British Coffee: The British Imported Coffee Culture

photo of siphon-brewed coffee on a windowsill in San Francisco
Not British coffee – on a windowsill in San Francisco
Not British Coffee

The British have a strange relationship with coffee. On one hand, they have an overwhelming love for hot beverages. Only here will you be offered a cuppa during a break from gardening in hot sunshine. You will have a hot drink during family visits, dinner parties, and any time when it is not virtually impossible to hold a mug. All in all, this is fantastic. I happily join the gathering round the kettle when it’s less than boiling outside. I tend to ask for tea, because British coffee is usually instant.

The other side of British coffee is the British Imported Coffee Culture (BICC). BICC can be found in high-street chain shops. each takes an ever-so-slightly different angle on Seattle/Italian café chic. Most of the coffee from these shops seems to come from the same bean and machine combination. The atmosphere is identical, with a dominant shade of maroon, brown, blue or green making the walls the only distinguishing mark. To the consternation of Brits the country over, each has its own opaque size system, designed to confuse and belittle the customer who inevitably ends up asking: “But, which is the small one?”

It’s as if the BICC cartel, gathered at some point in the early 2000’s and set down some industry guidelines on preparing British coffee.

  • First, because the British palette has been evolved around the flavours of milky tea and biscuits, BICC beverages must avoid shocking customers. Aim to be essentially flavourless. Any foreign smart-arses asking for espresso will be greeted with a small glass of burnt tea leaves suspended in hot dishwater.
  • Second, all baked goods (which are mandatory at a proper British coffee house) shall be supplied from a limited BICC-approved list of bakeries. Pastries shall be huge, greasy muffins and strangely contrived cake combinations like apricot and prune biscotti brownies. The more creative and unlikely combinations will be considered for annual prizes.
  • Third: wherever possible, a smattering of faux-Italiano shall be displayed and worked into the jargon of serving staff (i.e. baristas), to cover any coffee blunders with embarrassing cultural ambiguity.
  • Finally, because this is all imported and frightfully expensive-sounding, we shall be setting the prices for beverages, baked goods, and sandwiches at just below the cost of the weekly shopping. The business logic for this last point, as you can see from the infographic, is that aspiring people will gladly pay extortionate cultural tariffs to appear coffee-literate.

Thus it was that the executive classes of Britain were won over to incredibly expensive milk, with the small addition of highly-addictive coffee made with impressive-looking but fully-automatic espresso machine monsters.

Not happy with their strangle-hold on Britain’s purchasers of pin-stripes, however, British Coffee Culture soon began infiltrating more reputable establishments. I know that the transformation of Imported Coffee Culture is more or less complete, now. I was recently offered a “mochacino-latte” at a seaside chip shop. (After seeing the BICC-branded instant beverage machine behind the counter littered with polystyrene cups and a suspicious powder, I declined). These shops and places of amusement have opted for a lighter touch, however, and have begun simply calling it “froffee coffee”. The froffee coffee is a uniquely British coffee-like drink made mainly from powdered milk sprayed through a plastic nozzle into a brown concentrate. The resulting chemical reactions produce a strangely petroleum-flavoured foam atop an instant-coffee. If you’d like to make it a “somethingcino”, you simply add a few tablespoons of powdered drinking chocolate to the foam, cup, napkin and surrounding customers.

As far as I can tell, most Brits are still impressed by a cafetière, or anything which can be labelled “proper coffee”. Proper coffee, like the froffee coffee, is a British sobriquet for any coffee not made by adding boiling water to brown granules. I suspect that in some households, the granules placed in a coffee pot rather than directly into a mug qualify as proper.

Making proper, British coffee

I have decided, as a public service, to challenge the BICC, the Froffee Coffee and the proper coffee by outlining a few simple ways to experience bliss.

  • Beans
  • Grinder
  • Cafetière/coffee press

It’s dead simple, really. Buy some beans, and don’t cry when you pay for them. A bag of Britishroasted beans will set you back about the same as a single, higher-priced drink at your local BICC establishment.

Buy a coffee grinder. I’ve encountered the myth that grinders are incredibly expensive. I think the only power behind this is that no one seems to own one, making them seem rare and exclusive (you can find them for less than a tenner on Amazon).

Finally, a cafetière, or coffee-press. As my family in the US calls them: French Press – possibly now the “Freedom Press, but I can’t be sure because I don’t watch Fox News.

Grind the fresh beans (don’t keep them longer than a fortnight) until they’re coarsely ground. The grounds should look like sand, not flour. Boil the kettle, and pour a bit into the cafetière to warm it up. Pour this out and add the grounds. You’ll want 4-6 good-sized tablespoonfuls of grounds for a four-cup press. Add the off-boil water and stir it so all the beans are nicely wet. Put the lid on, and wait 4 minutes. Plunge and serve.

That’s it. Proper coffee that tastes wonderful.

Update: a podcast with Union Hand Roast’s Jeremy Torz can be found here.

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