I know it’s been a while since I posted, I’m preparing something a little different. Until then, check out this blog that writes up details of every farm they visit, and the taste profiles and specs of the beans they get. This is traceability. (It’s also Nordic origin, which I also enjoy.)
One of the most regular questions I get asked is ‘why do you order filter coffee when you visit a new coffee shop?’ Rightly so, many people seem to regard filter coffee as of a lower quality, or more basic, than a finely-crafted flat white. This is for good reason: the proliferation of coffee chains that have needed to present something that can attract a higher price point has meant that filter is seen as something that paupers have. Successful, middle-class coffee-drinkers can afford to pay for textured milk to be poured into their coffee. The implicit marketing scheme is that paying 2.50 for a latte is superior to paying 99p for a filter coffee (after all, I can create that stuff at home for less than that!).
This is very clever marketing, but the truth is that missing out on filter coffee means missing out on a whole world of flavour. There are many analogies to draw between alcohol and coffee (worthy of an article in itself), but the one I use here is with a cocktail. A cocktail can taste great, and some really imaginative concoctions of cocktails have been invented. They are a taste experience as separate from their constituents. But you wouldn’t use a twelve-year old single malt to make a ‘Tom Collins’. There’s a beauty in itself to drinking a complex scotch (albeit a rather acquired taste) and it’s a waste to lose that flavour in with lime and coke and whatever other impurities you decide to add.
So. Lattes, flat whites and cappuccinos are our cocktails. And they can taste fantastic, especially when you factor in well textured milk and finely balanced espresso. There’s most definitely an art, and making lattes is a skill in itself. A well made filter coffee is the single malt scotch, complex, intense and an altogether different (and sometimes acquired) experience. It’s not a comparable drink. What makes a filter well made? That’s for another article. But you ever see the words ‘aeropress’, ‘v60’ or ‘siphon’, among others, you can bet it’s got a certain quality to it. Each set of beans requires it’s own weight and brew time, and this is proper geekery. Where making espresso-based lattes etc. is an art, filter is a science.
But to get back to my framing question: why do I order filter upon entering a new coffee shop? It’s worth noting that not every good coffee shop serves filter (@FleetRiver and @FandWCoffee St Anne’s are two recent examples that I have reviewed), and it’s by no means a slight upon those shops. But if I get served a flat white, then there’s a lot of room for error. The shot could be pulled incorrectly and the milk slightly scalded, and I may not notice this. If a filter coffee is made wrong you know about it. You know because it loses all flavour and becomes very dull and uninteresting. Get it right, and you have access to higher registers of flavour than you would ever have considered present in coffee. In theory, at any rate, a not-too-experienced coffee drinker should be able to tell the difference between any two filters (if well enough made).
So, now that you’re hooked on filter coffee, can you make it at home to the same quality? Freshly ground coffee will taste better than preground and the quality of coffee makes a huge difference (in both price and quality). You can get an aeropress for 25 pounds, and a good grinder for less than an espresso grinder. It is, without doubt, the cheapest way of making coffee. Though the beans are usually more expensive (Monmouth ‘Espresso’ for instance is designed for an espresso machine, and is their cheapest brand. The ever-changing ranges of filter coffees are usually more expensive, but are specifically roasted for putting through a filter.) Drink it black (always. Good beans shouldn’t need milk to dilute them) and experiment! There are some graphs around that tell you the ratio of beans to water (it’s about 8% of beans to water), which for an aeropress means around 20g of coffee. The more you experiment with the coarseness of your grounds and the weighting of the beans, the closer you’ll get to the high quality coffee you get in good coffee shops. In other words, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than buying an espresso machine, and you get to enjoy your coffee more.
This is not a review. When I started this blog, I never envisioned myself ‘reviewing’ places, and still feel uncomfortable with the term. I prefer coffee experiences. And visiting the London School of Coffee was definitely an experience. The day itself was hosted by Origin roasters, who are a Cornwall-based roaster who are passionate about coffee and really look after their clients.
The day itself was split into two parts (morning and afternoon), where the morning was a talk about where coffee comes from and the evening was practical experience with the espresso machines. The School itself is really just a room kitted out with top of the range coffee making equipment. For the geeks out there, there was a La Marzocco, a San Remo and a Simonelli, as well as top of the range grinders. Holding the walls up are posters of all sorts of coffee-related charts, including tasting profiles and maps of coffee regions.
The talk went into detail about direct trade and fairtrade and the differences between them. Going through the different modes of preparation of the beans and how they are harvested is fascinating when you also consider how these can change the flavour of the finished article. It also makes it easier to understand why major coffee conglomerates are so dull: the coffee for these chains is roasted so darkly that it all tastes the same. Consistency is more important than quality. The talk went into a lot of detail about the pre-cup journey; detail that I can’t go into here without sacrificing brevity.
After that, we were given a hands-on demonstration of how to make the perfect cup of espresso-based coffee. From how to adjust the grinder to the right coarseness (something that can change regularly, even for the same beans) to how to texture milk without burning it, this went through all the stages of making a coffee in detail. Even those with a lot of experience had something to learn here and it was very fun to be able to pull shots and waste milk without a care. Though old habits of conserving milk die hard.
Of course, my hands were shaking from all the caffeine by the end of the day.
After the session had formally ended, we had a short session of experimenting with the aeropress. The new Origin Capucas (Honduras) coffee was what we were playing with to try and get the right weight to brew time ratio. I.e., how to get the best flavour out of the beans by finding out the best amount of coffee for the aeropress, and the optimum time for the water to be infused with the coffee. This can be a bit of a painstaking experiment, as it needs to be done for each new coffee that leaves the roasters. This was absolute coffee geekery, and I loved it.
The coffee lover that reads these pages will have noticed the absence of a very significant word: ‘Monmouth‘. This has been of continuing consternation to me as I have been giving too much attention to Square Mile and Has Bean; both world-leading roasters in their own right. In addition, my professional dignity has been continually bruised by not including enough coffee shops south of Oxford Street. But this review ticks both boxes.
Fleet River Bakery is a wonderfully rustic and bright coffee shop where everything just screams ‘Breakfast’. With pastries that are both filling and tasty, and significantly more seating than most shops, it is no surprise that the queues can stretch some way through the shop. In most shops Pain au Chocolat is a bit of a tidbit, not enough to set this growing boy going for the day. However in Fleet River Bakery the pastry is substantial, and more than enough to tide you over to your midday graze.
The coffee shop doesn’t do any filters, something which initially disappointed me. But in retrospect, espresso based coffee is possibly the best choice for the breakfasts they serve, more reminiscent of a continental menu than your normal espresso bar in London. And on first sip of the flat white, I understood the approach entirely: the Monmouth espresso is so sweet. It could have had a syrup in it… but some sort of syrup that brings out the taste of the coffee. I don’t know how to describe this coffee rather than to say you’ve got to have it. The barista served it perfectly, with a swan woven into the art. If espresso is your thing, then this blend is just exquisite. The most enjoyable flat white I have had in a long time.
I don’t really know what else to say, other than this would be a regular of mine if I was closer. Meeting someone for breakfast in Holborn area? You would struggle to do better than this. Oh, and did I mention you can get free toast? Well, at least I think it was free…