How London became a city of flat-white drinkers

One of the simplest pleasures of pre-lockdown London, and surely one of the most missed, was the ubiquity of a good cup of coffee. Britain is still, by a majority, a nation of tea drinkers — a far more amenable beverage for being stuck at home. But its capital is a coffee city. Before they were closed, fully a third of Londoners visited a coffee shop each day, taking in five million shots of espresso per week.

The number of independent coffee shops in the city has increased tenfold over the past decade — from 50 in 2010 to more than 500 in the city now, according to Jeffrey Young, head of the market research group Allegra Strategies. And their influence has spilled over to the point that coffee is taken seriously almost everywhere.

We grew accustomed to good coffee on train platforms, in sports stadiums and in theatres and museums (putting a price on its importance, in January the Tate advertised a “head of coffee” position with a listed salary of £40,000 a year). The coffee in Parliament isn’t too bad and there are several churches in central London where it is exceptional. Recently, I got a quite good single-origin espresso from a cart while visiting Karl Marx’s grave.

This wasn’t always the case. Before coffee in London was ubiquitous and popular, it was either purely functional — as recently as the 1990s, nearly 90 per cent of the coffee sold in the UK was instant — or simply the interest of a small community of hobbyists, about as relevant then as health food or yoga. In just two decades, it rose from a curiosity to a sign of urban sophistication and a near-necessity.

You might remember the first time you tried the style that prefigured London’s current coffee boom. Stronger and more intense than a Starbucks latte or even a classic Italian espresso, probably in a café outfitted in the now-familiar minimal mode — exposed brick, reclaimed wood, low-hanging bulbs — served by a seemingly impossibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic barista.

In the mid-2000s, these sorts of cafés seemed to appear in London fully formed, imported from the more advanced coffee cultures of Scandinavia and Australia. James Hoffman, co-founder of Square Mile Roasters, recalls visiting Flat White, a Soho café opened by two Kiwis in 2005, and feeling as if the international coffee culture he had been reading about online had finally arrived.

“The coffee was dense. Intense. Like a caffeine two-by-four to the head,” he says. “The way you make espresso in the Italian style is very defined — how much espresso you use, how much water you push through. It’s very protected. These people were having a huge amount of fun with it — latte art, using more espresso. It was very exciting.”

The Australian Andrew Tolley, who co-founded Taylor St Baristas in the City of London with his brother and sister in 2006, breaks down the “very antipodean” style they brought to London. “It wasn’t about the roast as much as how we pulled it,” he says. “We would load a basket of espresso, tamp it down and then load even more in [a process called “updosing”]. It made beautiful shots if you didn’t over-extract them: thick and syrupy, an intensity of flavour, sweet, bright acidity, an intense bitterness. People loved it.”

While these cafés accelerated London’s coffee culture, they didn’t create it outright. When Flat White and Taylor St opened in the mid-2000s, major international chains such as Starbucks and the homegrown outlets Costa and Caffè Nero had already weaned people away from instant coffee and established the Italy-by-way-of-America idea of the coffee shop as a cool urban space. At the same time, a small but vibrant speciality coffee community was bringing an artisan’s eye to sourcing and roasting coffee beans.

But it wasn’t yet mainstream. “It was as much an alternative scene — like organic food — as it was a business,” says Steve Hurst, who founded the coffee-bean importer Mercanta in 1996. Monmouth Coffee Company had been roasting its own beans and serving coffee from its Covent Garden café since the 1970s. A profile in The Independent newspaper in 1990 described it as having “good coffee” and “a cordial, faintly hippie feel”. It would be hard to imagine London coffee existing without these foundations: when Flat White opened, it used Monmouth’s beans.

Coffee culture progresses in waves, according to the widely adopted classification laid out in a 2002 essay by Trish Rothgeb, an American barista and roaster who lived in Oslo at the time. The second wave — think chains such as Starbucks — introduced a wide range of espresso-based drinks beyond simply “coffee” and an interest in different roasts. The third wave, Rothgeb wrote, would be characterised by small, barista-led cafés and independent roasters, which would be less standardised, less automated and free to experiment with a focus on origin, specificity and craft.

Cafés such as Flat White and Taylor St established London firmly in the growing swell of the third wave. The clientele was small at first, consisting of antipodean expatriates and local coffee nerds. But in established coffee meccas around the world the independent café scene was already booming. “We would go to the Pacific Northwest, to LA, and I would tell people, ‘This is what’s going to come to pass,’” says Hurst.

London proved a rapid study. In 2004, when Selfridges organised a Brazilian carnival of food and drink, it flew in an American who had recently won the World Barista Championship to make the coffee. “There just weren’t that many credible local baristas,” says Hurst.

By the end of the decade, two Brits had won the prize. Among the new roasters to open over the intervening years were Climpson & Sons in Hackney in 2005, Square Mile, opened by Hoffman and Anette Moldvaer in Bethnal Green in 2008, and Nude in Spitalfields, also in 2008.

© Haley Tippmann

During this period, the food world as a whole was increasingly focused on provenance and authenticity, and coffee was no different. Coffee beans are a bit like wine grapes — harvested raw, with their type and cultivation set but much of their flavour unformed. The roaster, like the cellar master, can tamp down or accentuate different aspects in the roast and change the final mix of beans to achieve the taste they want. By the late 2000s, both the new roasters and baristas were chasing a more minimal style.

“There was a desire to really taste where the coffee came from,” says Hoffman. “This drives lighter and lighter roasts, where you can taste more of the actual bean.”

This makes for a fruitier style of espresso — a relief, adds Hoffman, for anyone tired of superheavy dark-roasted flavours like “rubber and wood, and needing three sugars to drink it”. To a certain extent, roasting defines the palette that baristas can work with, and light roasts signalled the end of strong, overpacked espressos; taking that approach with a light roast would taste like “floral battery acid”, as Hoffman puts it.

Of course, this style eventually hit its limits. At one point around 2012, says Hoffman, even his own roasts were getting too light. Things have since settled down. “You’ve always got a huge ground in the middle you can fine-tune,” says Tolley. “Everyone enjoyed super-light roasts at the time but it was a bit green — and at the other end there’s the Starbucks West Coast-style, too acrid and strong.”

The idea of third-wave coffee exploded just as that balance was being found. Long-established chains began taking cues from the independents, paying more attention to provenance and making drinks in the same style.

“By 2010, Starbucks had a flat white on the menu with no idea what that really was,” says Hoffman. Costa introduced a flat white in 2014, McDonald’s in 2018. And the number of speciality cafés skyrocketed. “There were two, four, seven, then all of a sudden there were 100,” says Hurst.

Perhaps the ultimate sign London had made it, according to Peter Dore-Smith, who runs the coffee shop Kaffeine in Fitzrovia, was that outposts arrived from well-established coffee strongholds such as Australia and New Zealand, with St Ali (now Workshop) from Melbourne and New Plymouth’s Ozone Roasters opening in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

Predictions that London, and the UK in general, has reached “peak coffee” have been circulating since there were just a handful of Starbucks in the country. Each time, the industry has continued to expand. However, even before the current crisis, there had been a slowdown.

Only 44 new independent coffee shops opened in the UK in the past year, according to Allegra. Rising rents and the volume of competition have made operating on a shoestring budget, as most of the original cafés did, next to impossible. And now, on top of that, cafés find themselves caught in the same stasis as much of the hospitality industry — uncertain about their future and subsisting, if they’re lucky, on government loans and employment support schemes.

Dore-Smith closed Kaffeine on March 16, and has yet to reopen. “The shop is 10 metres by three metres — social distancing is impossible for us,” he says. “The government loan scheme was a big relief, we’ve paid off our suppliers and I’m keeping in touch with all the staff on furlough. But we can’t do anything else but wait until things start coming back.”

That’s likely to be a slow process, as it becomes clear that lockdown will be lifted bit by bit, with restrictions at each stage. Many smaller neighbourhood cafés have been able to open for a limited amount of takeaway business but, according to Young, more than 70 per cent of independent cafés in London have been shut since lockdown. And the establishments that have largely driven London’s coffee culture over the past two decades are mainly in its centre, now nearly empty.

“Cafés are part of the life of the city, but that’s all created by the people,” says Dore-Smith. “I check in on the shop in Fitzrovia sometimes and there are more buses around there than human beings.”

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