Note: I wrote this blog post before Christmas 2020 and never got around to publishing it at the time.
London has a storied history when it comes to coffee. The city has been cemented in the world of coffee. It is widely known in the coffee industry that London coffeehouses gave way to major financial businesses, for instance Lloyds of London and the London Stock Exchange. In the 1960s, I learned, Britain started to become more familiar with the idea of espresso, which paved the way for what was to come: a speciality boom. At the heart of this speciality boom is London.
Over the last two decades or so, London has been at the forefront of many of the developments in speciality coffee. The city is home to the Kew Research Gardens, where 25 varieties of coffee have been discovered, according to the book; 15 more are still on Dr. Aaron Davis’ to-do list, the head of coffee research at the centre. Square Mile Coffee Roasters, known around the world for their coffee and their efforts to advance the industry as a whole, are also based in London.
Lani Kingston, author of the popular How to Make Coffee book, chronicled the state of London coffee in her aptly-named book, London Coffee. This book is a look at what the coffee industry is like, through the lenses of the people who work day-in and day-out with coffee in the city. Her scope was wide: this book covers not only cafes but roasters, a repair shop, and even a dairy farm. I purchased this book to broaden my knowledge of a city whose culture was mostly unknown to me. I have not been to London. I came away with a new perspective on how much London businesses have set the direction for the UK speciality coffee industry.
In each chapter – which typically lasts a few pages – Kingston shares the insights she has acquired through interviews with various people in the industry. For instance, she talks with Sam Mason, the owner of Association Coffee, about his cafe. In this interview I learned that Association, at least at the time of writing, did not have a kitchen. They wanted to focus on the coffee and offering a range of different brew methods. I learned a bit about Gentleman Baristas, a coffee shop I had heard about before reading this book but I’ve never been there. I learned their coffees are named after hats because the site is close to a hattery and the owners have somewhat of “an obsession with hats.”
Kingston has curated interviews with people who have had a clear influence on London coffee culture, meaning that each page is filled with insights. Together, these insights paint a picture of what speciality coffee has become – and could become – in the future. I learned about Mercanta, who provided the infrastructure necessary for small roasters to import high-quality beans into the UK, a very difficult prospect before the business existed. I learned about Sandows London who are known for their cold brew, offering cold brew on tap in various locations around the city.
Although I was familiar with some of the organisations profiled before reading this book – like Union and Square Mile – most of what I read was new to me. I learned, for instance, that Union Hand-roasted was interested in scaling not just for the sake of it. They scaled so they could buy coffee and thus better support the farmers from whom they source coffee. I now know they put cupping scores on their labels as a way to try to push other brands to do the same. A cupping score does not mean much to the average consumer but to many who drink speciality coffee it is a sign of transparency unmatched by many other brands.
Then there were the businesses I never knew existed. I had no idea that Look Mum No Hands was a business until reading this book and yet they have proven an interesting business model in the world of coffee: that you can do something and serve speciality coffee on the side. A similar path was taken by Sharps, a barber shop that also serves speciality coffee.
I learned about Drury Tea and Coffee who were roasting coffee way before the so-called Third Wave started to emerge. Today they offer a speciality coffee but they still have a big focus on their existing customer base, many of whom prefer different roasts than those that are popular in the speciality scene. Through reading these interviews, it’s clear how much innovation there is in the industry; pushing the boundaries is the hallmark of all of these businesses.
One recurring thought in my mind as I read this book was how coffee businesses take all shapes and sizes. Some businesses, like Prufrock, decided to eschew the idea of opening up more shops as a path to growth. Instead, they doubled-down on offering accredited training programs. Bar Italia, a traditional Italian espresso bar, have not changed in decades; their customers like the services they presently offer. Then there are businesses like Pact, a coffee subscription service. Pact has been able to grow quickly because they have used modern technology to process orders.
The London coffee scene is diverse in the range of businesses it houses. This book started with a feature on AE Stanton, a coffee machinery repair shop. This shop was passed down generations. I’d never thought about how there could be a whole industry for machine repairs. I read about The Estate Dairy, a farm who is looking to raise the quality of milk used in coffee. There’s an emerging discussion in the industry about water but I’ve not read much about milk. The Estate Dairy believes in quality and not buying too much from suppliers so as to overwhelm them.
I’d recommend London Coffee whether or not you live in London or have ever been to London. I suspect many of the concepts that I’ve read in this book will ripple out throughout the UK – and maybe even the world, given the industry’s clear growing influence – from more experiments with cold brew to a new look at the role of dairy in coffee. But some of the concepts will stay local. Coffee is always changing. Some businesses stay the same but there’s also a number of businesses who always want to push to do something new. This book talks about both and gives me a wide-ranging lens through which to think about coffee.