Welcome to the second (I think) of my three-part exploration of traditional Vietnamese coffee. As I explained in Part I, I’ve been exploring the local coffee culture during my time in Vietnam. The Vietnamese are volume coffee drinkers: I’ve not been anywhere with this many coffee shops! They are literally on every corner, often open from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.
However, traditional Vietnamese coffee, made using the cà phê phin, a cup-top metal filter, served either hot or over ice, and often with condensed milk, has a reputation for being strong, sweet and heavy on the Robusta. Sadly, much of that does not appeal to me, but, despite my initially scepticism, I found, to my surprise, that I liked many aspects of both the culture and of the coffee itself.
In Part I, I shared my initial, rather unsuccessful, forays into traditional Vietnamese coffee, followed by my conversion when I tried the combination of speciality coffee and the cà phê phin. In this, Part II, I continue my exploration with coffee over ice plus coffee with condensed milk. Finally, Part III will cover my experiments of using my own cà phê phin to make coffee.
In the run up to my current trip, I’d heard an awful lot about the Vietnamese taste for coffee. There’s no doubt that the Vietnamese like their coffee. There are coffee shops everywhere, open from first thing in the morning to last thing at night, ranging from tiny independent hole-in-the-wall operations right through to massive national chains. Starbucks is also here in strength.
However, volume of consumption is one thing, but what about the quality? Yes, you can find speciality coffee in Vietnam, and pretty good coffee at that, but I’m talking about traditional Vietnamese coffee, made using a cup-top metal filter, strong and sweet, served either hot or over ice, often with condensed milk.
I confess that this did not appeal to me. I gave up sugar in my coffee over 25 years ago and the idea of coffee with condensed milk makes me shudder. I’m also no fan of cold coffee, except a good quality filter that has been left to go cold. Cold brew, coffee over ice, anything like that, I really don’t enjoy.
That said, I’m not one to dismiss an entire coffee culture out of hand, so I thought I’d better give it a try…
Today’s Saturday Supplement is a little out of the ordinary. I avoid “Top 10…” lists like the plague. I detest rankings. I can’t abide arbitrary scoring systems. I write about coffee shops I like and put them on the Coffee Spot so you can find them. However, I can’t help but develop favourites, and, if there was a list of my favourite coffee shops, the original Flat Caps in Newcastle’s Ridley Place would be one of the first I’d pencil in.
That is, if I was writing the list today. If I wrote it tomorrow, Ridley Place wouldn’t be there. Because today’s its last day. Tonight, Joe closes up for the last time. Not that it’s the end of Flat Caps. Come Monday, you’ll find Joe at Flat Caps Carliol Square or maybe next door at Flat Caps Campus North. Flat Caps goes on, but the place where it all started, Ridley Place, will be no more.
Joe’s written about why he’s closing Ridley Place, a lovely piece which I urge you to read. Today’s Saturday Supplement isn’t about the whys and wherefores of the closing, but rather my own reflections on one of my favourite places to have coffee.
[Note: Yes, I realise that I’ve posted this on April 1st. I do hope this isn’t an elaborate April Fool’s joke that Joe’s playing on us…]
One of the Coffee Spot’s tag lines is “places I like to have coffee”, so today’s Saturday (on-a-Wednesday) Supplement is something of a departure for me since I’m not sure I’d describe Cafe X as somewhere I’d like to have coffee. Somewhere I’d go to get coffee, perhaps, but it’s definitely not somewhere to have coffee. However, there I was on Monday, in San Francisco, minding my own business, when Cafe X announced its grand opening. A block from my hotel. It was too good an opportunity to pass up, so along I went.
So, what is Cafe X? Well, put simply, it’s an automated coffee shop, with a pair of high-end bean-to-cup machines and a robot arm that takes the place of the barista. There’s a choice of beans from local roasters, such as Verve (Santa Cruz) and Oakland’s AKA (previously known as Supersonic), plus a fairly standard selection of espresso-based drinks, but only one size (8oz). You order using one of the tablets attached to the Cafe X kiosk, or preferably ahead of time on your phone using the Cafe X app. Typically your coffee will be waiting for you in under a minute. Well, that’s the theory…
I was inspired to write this Saturday Supplement after reading an article earlier this week by Ashley Tomlinson on The Little Black Coffee Cup about the issues surrounding disposable coffee cups. If you have been following the Coffee Spot for a while, you will know that I really, really dislike disposable cups, although I’ve come at it from a very different direction. While I don’t like the waste that comes with disposable cups, my primary motivation is one of taste. Put simply, I can’t stand the way most coffee tastes when drunk from disposable cups.
This has led me to adopt a somewhat evangelical attitude to reusable coffee cups and, while I’ve been championing them for some time now, I realise that I’ve been doing it in a rather haphazard fashion, writing about cups as I’ve come across them (usually at coffee festivals). I’ve also been making the argument for them (and hence against disposable cups) in a similarly piecemeal fashion. This Saturday Supplement attempts to rectify that by bringing everything together into one place in the form of a new Reusable Cups section of the Coffee Spot where I can add new cups as and when I find them.
Regular readers will remember that last year I was involved with the Beyond the Bean Barista Bursary as one of the judges, a somewhat ironic situation given my dislike of (watching) barista competitions. As I explained back then, while watching barista competitions is not for me, I fully appreciate the value that they bring to the speciality coffee industry. So many top-notch baristas I know credit the UKBCs with taking them on a massive learning curve. They talk of how competing gave a boost to their careers, something which applies to everyone, not just the winners: simply taking part has been critical to many a barista’s development.
I’m also painfully aware that competing in the UKBCs is not a trivial matter. It involves a huge investment in both time and money for the competitors, something which is in danger of shutting out baristas who don’t have a large organisation backing them. With that mind, Beyond the Bean set up its Barista Bursary last year, to provide funding for a barista who would compete in the UKBCs. I was asked to be a judge and must have done something right because Beyond the Bean has asked me back again this year!
Welcome to today’s Saturday Supplement. Most of you will know that I write a feature for Caffeine Magazine, where I go around the country, checking out the coffee scene in various towns and cities. I know, it’s a hard job, but someone’s got to do it. What’s perhaps less known is that I also write a monthly column for the on-line publication, Caffè Culture Connect.
I’m rather proud of this one, actually. I’m given a free hand by Caffè Culture Connect, the only brief being to write about what I think makes for a good coffee shop, using one of my Coffee Spots to illustrate my point. This gives me the scope write about aspects of the coffee industry that I don’t really cover on the Coffee Spot, although there is quite a bit of overlap. I’d encourage you to take a look, hence this Saturday Supplement, which provides a summary of all my articles, plus links to the originals over on Caffè Culture Connect. You can also click on any of the pictures in the gallery which will take you to the relevant article.
Not long ago, Caffeine Magazine ran a twitter poll, asking whether people would drink capsule coffee (for example, using an Nespresso machine) if it tasted better. Without much thought, I answered no (along with 72% of the 251 respondents) revealing, in the process, a whole host of (my) prejudice and presumption. At about the same time, I received an invitation from coffee roasters, Assembly: did I want to come to a talk on speciality coffee in capsules? Well, no. Given by Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood? Okay, let me reconsider that… Yes, of course I do!
For those who don’t know, Maxwell is the reigning UK Barista Champion, owner of Bath’s Colonna & Small’s and now a coffee roaster. He’s one of the British speciality coffee industry’s best-regarded figures and if he’s got something to say about capsules, then I want to hear it, regardless of my prejudice.
So, on Thursday night, I made my way to Modern Society, a general-purpose store on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch (which just happens to have what I believe is the UK’s only full Modbar installation) to hear Maxwell’s talk. Did he challenge my preconceptions and prejudice? Did he, in fact, change my mind on capsules?
The UK Barista Championship (or UKBC as it’s usually known) competition is in full swing, with the three regional heats underway. On Wednesday and Thursday this week, Timberyard’s new Soho location hosted the London heat, Origin’s Dan Fellows coming out on top, followed by colleague Will Pitts and Lina Piprek of Knot Coffee. On Wednesday, the focus switches to Glasgow, where Dear Green Coffee hosts the next heat. Things wrap up on 9th March with the Bristol heat, hosted by Beyond the Bean. By then we’ll then know who’ll be competing to the semi-finals on Saturday, 9th April, the finals occurring the following day, Sunday, 10th April. Both the semi-finals and finals will be at the London Coffee Festival.
Competing in the UKBCs has become ever more challenging in terms of the investment of both time and money. At the end of last year I wrote about the Beyond the Bean Barista Bursary, an impressive package of financial support and training designed to help someone either get started on the road to competition or to reach the next level. We had entries from around the UK and in January, I went to Bristol to judge the three shortlisted entries…
Today’s Saturday Supplement is something of a hobby horse of mine: the search for great decaf coffee. Generally speaking, I believe that the state of decaf in the speciality coffee industry is pretty healthy. For example, I was in Cardiff on Monday, where I had two excellent decaf flat whites, one in Artigiano Espresso (roasted by Origin) and the other in The Plan (roasted by James Gourmet Coffee).
So, it’s not that there isn’t great decaf out there, being roasted by some top-quality roasters. Instead, the issue’s one of perception, with the decaf drinker often being made to feel like a second-class citizen. It’s a rare day when I don’t see a tweet along the lines of “death before decaf”. Frankly, I find it insulting to all decaf drinkers out there, not to mention the great roasters who are going to considerable lengths to produce amazing-tasting (caffeinated) coffee, extracting the maximum flavour from the beans, only to have their products reduced to a mechanism for delivering caffeine. Why? I just don’t get it.
To counter this, I launched the Coffee Spot Decaf Challenge at this year’s London Coffee Festival, the aim being to highlight the great decaf coffee out there.