Firstly, a wee story complete with translation for those of you who don’t hail from the North East of Scotland. This story is about coffee. A while ago, my mum told me about overhearing an older gentleman ordering a milky coffee somewhere (a garden centre perhaps?), only to be asked by the girl behind the counter whether he meant ” a latte”, a.k.a. that ubiquitous milky coffee which flies off the counters of coffee shops all around Britain. The gentleman – far from acting overly bewildered which would be completely understandable if one had never come across the term latte – simply responsed “well if that’s fit yer calling it noo-adays”. Or, in English, “well, if that’s what you’re calling it nowadays”. Au revoir ‘milky coffee’. Hello café latte.
Yesterday, I caught up on a documentary about the changing face of coffee in Britain and was hooked from the start. Having grown up in the 1990s when the coffee shop culture was virtually non existent (particularly in Dubai where I lived at the time) and the height of sophistication was Nescafé with a splash of semi-skimmed advertised on TV by shoulder pad clad actresses with perms, is it an undeniable fact that over the past decade, our coffee drinking habits have changed enormously. Indeed, over the years, coffee has metamorphosed from being somewhat of a drink of foreign tastes (certainly the case in the 1970s and 80s when coffee was perceived as a bitter drink enjoyed almost exclusively by chain smoking Italians in espresso bars in Soho), to a grainy, dark brown powder enjoyed at 1990s coffee mornings (Maxwell House or Nescafé darling?), to the lattes, cappuccinos, espressos and macchiatos we drink today in a la mode paper cups or in warm, inviting coffee houses that smell of ground coffee beans and pain au chocolat.
While opinions about the cornucopia of coffee shops available in town centres certainly boils down to personal taste and preference of independent vs corporate (I am not going to go into that here, mainly because I do not want my blog to become a heated opinion forum!), it is universally acknowledged that the choice of coffee available to consumers is more diverse than ever. My dear friend Nickie, for example, always orders a “decaff latte with an extra shot” and I, myself, once ordered a “skinny, decaff cappuccino with an extra shot” just to see what all the fuss was about. I will also never forget when, in the days when I was less coffee-savvy than I am now, I had the audacity to order a coffee with milk in a trendy coffee shop, only to be looked at with a complete bewilderment by the coffee maker. Sorry, barista. I have not made that mistake since and now know that in coffee language, my order translates as an americano. Clearly, the choice seems virtually endless and the ‘custom made’ coffee has proliferated nationwide. One can order cappuccinos with soya milk; lattes with hazelnut syrup; frappuccinos with billowing whipped cream on top; americanos with hot milk on the side (my mum’s drink of choice) or perhaps themed coffees flavoured with ginger or toffee at Christmas time in red cups. And that is only a snapshot of coffee shop choices! Clearly, the milky coffee mentioned by the man in my mum’s anecdote has become somewhat extinct. In fact, the only place I can recall asking for a ‘coffee with milk’ recently is as a patient at the Royal Berkshire hospital. Quite understandable, really, as the NHS certainly has better things to spend its money on than tall, skinny, decaff, soy lattes with extra shots.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that some of us Brits spend up to £2000 a year on coffee. Two grand! What really struck me, however, is that the experts on the coffee programme said that this expenditure was unanimously considered to be worth it. While my budget doesn’t extend to two grand’s worth of coffee, I can kind of understand why people are so willing to part with their money for their daily fix. I will never forget how happy my dear friend Tracey was, when I gave her a gift card for one of her favourite coffee shops, not only because she could treat herself to her favourite latte, but because going out for coffee or treating oneself to a takeaway encompasses so much more than what it is in the cup itself. For example, there is something comforting about a coffee shop coffee. I don’t know quite what this comforting thing is, but it is just “there”. In addition I, for one, am a sucker for anything aesthetically pleasing and instantly know my two quid is worth it when I get something that looks like this.
Furthermore, most of the time the coffee tastes pretty good too. Even bad coffee shop coffee is nearly always better than instant and most people I know have a preferred coffee shop where they know the coffee is to their taste, so the chances of drinking bad coffee are pretty low. I also like the coffee shop atmosphere that has become so familiar to many of us. I like the smell of coffee beans in the air. When on holiday from my teaching job smugly enjoying coffee during working hours, I like seeing stiletto clad office workers order their daily latte and leave with their fashionable paper cup ready for the day ahead. I like the smells of baked goods permeating the atmosphere and the click click click of laptop keyboards of lone wi-if surfers interspersed with jovial conversation between friends and families over their favourite drinks. There is something very ‘safe’ about being in a coffee shop, and one of my favourite memories of my recent holiday in Dubai is sitting with my mum and dad in Costa Coffee in comfy seats laughing at overpriced condos in Manhattan advertised in the magazine of a well known paper while eating some very good tiffin.
That’s why I like coffee and coffee shops. Don’t you?