it in Bridlington or Barnsley, Cambridge or Coventry. It’s that McDonald’s/fast-food methodology applied to coffee – as a consumer, you get something fairly average to drink, but it’s also cheap, consistent and readily available wherever you are. It’s coffee with mass appeal, if not great quality.

The hipster joints

If you live in one of the UK’s bigger cities, you’ll know the kind of coffee emporium I’m talking about – bare brick walls, thrift store furniture and staff so trendy they make you feel like curling up into an unfashionable ball and hibernating. You know the ones I mean. Hipster coffee shops take their coffee seriously: I mean, VERY seriously. The quality of the imported beans, the way it’s ground, the skills of the achingly cool barista; all of these elements come together to create an atmosphere where the perfect flat white is king, and coffee is the central focus of their clientele’s day.

Now, I’ll happily admit to erring towards this kind of establishment. I’m not proud, I’m one of those media/marketing/techy geeks who value quality coffee. And you really do get a better cup of coffee in these shops, in my uneducated opinion. The coffee you get here will be a million miles away from the overly milky, syrup-laden cappuccino you get from one of the big chains. The coffee is stronger, well-made and has more of a genuine caffeine kick to it, but you’re definitely going to pay a premium for it. And that’s market forces for ya: you get what you pay for.

Plus you get to have somewhere cool to sit when checking Twitter and trying to look aloof and creative… so I’m told.

The small-town coffee shop

Falling somewhere between the big chains and the hipster joints, there’s the suburban coffee shop, or city sandwich bar. Coffee is not their sole raison d’être, but it’s where an awful lot of us get our cuppa from, whether it’s a foaming cappuccino, a milky latte or a sinful mocha (well, sometimes you’ve gotta treat yourself).

These independent businesses appeal to a big cross section of the community, so you’re as likely to see a harassed mum fighting to get her toddler to eat a biscuit as you are to find the travelling sales rep using the free wi-fi to check their figures, or the gossiping, blue-rinse brigade discussing the latest outrage committed by ‘that woman down the road’. It’s a meeting point, a social hub as much as it is somewhere to get a cup of coffee. It’s what the big chains’ marketing people probably wish their branches were like, but clearly aren’t; i.e. human and sociable.

The coffee you get varies greatly in quality (hence why so many people end up choosing the standardised, dull-but-consistent option of the big chains), but if you choose with care, you can get a decent brew. You’re just as likely, though, to end up being seduced by a signature hot chocolate, with half a packet of marshmallows in it and enough sugar to floor a Type 2 diabetic elephant.

Don’t buy one, make one

There’s also a growing trend for the caffeine aficionado to make their own coffee at home. The true coffee lover will buy their own beans, and do the whole thing from scratch…but humans are a lazy species, as we know, so people seem to be gravitating towards the ‘stick a Nespresso pod in a machine’ approach too.

Having worked in an office where we used one of these Nespresso machines, I can vouch for the fact they can make an acceptable, if not magnificent cup. But to my mind, they do seem massively wasteful and expensive – coffee pods aren’t cheap and it’s just another item of plastic to add to your rubbish pile.

There are also a number of instant coffees that claim to give you the full ‘barista experience’. The only one that comes even halfway close, in my opinion, is the Nescafé Azera brand (much as it pains me to mention yet another Nescafé product). It does have a good, strong flavour, it does look (from a distance) like a proper flat white and it’s a lot quicker than messing around with a machine that needs its milk reservoir filling and water changing. But it’s still not *quite* there… it’s still not a real coffee.

All I want is a proper cup of coffee…

So, you pays your money and you takes your choice. If you want a huge bucket of vaguely coffee-flavoured hot milk, then you can go to any coffee chain in any town in the UK and get one. You have that choice. And if you want something that more closely approximates a genuine cappuccino, you can go to your local cafe and get a cuppa, as well as having a chat and fighting off the urge to eat another double-choc muffin.

But if you really want good coffee, my advice is go to one of the specialist coffee shops. Although I’ve labelled them as hipster joints, I actually do believe you’re getting a much better beverage for your money, even if you are paying more for it. I’ll take quality, care and a true passion for making good coffee over economy any day.

Take your choice, though. There’s a plethora of coffee shops to choose from, and it’s that diversity which keeps them all in business. So, go forth and grab your brew!

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